I’m not a mother. But my job description as caregiver would read much the same. Essentially, I’ve had to become my mother’s mother. It’s the hardest job I’ve ever had, and not one I thought I’d be taking on so soon. I always knew I’d take care of my mother when she got old (seriously, I wrote a book about it as a kid). However, she’s not old yet; she’s been fighting an extremely rare brain cancer for nearly four years.
My mother has been my best friend for as long as I can remember — a strong by-product of our ‘single mother-only child’ status. We are a lot more alike than either of us would ever like to admit; we’re the cliche ‘Sometimes I open my mouth and my mother comes out’ (the Internet meme without apparent attribution). That’s us perfectly. It’s nearly always been just the two of us (technically three now, including our little rescue dog), and it was natural for me to become her instant caregiver in my late 20s.
Now that my mother’s cancer treatments are over, you might wonder what our lives look like (aside from regular MRI brain scans). My mother’s brain cancer and subsequent minor stroke have left her with permanent brain damage, manifesting as cognitive, short-term memory, balance, and coordination issues. She’s far from being a vegetable, as she’ll be the first to tell you, but it’s no longer safe for her to live alone. She can no longer drive, suffers from fatigue, and needs assistance with daily living (the details of which are private, thank you very much).
There are good days and bad, but I can’t remember a single one where we didn’t laugh together. Now she sometimes forgets that I wasn’t around when she was a child. Sometimes she forgets and calls me Mom. Nowadays, she forgets a lot of things. That happens when your brain is busy fighting brain cancer. (And FYI, it doesn’t make her feel any better when others tell her they’re having the same memory problems from aging. They’re not the same — not one bit, folks.)
We have a lot of the same conversations over again. And over again. Mostly I manage to keep annoyance at repetition out of my voice, internally beating myself up when the look in her face says I haven’t succeeded. We still squabble like mother and daughter; after all, living together isn’t easy (especially when we had each cherished the independence of living alone). But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Clearly full-time caregiving is a deeply personal choice, but I know that I am better able to care for my mother than anyone I could hire (introducing part-time caregivers has been challenging, and neither she nor I would want her to live in a home). I don’t really consider any other option as viable for our family at this time.
I admit, it can feel strange and lonely when all of my friends and peers seem to be hitting the milestones of marriage and babies — not to mention career promotions, professional success and financial stability. Though I long for those experiences, I know, deep in my soul, that I am doing what is right for our family now. In 25 years, I don’t want to look back and wish I’d spent more time with my mother and best friend while I had the chance. There is no job I’d rather be doing than caring for her.
I also know one day I’ll miss those repeat conversations with my mother. No matter how long she continues to beat the odds and surprise doctors, I know I’ll still want more time together, more laughs, and even more bickering. I’ll miss staying up late talking and watching our favorite shows, or sharing interesting things we find online, and laughing until it hurts and we’re both crying. And so I try to cherish every moment that we have together. Though we aren’t sharing the life experiences we’d hoped for now, I’m deeply grateful to have this time together as adults. As she was both a mother and father to me, I hope I can be as loving a caregiver to her. The circle of life.
I love you, Mama.