My 12 days of Christmas

by mymothersbrain

My 12 days of Christmas actually began on November 30, the day before I flew out to El Paso. I had an all-day shoot in the cold, windy outdoors, and that night, while my computer uploaded photos from the day’s event I finished decorating our Christmas trees and packed for the days ahead with my mom. I tried to prepare mentally. I would have one and a half weeks with her — days that would be filled with doctors’ appointments, day care drop-offs and a search for ways to make her life more comfortable. At the end of every one of these caregiving stints, I emerge tired, but with lessons I wouldn’t have otherwise learned. This time, I was tired before even getting on that plane due to several weeks of harried work deadlines.

My second day of Christmas began when my sister picked me up at the airport and filled me in on the caregivers’ schedules and Mom’s appointments. By the time I got to Mom’s, an aide was cooking her dinner; unbeknownst to her, Mom had had an accident in the bathroom. It’s an understatement to say it wasn’t pretty, but, well, it wasn’t pretty. And Mom didn’t even know she’d had an accident. Cleaning up the mess on the floor and the toilet was my first act of caregiving on this trip.

I had just been in El Paso a couple of months before, but since then my mother has begun to require help in almost everything regarding her personal care. We’ve had to cook for her for at least a year, but now she also needs help with toileting, undressing, bathing, dressing. Her cognitive deficits are slowing her down and she’s forgetting some of the steps in the personal care processes. I’m not a parent but I imagine it’s like having a three-year-old, except that she will never learn to do these things for herself. She is, instead, unlearning everything.

Thursday through Sunday, the third through sixth days of Christmas were largely uneventful. But on Monday, the seventh day of Christmas, at around 1 in the morning, I found my mother fully dressed and sitting on a sofa in the living room. If you read my previous post, you’ll know that she didn’t go right back to sleep. I’m not naturally gifted with patience, and attempting to keep Mom in bed the rest of the night tried what little of it I do have.

Tuesday and Wednesday, the eighth and ninth days of Christmas were further tests of my patience as I made call after call to the doctor and the medical supply store trying to figure out if the prescription for a bath chair, grab bars and a raised toilet seat would be filled before I was scheduled to leave. My sister and I also discussed the possibility of a nursing home or foster home for Mom in the future, even dropped by a couple of places, hoping that that it will never come to that.

For the most part, Mom was happy that I was there every day to feed her, to take her out for a walk, to drive her to the grocery store, and to help her bathe and blow dry her hair. And every time I did one of these things for her with a smile she would thank me for helping her. I would tell her she was beautiful, and she would tell me that I am more beautiful than she. I would tell her I loved her, and she would tell me that she loved me, too. Then she would ask my name, my age.

She first began to ask these questions several months ago, and they saddened me because they were a reflection that she no longer recognized me as someone with a history in her life. But on this visit, I began to feel incredibly lucky. I was such a troubled kid growing up, and in high school and college my rebelliousness and anger challenged my mother tremendously. Yet here I had just been bestowed with the opportunity of a lifetime. How many more times would I have the chance to be of such service to another human being, let alone the mother who raised me? When else in my life would I have a chance to discern the real meaning of this season? This realization brought a quality of fullness and completion to my time with my mom. I felt that something in my life had come full circle with this visit. I would not have chosen this path, not at all. Yet it was exactly the path I was meant to walk. And every word I spoke, every breath and action I took was in synchronicity with the universe in which my mother and I were cradled. Was there any greater blessing?

I thought about the craziness of Christmas in our society, of how the more we have, the more we want. Of how tempers and anxieties flare to the point of explosiveness from Black Friday through Christmas Day, of how children and adults alike buy into the commercialism that wipes out our wallets and any sense of the difference between need and want. I thought of things I’d wished for in the past — a designer handbag, a computer, a ring, a new camera to add to my work tools. And of how receiving the thing I’d not asked for — time with the mother who no longer knows me and whose bottom I have to help wipe — trumps them all. I vowed to be truly present for the rest of the moments I had with my mother on this visit.

The tenth and eleventh days of my Christmas weren’t without challenges. On the tenth evening our neighborhood was engulfed with the smell of natural gas. We had some tense moments as I hustled Mom and her aide out of the house while trying to remember where the cat carrier was and if it was safe to start up a car in the presence of a gas main break. The gas company found no breaks, and the mysterious odor dissipated within an hour.

The 11th day brought an emergency repairman to look at Mom’s dryer. No sooner had he left than a medical supply employee arrived unannounced with Mom’s bath things. The shower head leaked so the employee had to drive across town to bring us another one, but we were able to try out Mom’s new things that night.

The next morning, the 12th day of Christmas, my sister drove me to the airport. As we pulled up to the curb I told her, “I consider this time with Mom to have been my Christmas. Everything else is icing on the cake.” I walked into the airport marveling that a human heart can be at once so broken and so grateful.

(c) 2010 Beatriz Terrazas