As a caregiver, the hardest choices I had to make were about taking care of myself. When it came to my mother, I knew what I needed to do — everything in my power to manage whatever caregiving threw at me. But selfcare – even though I knew logically that it would be best for both of us — was where I struggled with guilt and shame. Don’t get me wrong, there were times I put myself first. Sometimes with disasterous results, other times I was beautifully surprised by how smoothly things went.
About 18 months after my mother’s first stroke, my husband and I planned an epic trip to Scotland and Ireland with friends. Mommy had been living back in her own home for about 10 months and things appeared to be going well enough for me to go on an adventure of a lifetime. The day we were scheduled to leave, I stopped by Mommy’s to drop off our travel itinerary. I walked in and found her in the grip of her second stroke. I called my husband and insisted that he go without me and that I’d hopefully be able to connect with them later. I didn’t believe that at the time, but it gave me something to hope for. Plus, I didn’t want to have to manage the guilt of him missing this fabulous trip when I needed to be focused on my mother.
At the hospital, my cousins and dear family friend Ralph comforted me as we watched Mommy — who was conscious the entire trek from home to our local hospital and then to the regional stroke center — as she sank into a brain-swelling coma. I sat with her for 2 days straight and she never woke. Ralph, dear, loving father figure that he is, took me aside and told me I needed to go to Scotland and meet up with my husband and friends. How could I possibly do that with Mommy lying unconscious and not knowing what direction things would go? Ralph pushed past my guilt and anxiety repeatedly saying that he and my cousin Clairees had this. They’d be with Mommy every day while I was away. Slowly I began to realize that Mommy was in the best possible place she could be. If anything happened to her, she was already in the best hospital in the region. After a ton of self-flagellation, I took Ralph up on his offer and started making plans to meet my friends and husband in Scotland for the second leg of the trip. If Mommy’s condition worsened, I’d just get on a plane and fly back home.
Mommy still wasn’t conscious when I left, but a couple of days into the trip, Clairees texted me this photo. Mommy was awake and sitting in a chair. She had emerged damaged by the new stroke, but she was still with us. I couldn’t be more grateful to Ralph and Clairees for freeing me up to take care of myself in spite of gallons of doubt.
While I was away, another family friend called my cell not knowing I was not in New Jersey. When I told her where I was, she exclaimed, “YOU WENT! I’m so glad you went, Kyle. We’ll talk when you get back.” That was not the response I expected from a peer of my mother’s. I expected to be shamed for being so selfish. But I assumed wrong. In that very moment, I was able to shed the guilt I carried with me halfway around the world and enjoy one of the best experiences of my life. One that I still close my eyes and go back to when times get tough.