Watching my mom care for my grandma shaped the person I am today

Sept. 10, 2020

When my grandfather woke up two days before my 10th birthday, he knew something wasn’t right. He felt bloated with an incredibly distended stomach and called for my grandma to bring him Tums. He walked down the narrow hallway to meet her and as soon as he made it to the bathroom door, he collapsed on top of her. Trapped under the crushing weight of his body, my grandma struggled to free herself. She already had a broken hip that never healed from a fall during cancer treatment, and thanks to this major blow, she couldn’t stand up even after rolling him off of her.

She army crawled to the nearest phone, knocked it down to the ground from the cord, called 911, and then, my mom. But my grandfather died from an aortic aneurysm in the back of the ambulance on the way to the hospital. 

By the time my mom burst into the waiting room, she saw my grandma sitting by herself, struggling to put a pair of socks on due to the impact of her fall. During the commotion of trying to save my grandfather’s life, nobody noticed that his terrified wife was standing barefoot in the hospital in the middle of February. Even after they broke the news of his sudden death, nobody had offered to help her.

My mom made a silent vow that day as she kneeled to put the socks on my grandma's frozen feet that she would never be alone. From that day forward, my mom would care for my grandma the way her father would’ve wanted.

Seeing her mother in such a helpless state didn’t just have a profound impact on my mom’s life. It also completely altered my childhood and the woman I grew into. 

My mom had already proven her dedication to caregiving when she quit her job to help my grandparents as my grandma battled non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. It was nearly impossible for her to comprehend that just after her mom was declared in remission, her seemingly healthy father had died out of the blue. But in this moment, she morphed from daughter into fierce protector and didn’t think twice. 

As my grandma adjusted to her new reality, my mom split her time between my house and my grandmother’s home 30 minutes away to help her keep some semblance of normalcy and independence. And when it became clear by the following year that it was no longer safe for my grandma to live on her own, my mom didn’t hesitate. My grandma moved in with us as my mom divided her time trying to meet the needs of my dad, her kids and our new housemate.

There were many people who didn’t understand my mom’s decision to have my grandma live with us instead of considering alternatives like a nursing home. This included many of her friends and her own two siblings who lived only minutes away. Friends stopped calling because my mom could never make or keep plans. Her siblings tried to make my mom feel bad. “Jody, you’re neglecting your kids by spending your time caring for her. Don’t be a martyr.” 

This was likely to ease their own guilt since my mom was prioritizing my grandma while they were putting themselves first. Instead of offering to take some of the daily physical and mental load off my mom’s shoulders, her siblings assumed she had everything taken care of, abandoning her and their mom. But this only served to turn my mom into an even stronger advocate and partner who never left my grandma’s side.

My mom never wavered. At her core, my mom knew that my grandma would never be truly happy or comfortable in a nursing home — even if that move would make the day-to-day “easier” for my mom. This meant that it would never be an option. She refused to compromise my grandma’s happiness, for however long she lived, despite everyone around my mom constantly telling her that they would never make the same choice.

Through this living arrangement, I quickly learned from a young age that the world did not revolve around me, my schedule or my wants exclusively. Any temper tantrums were instantly shut down on the basis that I should be better behaved for my grandma. My mom had to miss school events due to the unpredictability of my grandma’s health. In the midst of all this, I was taught what love was about to our family: sacrifices and putting others before yourself. 

As my grandmother’s health deteriorated with age, my mom seamlessly became my grandma’s sole social companion, medical advocate, morale booster, physical caretaker and everything in between. When my grandma was diagnosed with cancer again, my mom worked to ensure that she never felt alone, hopeless or like a burden. If she had an accident and didn’t make it to the bathroom in time, my grandma was met with nothing but compassion and dignity as my mom quickly cleaned it up, easing my grandmother’s embarrassment. Any time my grandma started to feel depressed over the fact that her other children and grandchildren were “too busy” for more than a quick phone call or rare 20-minute visit, my mom was her shoulder to cry on.

I always knew this was the type of relationship I wanted to have with my mom one day. But I didn’t realize how much of an impact my mom’s compassion had on me until after I watched my grandmother pass away — in her own bed instead of a nursing home’s, just like my mom promised her so many years before. My mom didn’t quit or compromise when things got difficult, and as long as it was medically possible, my grandma was always able to stay where she was most comfortable — with us. This is the same fierce love and devotion that I strive to give those in my life. 

Not only does it feel natural to want to reciprocate this care for my mom one day, but I’m also lucky that she and I share an incredibly strong mother-daughter bond. I never take for granted any time I’m able to spend with my mom because growing up, it wasn’t always the case. I recognize that her time is precious because she’s always juggling so much, and I always appreciate both the big and small moments we can share together. 

This also impacted the qualities I prioritized in a potential future husband. I will always be there for my mom and knew that I’d want to find a partner who would understand this “sacrifice” without question — just as my dad did. That’s why years after my grandma’s death, when my fiance and I were having a deep conversation only months before our wedding, it was never a question of “what would happen” when our parents got older. Instead, we discussed how we would make it work given different scenarios. Although he could resent  or be jealous of my relationship with my mom, he supports it and shows the same love to my mom as I do. And he knows that my aspiration to care for her as she did for my grandmother is essential to who I am.

This is not to say that being a primary caretaker to an aging and sick loved one isn’t grueling. It’s mentally, physically and emotionally exhausting — especially when you are a mother to children who also depend on you. And the respect that I have for those who make this decision to show selfless compassion to the elderly is something I recognize not everyone has. 

Although I’m currently not as physically close to my parents as my mom and grandma were, I am still in the car making the three-hour drive without hesitation to be there when anything comes up. When my mom suffered a recent health scare, I shared her hospital bed for a sleepless night — long after we got the news that everything was completely OK. Doctors were keeping her overnight to be safe, and as long as she was in the hospital, I refused to leave. 

That is who I am, thanks to my mom. And that’s why my fiance never asked if I wanted him to drive me back to the house that night. His only question was if he could drop off pajamas for me. 

As we made conversation with her roommate in that tiny hospital room and bickered over sharing the blanket and tiny bedspace, I instantly had flashbacks to witnessing the same dynamic between my mom and grandma. My grandma was never alone. She always had her best friend by her side — not just for the extreme good or bad times but also for the mundane. And if I have anything to do with it, my mom will always have the same exact thing.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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