(Published on author Heidi Oran’s past blog, The Conscious Perspective)
Amidst the last leg of spring-turned-summer cleaning, my father happened upon a box of old VHS tapes that he’d been unintentionally storing in the sweltering heat of our attic. Frantic to preserve the memories they held, he purchased a VHS-to-DVD converter, giving me two weeks to get everything transferred. After a particularly technologically challenged hour, I decided to call it quits, start over the next day, and just enjoy the videos for a bit. The first one I watched was labeled “Christmas 1994” in my mother’s sprawling handwriting; I watched with embarrassment and amusement as a 7-year-old version of myself, characterized by a red turtleneck, crooked teeth, and painfully thick glasses, gave the introduction to the video.
The camera then panned across the room, floating over a 10-foot tree, neatly stacked separate gift piles for my sister and I, my grandmother sitting contentedly by the fireplace. It finally stopped on my mother, who gave a warm smile before saying “Hello! Merry Christmas, everyone!” Tears welled up in my eyes at the sound of her voice, one I haven’t heard speak normally in probably 4 years. I’d been meaning for quite some time to dig up old videos, to better remember what my mother was like when she was “normal”, but I feared that it would bring only fleeting moments of fondness, followed by immense pain and anger. My reasons for avoidance proved right as I watched my mother continued to speak, expressing her gratitude for our family, and for Christ’s birth.
Five years ago, my mother was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, at the age of 49. Two years ago, I came home from college, with plans in tow for a brief stay to pull myself—and more importantly, my finances—together so that I could go back to finish my final semester. My father, in his third year of unemployment, found much-needed relief in my return. He had been the sole caregiver for my mother, in addition to financially supporting my next youngest sister, who was also in college, and my remaining 4 siblings, who were still in the home. I became the family taxi driver, chef, and nurse, allowing him to focus more fully on his job search. My hope was that in about six months, I would have everything I needed in order to go back and pay for school. But after three, my father found a new coaching job. In Alabama.
My dad left before us to get settled and report to work, which left me to coordinate the entire move. In what felt like the blink of an eye, I went from being 5 hours away from my friends in Michigan, to 13. Since my dad was back at work, I assumed the entirety of the at-home responsibilities; we could no longer work as a team. I found myself in new and uncomfortable territory, in which I did nearly everything my mother did as a stay-at-home mom, but I hated feeling as if I was replacing her. I registered my siblings at their new schools, listing my name as the second parent/guardian. I linked up with football and volleyball moms to arrange carpools, in an effort to lessen the load of transporting my mother and four children. I made detailed lists for monthly shopping, and a calendar for monthly meals. I made sure all the bills were paid. Soon enough, the anxiety of my responsibility began to weigh on me heavily, and I laughed it off as the final piece of my caregiver’s role.
What was harder to shake was the depression I found in sitting day in and day out with my mother, who had already been declining, but took an even more rapid turn after we moved. I tried to find a sense of self-worth in the full-circle of the nature of the situation; I was essentially just returning the favor by caring for her. Administering meds, getting to doctor’s appointments, changing diapers, feeding, and bathing were things she’d had to do as well. But to handle those things alone from 7am-4pm when my siblings returned, with either no response, or a violent one, was something I wasn’t quite prepared for. My mother’s combative phase has since passed, and she continues to near the final stage of the disease. Hospice care has been of great help to me as a caregiver, but it does not remove the pain of seeing my mother dwindle away, drawing closer and closer to a mere 100 lbs on a 5’9 frame. They cannot bring back the mother from Christmas 1994, from my first day of high school, the one who saw me off to college.
My father refers to me often as the “rock” of the family, and reminds my siblings that if I was not home to help, he would be burdened both emotionally and financially by trying to find someone to do everything that I do. Though I find worth in that, the amount that I find diminishes more and more each day. I realized recently that for the most part, I don’t live my own life; everything I do is for my family. What I’d hoped to be a short stay has increased beyond what I’d imagined, in part because I’ve guilted myself out of doing more for me. I fear abandoning my siblings, and worse, I fear that I will not be around when my mother passes. But I also fear missing out on what’s left of my 20s, and what they may have in store if I just let go. Amidst all my pain, confusion, and stress, what takes the biggest toll sometimes is that I can’t just sit with my mother and talk about it. I miss her.