I had the edifying experience of helping my mother survive a stroke. In the same week, she had her non-paralysed leg amputated. She went from being an active 77 year-old—who swam at the Y six days a week—to a person with only one functioning arm.
When I say the experience was edifying, I mean precisely that: to edify means to “to instruct especially so as to encourage intellectual, moral, or spiritual improvement.”
By choice, I never married or had children. I knew, when I was ten, that I was destined for an unconventional life. Nancy Drew was my hero and I lived in a world of books, orchards and forests. Growing up on a farm gave me plenty of time to live in my imagination. What many people don’t realize is that farm work is often a solitary affair.
So when I was 49 and my mother fell gravely ill, I had the life-changing experience of bringing home a human being who had to be changed and fed regularly. She needed 16 different medications to keep her going and puréed food so that she could eat. Luckily, she could still talk.
I had to buy a hospital bed, a shower chair and an electronic lift, and I had to learn how to manipulate my mother’s body in a way that wouldn’t harm either of us. I had to hire a live-in caregiver–for when I went back to work–and had to orchestrate a bevy of caregivers to give our live-in time off over the weekends. Transporting my mother to the hospital for her bi-monthly check-up took more planning than I could ever have imagined.
For twenty months, I lost myself completely. And when I say I was lost, I’m not talking about that bewildering experience of losing one’s bearings. I mean I left my old self behind, took a break from my ego, and emerged a completely different person. I’m not sure I believe in God, but I do believe in a benevolent universe and it’s that universe that saw fit to teach me a few things about humility. This might sound obvious to all parents out there, but you can’t be up to your elbows in a loved one’s dirty diapers without experiencing grace. It’s just not possible.
I also learned that my mother had believed, all along, that my father was mentally ill and not just hopelessly tyrannical. This was a revelation for me. I had spent many years fearing my father and now all of that experience, years of it, was reframed in the time it took my mother to utter a few sentences. I wondered how it was that I had just missed this simple truth about him.
What else did I learn?
I learned it’s possible to navigate life with equanimity and goodwill even when one is profoundly disappointed. (In my case, by a healthcare system that does not serve the elderly very well.) I’ve learned that we human beings are very adaptable: we can get used to practically anything. My mother is quite happy to be alive, for example, even with her limitations. At 81, she is still an incorrigible flirt and beloved by the staff at her nursing home. She has a shy person’s vulnerable and irresistible smile, and an abiding and deep capacity for joy. I know because when I walk into her room and she says, “Hey, I’m glad to see you!”, I can tell she really means it.
But I’ve learned some hard lessons too. I’ve learned that I have limits as a human being and that I can’t help everyone. I find it harder to tolerate disrespect. I speak up now, even when it makes me unpopular. I reach out more and take risks. I try to walk away with love. I meditate. I walk. I cry—a lot. I’d like to say I’m grateful for all these lessons, but if I’m honest, there are days when I’m not. There are days when I want to be a child again, hiding out in the orchard or exploring the forest, building a birdhouse with my brother or just playing tag. Days when, like everyone, I just want to go home.