My newly acquired caregiver role includes being chauffeur for Mom’s health appointments and evening social functions. Last night, I drove Mom to her 60th Nicholasville High School reunion (Jessamine County, Kentucky). Despite torrential thunderstorms, a tornado watch, flash flood warnings, power outages around the city, and having an odd, eye-oriented headache for the two days prior, Mom would not be deterred from attending. I drove us past dead traffic lights, waited through bumper-to-bumper, stilled traffic, and passed half a dozen felled trees and debris along the way. My cranky, neurotic complaints about the weather’s potential for disaster were ignored. Her optimism sprang eternal, as she proclaimed the weather ‘is moving away from us.’
We arrived at the community clubhouse event to see that fifty-four of the last class from the original Nicholasville High School had been distilled to the attendance of thirteen. Thirteen highly determined seniors at the ripe age of 78, some with oxygen tanks, wheelchairs, and one with an arm in a sling from a recent fall. I took iPhone photos of Mom happily greeting, hugging and laughing with her classmates from 1958 (and a commemorative group photo at the end of the evening).
Listening to stories of who they had lost, husbands, wives, brothers, each gone ahead to the after-life, knocked me over the head with the reason Mom would not miss this event even for a tornado. Mortality loomed over the heart of everyone in the room, including mine. The current chapter of aging, sickness and death was written on the faces of every senior there, as their stories of health issues and loss were shared over dinner.
And yet, there was a palpable strength and humorous tone in the atmosphere, too. Jokes were made about the phase of life “when getting up to go to work has changed to getting up to go to the doctor.” Boisterous laughter abounded from tables of grey or balding folks recounting days of their high school adventures.
I put on my cheerful, brave face to absorb the scene, though internally my heart was struck by the grim truth of death’s inevitability. I ached to see the physical pain of some of the attendees, those in wheelchairs, struggling to chew food, those who had to sit down to save energy to speak. The sorrow was visible of those who, like my mother, had lost their beloved spouse after 50 years together. What these aging citizens were facing, some completely alone, others merely waiting to be the next to lose their loved one, was the elephant in the room that stomped on my heart.
As a new caregiver, my emotions sometimes get overwhelmed with things I hadn’t anticipated; seeing the plight of the aging so closely, handling Mom’s unexpected, urgent health issues, viewing the reality of dwindling comrades from her youthful days. I’m torn between my relief that I’m here for my mother, and the fact that my own destiny as a single woman without children may lead to my being alone in that golden, final chapter of life.
I’ve begun to think about things that never entered my mind before I hit fifty. My youth was filled with so much to do that I never considered how life slows down for those past retirement. Though I’m not retired—in fact, I’m plunging head-first into launching a second career I always wanted—the tempo of my life has begun to move in a dramatic rubato in sync with my mother’s life issues.
This awakens me to appreciate things on a deeper level; the fortune of having a family member to live with, friends to talk to, health that is reasonably managed or at least attended to when not, the few remaining relatives around to share life stories and short luncheons. These are small, yet profound moments of joy for my mother and her peers. I get it; the tenacity and inner strength of my mother’s generation comes from surviving everything. As one of Mom’s 1958 classmates said, quoting a poem, “Love like you’ve never loved before.” They all know firsthand that the opportunity is fleeting.
I got Mom in the car and pulled away just before the horrendous rainstorm pelted violently against my car. I fought to see the road ahead and drive carefully until we made our way safely back home. Sometimes fighting through the storm is worth it.
Jenny Leigh Hodgins is a writer, composer and caregiver for her mother in Lexington, Kentucky. Find her at YourCreativeChord.com
This was originally published in Jessamine Journal August 2, 2018.