Tuesday, May 3, 2011

These Uncomfortable Shoes

Brief update: Went to see the plastic surgeon yesterday for my checkup. Good news is that I got two drains out (now that was fun!). Bad news is he's concerned about the swelling and redness around my incisions (although the incisions look fine) so we took a quick blood test to see if I will need IV antibiotics (to the hospital with you, ma'am!) or not. Please direct all prayers, energy and otherwise good intentions to the healing of this redness. I'm really not up for the possible downward-casting decision tree on this leg of the trip.

And now, a story...

[note on this story: because of the foggy time line in my brain around my mother's illness, I don't remember if my mom was talking about my cousin Kim or my cousin Valerie in the scenario below. It could have been either because they are both amazing, amazing, amazing caretakers. So, Val, if it was you and not Kim that provoked this experience, you should get credit. Mom adored you too.]

"Well, Fran isn't a very natural nurse" my mom said to our table of friends as she took a drink of her water. "Not like her cousin Kim." The air crackled for a minute and the pasta turned to sawdust in my mouth. "What?" I turned and looked at her with incredulous eyes. "What exactly do you mean, Mother?"

Our dearest friend Gerry swooped in to save the situation "Susan, I am sure Fran is a wonderful caretaker! She's had two of her own kids and they are amazing. How could she not be?"

"She doesn't anticipate my needs the way that Kim does. Kim knows ahead of time that I need something, she pays attention to the little things. I'm not being critical of Fran, I'm just saying that it's not a natural strength of hers."

I stared at my plate, furious. How could she say that? What an impossibly hurtful thing to say! Hadn't I given up the past three weeks to care for her? Hadn't I quit my classes and moved to Houston to be with her through all of this? I remember my face burning red with embarrassment and anger, half horrified that my own mother would say such a thing, half horrified that she may have been telling the truth.

The reality is that nursing someone like my mom, and also nursing someone like me, is tough work. We are women who like to do things ourselves, have always been headstrong and independent and don't like to rely on anyone. My attitude with my mom's care in those first few weeks was "If she needs it, she'll ask for it." I mean, Mom seemed irritable and crabby when I'd try to help. I would do things wrong or the wrong way or not the best way. Given her way of living before cancer, I naturally thought she'd just let me know what she needed.

But now that I am on the other side of the sheet, I will tell you that it's an incredibly different story. People who have been through major surgery, whose bodies and hearts hurt want to be wrapped up in cotton wool, fed spoonfuls of nectar, bathed in golden light. They really want to be 12 month old babies whose parents allow them to do what they are able but whose caretakers have that freaky spidey 6th sense when something is going to go wrong or even just take the opportunity to make things wonderful. It is, in my mother's words, the essence of "anticipating need".  If you are a caretaker of someone who is normally a Viking, know you will have a lamb on your hands, even if they don't admit it. I didn't realize it then, but my "functional" care was not what she needed. She couldn't ask for it, I didn't know.

Last night I read with David cuddled up in my bed. Ah, the warmth of a snuggly little body and a good Harry Potter book. When he left, I sat there musing that I wish I had a huge, clean-smelling, warm Hagrid-size figure who could pick me up and cuddle me, bathe me in warm water and put me to bed fresh and happy every night. So good it would be to be that baby again, so wrapped in love! Our adult selves don't get that many opportunities to let go and feel the need for care in that way. It takes a major setback to bring it to our consciousness and then we work with all of our fiber to repress that need.

It's a pretty amazing experience to be on the other side of something like this. I mean, how many times has each of us done volunteer work with one (our own) mindset without being able to feel what it would be like to have to receive help? Or, just to walk in the shoes of another, slip on somebody's skin for awhile and know how their experience (need, desire, wish) might be? The world would be a different place if we had a machine that could expose us to what we don't or can't know. An empathy-adapting machine where in a moment you could know the truth of another's experience. For people with an open soul, it could change the world.

The end of the story with my mother is that my cousin Kim and cousin Valerie were amazing caretakers to my mom. I suspect my sisters were too, in the best way that daughters can be. For myself, the story came around again in the final three weeks of Mom's life when I came home to share a room with her (for awhile) and tend to her needs as her body was letting go. I had forgotten this part of the story, actually, until my sister reminded me about it. I think blocked it from my mind because it was both an intensely difficult time and one of the most deep and moving experiences with my mother that I have ever had. Things, as they do, come full circle.

[post script: I will say that during those three weeks, my mother told me at one point to "go sit on my thumb" because I was making her take her medicine." For those who knew my mom, I knew you were waiting for this oh-so-Susan punchline. Love ya.]


  1. sending a warm blanket of light and love to wrap you up in dear friend.

  2. warm fuzzies, warm fuzzies, warm fuzzies.