November 7, 2022
I can’t believe what this last year has brought me. Right now, I am sitting in the guest room of a friend in North Carolina because the condo that belonged to my mother was sold, went to closing and we no longer own it. It was where I was living while I was the primary caregiver for my parents. Now, the proceeds of the sale are in an account destined to enable my mother to live well for the next 4-7 years.
I am, technically, homeless. But I am also free. Free in a way I haven’t been for the last eight years. Skies the limit now. I feel a little lost but also euphoric. I get depressed but also find myself laughing a lot more and cursing less. I guess it’s all about balance, right?
October 1, 2021 my father passed away in hospice care. He had Alzheimer’s and complications from Covid. I told him via FaceTime on a tablet propped in front of him in the Covid private isolation room that he could let go because he was going where there was nothing but love. I assured him that I loved him and that I would take care of mom. He let go. He is in my head now all the time, assuring me that all is good and he is in a good place. This comforts me.
October 15, after the celebration of his life with my siblings, family near and far, along with about fifty other friends of our family, I was alone when I received a diagnosis of a rare form of eye cancer. How did some floaters and a little lightning bolt in the corner of my eye turn into this? Don’t know. Doesn’t matter. You just handle it.
I was still caring for my mother while traveling around to doctors to find the best protocol for my cancer. I had to go through a lot of testing. My mother kept offering to help me but when she tried, she wound up needing the care. A conundrum… how do I care for her when I need care myself?
After my radiation treatment and recovery, I was dealing with issues in the condo. The terrace needed to be chopped up because the rebar was rotting. New hurricane windows and doors needed to be installed because the municipal building codes had been updated. The building was renovating – including electric, sprinklers, hallways, parking lots, and every common area was being redecorated. Humidity issues were rampant and mold remediation was in process. I couldn’t take it anymore! Constant construction noises on top of dust and mold were not healthy for me.
I had a conversation with my mother and my siblings proposing that mom move back to NY. Several months later, when mom recognized the stress I was under, she agreed to move up north to be near my brother and sister. This way, if I needed treatment, I could relax and take care of me without worrying about her. We caregivers often put everyone else before ourselves and I can see that does not bode well. Over 65% of caregivers get sick or die before the person they are caring for. I became a statistic!! Me?
By June my mother moved to NY. My siblings came and packed up 30 cartons to be whisked away on a moving truck. And still I spent five days clearing out her independent living apartment where she resided with my dad from 2018 to 2022. Then I worked on clearing the condo of all of her remaining objects and memorabilia. She had lived there from 1994 until 2018. The furniture. The artwork.
Then came the challenge of trying to sell the condo. First to friends and friends of friends. Then with a broker. I missed the big Covid “move to Florida” boom. Prices were on the way down, and available spaces were opening up. Finally, by September we had a sale with closing scheduled for November. All the memorabilia and family history needed to go.
More clearing. More trash. More donations. More people wandering through to pick out what they wanted. It was exhausting. Mask on, mask off. Purell and Lysol purchased in bulk at Costco.
My entire 62 years of living have been consolidated into one 10′ x 5′ storage unit! I didn’t think it could be done, but I did it. It took nine months of de-cluttering. I did not have only my things. I had my mother and father’s various collections plus mom had kept my father’s sister and her husband’s collections; plus the items my parents saved from my grandmothers on both sides.
With the collectibles came paperwork. Interesting – for sure. Ellis Island papers from grandparents and other relatives who escaped Nazi invasion in Europe and fled to America with family as children. Love letters to my mother from someone who was not my father. Tax returns going back to the year my parents got married. Every check they ever wrote, bank statements, holiday cards to each other and their kids and grandkids. Mom’s photography collection. Books on every imaginable topic.
Memories in the form of a Frank Sinatra program from a performance in Madison Square Gardens with the tickets still attached. An 8mm movie of the first moon landing issued by NASA. A lucite handbag with gold studs. A Brooklyn Dodgers game program with signatures of the whole team. A mink muff and collar. A Swedish wood nut bowl with a nut cracker. This collection was quite varied. And with every item my mother would say “oh, but that’s worth something! Don’t just give that away!” Now you can see why it took nine months? Ha ha ha.
My own emotional reaction surprised me the most. No matter what happened in my life, I always knew I had a home and parents to return to. The Florida apartment was mine to use when my parents summered at the beach in New York. The New York apartment was mine to use when they wintered in Florida. If I needed a place to write, to work, to dream, to rest… just pick one of their places. And now, all of that is gone. My safety net is gone. All the items I grew up with are with other people now. My father is gone. Of course i think about how much longer mom will be around and how will I feel when that last connection breaks. Of course i have my siblings and that helps. I can connect with them and we share memories (although often our versions differ widely).
Since dad passed and mom moved and isn’t reliant on me every day, our relationship has vastly improved and I feel like I have a mother again. I am not being a parent to my parent. It is a pressure I am happy to release.
I am grateful that my siblings and their families have stepped up to entertain and support mom in her day to day living. She is so happy surrounded by all this family and not just exhausted and frustrated me. She is getting acclimated to her Long Island community, seeing old friends, and revels in her new popularity. She thanks me all the time for all that I have done and continue to do. That is music to my ears and heart. Who doesn’t love to be appreciated?
TIPS FOR CAREGIVERS
My advice to fellow caregivers, no matter what stage you’re in, is to start early!
(a) Over time, give away what isn’t necessary for daily life. A little at a time doesn’t hurt as much as mass clearing.
(b) Sell items of value while you can take your time to research and find proper buyers and not have to “sacrifice” them.
(c) Figure out who in the family wants what so when it’s time to clear things out you’ll know where to send/direct things.
(d) Scan and externally back-up paper files and items so you can just shred or trash things when the time comes to clear out. And mark the items with a stamper or sticker so you know they were scanned so you don’t repeat it all over again.
(e) Collect the stories, photos and videos of family adventures while everyone can still enjoy the memories together. You’ll keep them for future generations.
(f) If you are emotionally attached to “things”, consider hiring a company to just pack it all up and move it or dispose of it for you. If you can’t afford to hire, barter with a friend or two so you’ll do their family and they can do yours.
I have learned so much on this journey. I have run the gamut of emotions by being caregiver for my parents. I have felt overwhelmed, resentment, frustration and I honor those feelings because they are true. But now, on the far side of this long trip, I think I will treasure what I was able to take away and am grateful for being in this place of a good relationship with my family. It took work, don’t get me wrong (just read a bunch of my blogs here and my articles on caregiving.com to see what I mean), but I feel at peace now. Optimistic about the future.
What happens next is now totally up to me. What freedom! I am homeless to be sure, but my friends have stepped up with space for me. Career opportunities are opening up now that I have time to actually consider things. I have become creative and inventive and enlivened again. I can live wherever I want! I can travel. I can explore romantic relationships again.
I am becoming social because I no longer have to worry about what happens to my mother if I get sick. My sickness impacts only me now. I can focus on healing and making the most out of whatever time I have left on this earth.
My dad passing and my cancer diagnosis changed my perspective. It changed my relationship with my mother. It gave my siblings, as they always wanted, a chance to be more involved in mom’s care instead of being long distance. We are all benefitting. What is happening in your life that can change your perspective and thus your whole experience on a day to day basis? What can be seen as a positive with a shift in the way you think about it? How can you start now to make your future easier and help you live your best life down the road?