The year the rubber tree plant died

by mymothersbrain

One day last December I looked at the rubber tree plant that sits near the fireplace and saw that it had died. I was stunned. This plant had been with me so long I don’t even remember where it came from. It might have even pre-dated my 18 years of marriage. Its demise dove-tailed with a realization that my plants aren’t the only things I’ve allowed to languish in the past few years.

A friend I’ve known since high school was trying to find me recently because a card she’d sent me had been returned. Our zip code had changed, and I had never told her. She thought I’d moved without letting her know. Though we live a couple of states apart, we’d probably never gone more than few months without talking, and now, as we caught up on each other’s lives, we realized it had been several years since we had spoken. She was hurt because I had dropped out of her life and she wasn’t sure why.

In fact, during the past several years of dealing with parental illnesses, my husband and I have let many friendships lapse. Phoning or e-mailing is one thing. But it’s not easy to get up the energy to drive across the metroplex for dinner or a movie when most of our spare time and effort for months on end has gone toward solving caregiving issues. Sometimes I look back and am shocked anew to see the chronology of the past five years. John’s grandmother died in 2005 and immediately following that, it became obvious his mother had dementia. We moved her in with us, then into assisted living, then into an Alzheimer’s unit. Right after that my mother was diagnosed. And then the economy tanked and like other Americans, we scrambled to figure out how we were going to stay afloat.

Even during the less chaotic moments chronic questions have buzzed in the background of our lives: How much longer will my mother-in-law live? Though she doesn’t speak, walk, or even acknowledge us half the time, she seems so exhausted. She could leave us at any time. How much longer can we keep my mother functional? How will we pay for her care if we need to move her to residential care? And then there’s this: while my mother is not as far along in her Alzheimer’s as my mother-in-law is, anything can happen; the possibility that we may have to plan two funerals back to back is absolutely paralyzing.

Looking back over the past several years I regret one thing: that I didn’t reach out to friends more often. Because, while I’ve not done so, I believe that it was actually a friendship that saved our sanity during the hardest parts of the past couple of years. In 2008 we met a couple who live a few miles away and with whom we have lots in common. They began inviting us out or over once every few weeks, then once a week, even twice a week at times. When we couldn’t make it, they immediately proposed an alternate date, an alternate outing.

Let me honest: there were times when Steve or Warren would send a Facebook message or a text with an invitation and the effort to accept, get in the car, and drive the three or four miles to their house seemed too much. It seemed easier to keep our butts on the couch doing long-distance worrying over my mother who is 600 miles away or simply sinking into our grief about my mother-in-law’s rapid descent into dementia’s quicksands. Other times I was personally weighed down with misplaced guilt: how could I enjoy myself before I had figured out the solutions to my mother’s care?

In fact, all the studies I’ve read and the experts I’ve interviewed about Alzheimer’s say that patients and their families fare much better if they remain socially engaged. Still, it can be difficult when you’re exhausted or emotionally drained. It’s hard to make yourself smile when you’re so sad, so anxious about about the real and practical issues of caregiving, such as medications, money and living arrangements. On the other hand, how else are we going to refill our emotional and spiritual well?

During the course of reporting a piece about trauma, a psychologist told me that she believes strongly in the human psyche’s desire and ability to move toward healing. We are wired to move beyond the upheavals in our life — wired to hope and to experience joy and laughter.

So it is that we found ourselves many a Friday night driving to Steve and Warren’s house, our dogs in tow. There, we would drink wine and talk and laugh until our sides hurt and my makeup ran, and for a while, we would forget our problems. And then, one day late last year I was finally able to open my eyes and see beyond the immediate crises in our lives. My rubber tree plant was dead, but we’d survived a very dark period. I was immensely grateful to two friends and I felt ready to truly rejoin the world.

So this year, I’m going to try to stay better connected to my friends. And I’ll try to remember water all of my plants.