Wednesday, June 20, 2012


It's been one heck of a year. Along the way, I have learned a few things; things I did not know before because I had no reason to have known them. These are practical suggestions because I am a practical person. I have read one too many articles about caregiving that say things like, "Make time for yourself,""Stay active," blah, blah, blah. How in the heck do you do that?

Without further ado, I hereby bestow my wisdom.

1. Whenever you have reason to accompany someone, anyone, to the hospital or a doctor's appointment, carry a notebook/paper and (working) writing implement. Taking notes on your hand that you, hours later, try to decipher so that you may report to the rest of your family the prognosis for mom or dad only causes frustration. Trust me, I learned this from experience. Plus, it takes a while for the ink to wear off and people tend to look askance at adult women with sharpie script on the back of their hands and extending up the forearm. Not that I care.

2. Never leave home without an a/c charger for your iPhone. I love Siri, but girlfriend sucks the life right out of my battery. It's very stressful to be delayed and want to call home to talk your children through dinner prep and homework when your cell phone battery life indicator is in the red zone.

3. Keep snacks and water bottles in your car or your purse. Hospital cafeterias close at the most inconvenient times. Emergency rooms are often located in dicey areas where you don't really want to get out at the local Circle K at 2:00 a.m. to buy stale trail mix to tide you over on the drive home.

4. Be nice to nurses. Let me repeat: BE NICE TO NURSES. Even the surly ones. Not only are they they the folks administering the "hands-on" care to your loved one, where a gentler touch brought on by fondness is desired, they know where the coffee machines and free snacks are located and will share this information with you if you are nice. Yes, there are nurses in my family so I am biased. However, I have seen what good nurses can do. They can figure out that prescribed medication was not actually ordered from the pharmacy (yes, this happened) and get it ordered. They notice when symptoms are worsening or not improving as they should, and take action - right away- which saves lives. They are the implementers and gatekeepers for the doctors, so when they see something in the chart that the doc may have missed or an error the doc may have made, they will call it to the doctor's attention. They are better educators than most doctors, and will explain things to you so that you understand what is going on and what is likely to happen next. There is a lot they can do to make you and your "patient" more comfortable and at ease. Be nice to the nurses.

5. Be up front with your kids. Give them the truth: "I probably won't be home for dinner, so let's talk about what you can eat if I'm not here." "I really want to go on your field trip, but this time I can't do it." "Grandma is very sick, but it still makes her happy to hear your voice. Would you like to talk to her?" "No, Grandpa is not going to get better, so let's visit him as much as we can and let him know we love him." Nobody likes to deliver bad news, but it often saves tears later. Kids are smart and they know when they aren't getting the whole story. Give them the respect they deserve.

6. Keep an updated calendar and contact list on your person. If plans have to be cancelled or changed you can deal with it right away. Make sure you have numbers for all of the schools and neighbors.

7. Keep a photocopy of health insurance cards, Medicare cards and photo identification, along with medication lists for whomever you care-take, in your purse. I needed these documents often since we utilized several different hospital systems.

If it is not you, but a friend, who is being "sandwiched" between parents and children or is otherwise in a medically stressful situation, here are some things I know, now that I have lived through this. I beg forgiveness from all of my friends for not doing these things before. I'll do them now, pinkie-swear!

1. Call her (or him). Listen and let her rant. Don't worry about bothering her. It really helps to know that friends are thinking about you. Or send a quick email, letting her know you are thinking of her. Spending long hours in hospitals and emergency rooms leaves a person feeling very disconnected. Those places are like casinos, with no sense of time or place, so it's nice to have little reminders that you haven't stepped into the Twilight Zone and that life "on the outside" is still going on and that you haven't been forgotten.

2. Cut her some slack - a lot of it. If your friend is in this above-mentioned challenging situation, do not be offended if your calls and emails are not returned. Do not begin conversations or emails with, "I haven't heard from you......". She does not need the added guilt; she has plenty of it already. She got your message; she saw that you called; she appreciated it. Trust me, she was just too wiped out to respond. That or her cell phone battery was dead.

3. Do something with/for her kids. Pick them up, take them to your house to play with your kids. Take them anywhere, just give them some attention. They need it and your friend will be relieved of some of her guilt. She might even have an hour to blow off some steam browsing Pinterest. One of the nicest things anyone has done for me was to take my girls out to dinner during the calling hours at the funeral home. I had completely forgotten about dinner that night. She saved the day.

4. Bring food. Anything. A bag of bagels and some cream cheese. Dinner. A fruitcake. (Well, maybe not). It doesn't have to be fancy or gourmet. Take out and pizza get expensive and tiresome. Exhaustion and worry make planning meals and shopping really daunting. It is such a relief when someone calls and says - "I'm bringing you dinner tomorrow. Any allergies? When can I stop by or where can I leave it if you are not home?" This is also true when someone has a death in the family. BRING FOOD.

5. DO NOT SAY, "LET ME KNOW WHAT I CAN DO." I've said this in the past and I will never say it again. It is perfectly useless because it puts the burden on the stressed out person to come up with something, but she doesn't want to suggest something too burdensome, so she will say, "Oh, I'm fine. Really." Even though she's not. If she's feeling kind of pissy and if you are a close friend, she will think, "Thanks for nothing." And she will be annoyed with you. Instead, offer a couple of things you would/could do and ask her which would help her the most. Or just cut to the chase and bring food. If you are yourself in such a stressful situation that you simply can't do anything for your friend, don't tell her that; she'll feel like she should do something for you. Just call and tell her you are thinking of her or better yet, send a card.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Turning the Page

Nothing in life prepares you to deliver an eulogy for your mother.

She passed away 12 days after Dad, with her "girls" around her. A kind, efficient hospice nurse on her first solo assignment stood by. Mom went, as she always had, in her own sweet time.

She clearly had some things to work out before she left us. We could tell by the mumblings and gesturing she did so fervently those few days. We saw her sewing something (even knotting the thread!), folding laundry and feeding a baby. All those tasks that consumed her life for so many years. The hospice social worker suggested that we place her purse next to her and let her know it was there and that it was all ready to go. It felt strange, but we did it anyway.

I had never before held someone's hand as they let go of life on earth. It felt to me like such an honor, to be there to comfort her, to let her know that she was not alone. It was as she would have wanted it, with her daughters nearby. I felt so close to my sisters at that moment and yet a part of something eternal, larger than all of us. I felt a connection with all those women through time who have sat by the side of ones they loved, giving comfort and sending them off into eternity. It was a sacred event. I felt blessed.

There was grim humor in that night, as well, as we called the funeral home,

"Wait a minute, your name is familiar; didn't we just do a funeral for you last week?"

And as the undertaker arrived for the body and the nurse asked for his identification,

"It's okay, Tina, we recognize him. He came to get Dad, too."

"I thought this place seemed familiar," he said. "I'm sorry for your loss."

And then the quiet as the oxygen concentrator was turned off for the last time.

This time we knew what to do, who to call, what arrangements had to be made. We still had our lists. One thing was different this time. At Dad's funeral, by pure coincidence, all the readings and the eulogy had been done by the men in the family: sons and sons-in-law and grandsons. Without discussion, we knew that it was right that this time it should be Mom's girls. Our brothers were in agreement.

We selected different readings than we had for Dad. Readings that spoke to her love of gardening, her sense of fairness. My sister Ann, far more familiar with the Bible than the rest of us, texted us cites to chapters and verses for consideration. We chose a couple of the same hymns, but also some new ones. "In the Garden" had been sung at her mother's funeral, I remembered. We all agreed it was a good choice. My sister's partner, a beautiful, trained singer, agreed to sing it for Mom. It was settled: Ann would do the Old Testament reading, Jenny the New Testament, Christine the Prayers of the Faithful. The grand-daughters brought up the gifts. I would do the eulogy.

How do you eulogize your mother? Relationships between mothers and daughters are complicated. Mom and I butted heads, early and often. Mom was not a saccharine, warm-n-fuzzy personality, and yet there was so much to her: her dry wit, her braininess, her creativity, her practicality; her beauty. I struggled with writing it.I tried to capture her essence and to describe memories that were shared among us. The words did not come as easily to me as they usually do.

The day of the funeral was sunny and bright. I had been hit with a respiratory bug that had me coughing and snorting and reduced my voice to a sexy rasp. I was concerned that I wouldn't be able to deliver. I'm not really much of a crier, but when the music started, my eyes welled. My daughters watched me as I dabbed at my eyes. They squeezed my hands. My sisters rose and did their parts, without hesitation or error. I knew then that I could do mine.

I stood at the lectern in my serious lawyer suit and prepared to speak. I looked out at my Hombre, my girls; an aunt; many cousins, friends and family who had gathered and I felt an overwhelming wave of pure love and support. Then I started to talk. I know I didn't follow exactly what I had written; I never do. I can't recall exactly what I said. What I do recall is that at points there was laughter, at others nodding and smiling. When I finished and returned to my seat, I began to cry.

I wasn't crying for my Mom; she was where she was meant to be. It was her time. I wasn't crying for myself; I knew this time would come, when Mom and Dad would be gone, and I didn't balk away from it. I wasn't worried about their souls; I don't believe in heaven or hell. I think it was simply relief. All of the stored emotion from the intense few weeks we had just had and from the weeks and months of care taking just flowed out of me.

I felt like you feel after you have driven through a blinding rainstorm, when you are so focused on keeping the car on the road and trying to see ahead, when you are gripping the steering wheel so hard your knuckles are white and then suddenly it stops and the sun comes out and you release your grip and start to shake. You hadn't even realized how hard you were gripping that wheel or that you hadn't even blinked for hours.

That's how I felt. That's why I cried. It was all over and I could let go.