I awoke to a chilly morning, one of those times when it is a bit more difficult to jump out of bed and get on with the day. There was comfort under the blankets and a sense that leaving the warm nest was not as desirable as staying there. As I lay in that place of comfort and security I realized how fortunate I am to live in a home secure from the elements and dangers of the world. I thought of how far I had come from my humble beginnings and remembered the first apartment I shared with my husband when I was still a quite young twenty year old. We had a tiny one bedroom accomodation that overlooked one of Houston’s many bayous and we thought of it as a mansion. We squeezed our bed against one wall and crammed our belongings into a dresser and a small closet. We were as happy as any millionaire has ever been and filled with dreams of adventures that lay ahead.
I had little idea in the first idyllic months how much I would be forced to grow in a very short time. My head was still filled with ideas and ideals of how things were supposed to be. I was naive about the ways of the world and my innocence about life was the product of ignorance and inexperience. My bliss seemed infinite because it had mostly been tested in a bubble. I had gone directly from the care of my mother to the guidance of my husband who seemed worldly to me but was really still as much of a boy as I was a giddy little girl.
We were married on an October evening and determined to make our way on a wing and a prayer. Mike was a teaching assistant in graduate school and I had landed a job as a teacher’s aide at a local elementary school. Our combined monthly income only barely covered our rent, the food we ate and the gasoline we needed to get to our jobs in the one car we had. Our plans would only work if everything went perfectly but we soon learned that living without glitches is generally impossible. We struggled to stay afloat but generous offerings of food disguised as gifts from our parents helped us to get through our first months of wedded bliss.
The summer of 1969 came and with it the big push at NASA to send the first human to the moon. Mike’s uncle headed a crew of electricians there and he offered Mike a job as a helper pulling cable under the floors of various buildings for a salary that was heaven sent. Mike left before dawn each day with his uncle who swung by our apartment to give him a ride so that I might have the car. They would not return until late in the evening which translated to lots of overtime and more money than either of us had ever seen imprinted on a paycheck. It was a good time that would keep us solvent as we both continued our educations.
When July came and the whole world was fixed on watching the American astronauts land on the moon things had gone badly wrong with my mother. She was acting in strange ways that I had never before seen. By the end of the month it was apparent even to a naive girl like me that she was experiencing a mental breakdown and needed immediate help. I begged all of the adults I knew to help me but in the end the responsibility fell solely on my shoulders. At the age of twenty I became the caretaker for my mother, a task that nearly broke me in the beginning even as I thought that it would be only a temporary thing. I had no idea that I would spend the next forty three years of my life making certain that my mother had the doctors, therapies and medications that she needed to keep her bipolar disorder under control.
Sometimes caring for my mother meant taking time off from work and bringing her to my home until she was well again. Most of the time it meant checking on her each day, spending time with her in her home to be certain that she was taking her medications and visiting regularly with her psychiatrists. Her illness was chronic and so it ruled her life and in many ways it also ruled mine.
When she was compliant with directions from her doctors things went smoothly and we settled into a comfortable routine. When she decided to do things her own way rather than theirs, which was more often than it should have been, we sparred with one another and both of our lives became difficult and tense. Over the years a seasonal pattern developed with my mother becoming very ill in early spring, recovering by Easter and then becoming sick again in July followed by increased vigilance on my part. The trend would occur each October as well with Mama returning to her happy healthy self in time for Christmas each year. And so went our lives as I more and more left the girl child I had been far into a past that often felt more like a dream than the reality that my mother and I faced together.
Over the years my mother’s symptoms became worse and worse because she played with her medications rather than taking them as prescribed. She frustrated her doctors and angered me because I knew that if she had only followed directions implicitly her life would have been so much more normal instead of being continually disrupted by psychotic episodes of dark depression, extreme mania and paranoia. Eventually she became so unreliable in living independently that my brother and I took turns caring for her in our homes.
Ours was a love/hate situation that depended on her mood swings. She fought me constantly over visiting her psychiatrist and taking her medications. She insisted that I was a control freak who wanted to assume her role as head of the family. She had little idea that I had often longed to be free of all responsibility and that I had dreamed of running over and over again. Still, I felt enormous compassion for her because it seemed so cruel for her to have to endure the hideous disease that had invaded her magnificent brain. I hated what it had done to her and felt determined to keep her as safe as possible. My brothers, who had grown into the role that I had followed from the time that I was twenty, joined me in the lifelong battle for the sanity of our mom.
I have the deepest empathy and compassion for those who are longterm caretakers but also for those with chronic illnesses that incapacitate them for years. It is difficult to be in either situation. The person who is sick longs to be normal and the person who cares for them longs to find rest. It is only love that keeps either person going.
When my mother’s final days had become more and more difficult. I was weary and wondered if I would ever find respite while she was tired of being viewed as someone who was abnormal. We both wanted better for ourselves and for each other and kept searching for some miracle that would make it so. Life intervened once again and Mama developed lung cancer that took her very quickly. In the end she was clear headed and ready to be with the God who had sustained her through it all. I miss her terribly and would take her back in a heartbeat even if it meant engaging in those sporadic battles over her health. As hard as it was to care for her for forty three years it was also an honor, one that actually made me a better person than I might otherwise have been. In retrospect I know that I enjoyed a closeness to my mom that was borne from her illness. What I learned about her and about myself in those sometime tortuous days ultimately helped me to view the world through clearer eyes. Eventually I learned the importance of being a caretaker for all of mankind and even the planet. It’s a tough but ultimately rewarding job.