“Caring for my mother is teaching me to let go of perfectionism and be in the flow,” a friend recently told me. Learning to occasionally surrender control and move with the flow has been one of the gifts caregiving brought me. Here’s a story I wrote about the art-form of surrender, an art-form I’m still working on.
Waving the White Flag
First, I lost the freelance job that would have supported me for the next two months. Then I discovered I needed outpatient surgery only minimally covered by my insurance. Next, a torrential downpour made archipelagos of my basement furniture. Instead of spending the evening creating a stunning new resume, I was duct taping trash sacks to the dribbling basement walls and sopping up the puddles with towels. I started upstairs to search for more trash sacks and tripped over a stray board, left over from the rascals who water proofed my basement! I picked up the board and was instantly stabbed with a splinter. Grabbing a sodden white towel to stem, I stomped up the stairs.
“I give up,” I said to the dirty dishes in the kitchen sink. “I can’t take anymore,” I said to the pile of unopened bills cluttering the kitchen table. I shook the white towel and water flew across the counter tops. Then I remembered the old westerns, when the bullet-riddled good guys tie a handkerchief on a rifle butt and waved it at the enemy, just to get a moment’s respite.
It was time for me to officially throw in my towel.
I went outside and tied the towel to the board. I walked into the yard and waved my flag at the sky and said, “I surrender.” It was a good thing too, because I suddenly realized I was ankle deep in water. And I was wearing my good shoes.
The next morning, the beat-up-looking flag made me smile. I felt better now that I had officially let go of control. Every time I came in and out of the house, I saw the flag. Despite that constant reminder, I still struggled. Sure, my basement dried up and yes, I got a new client. But I felt “on the edge” rather than brimming with abundance .
“Will you make a white flag for me for my birthday?” I asked my daughter Sarah.
As soon as I spoke those words, I worried: What if I don’t like the way the flag looks? What if it simply isn’t what I envisioned? What if it’s too large or too small? Then I had to laugh at myself: I wanted control over everything, even the shape of my surrender!
The morning of my birthday, Sarah put a long pole in my hands. It was spray painted gold, with an elegant carved top and held a beautifully proportioned, dazzling white flag. The flag was aesthetic, dramatic and elegant. Slowly I walked outside and hung the flag near my porch light, where it was fully visible yet sheltered from the rain. The flag tilted a little to the right. I climbed onto a chair to straighten it and by the time I climbed down, it tilted again. I tried again, perfect, and yet, the moment I stepped off the chair, the flag became askew.
Deborah Shouse is the author of Love in the Land of Dementia: Finding Hope in the Caregiver’s Journey. For a signed copy, contact Rainy Day books: 913-384-3126
For the three weeks leading up to Halloween, this lawn was one of Robert’s favorite haunting places. Our neighbor created a spooky graveyard, complete with a turning black-robed ghoul that twisted its sinister head to glare right at you, a skeleton that popped up from behind a tombstone, a gargoyle with evil red eyes that crouched menacingly on the porch roof, a wicked looking fence, a tower with a secret compartment that housed a pulsing corpse, and a blue-eyed ghost that floated mysteriously in the background. The first night Robert saw this spectacle, he held tight to his grandfather’s hand and stared. He didn’t want to get too close and he didn’t want to leave; he watched from a safe distance and noticed everything.
Even in the daylight, Robert didn’t want to get too close. But he was captivated by all the scary activity and he loved sitting across the street from the house, waiting for a car to drive past so the “up and down” man behind the tombstone would thrust upwards and surprise us. Every day that I picked him up from school, he asked to go to the scary house. This normally racing, spinning, bouncing boy would then sit still and we discussed the gargoyle, the ghoul, the crow, the pumpkin, and more.
But today, the day after Halloween, the yard is mere grass. Robert holds my hand and we talk about all the creatures that were there, just yesterday. He notices the indentation the tower made in the grass and stands in that spot. He is sentinel-still and solemn, trying to understand this great and sudden loss. Then he points, excited. “The ghost.” he says. The ghost is still hovering on the screened-in back porch. The ghost is Robert’s favorite and we are both very glad to see him. When we finally have to go, he waves goodbye to the ghost, content that at least something is left.
As we walk home, I think about some of my own “scary houses,” things that both intrigued and frightened me. My mother’s Alzheimer’s was a terrifying mansion.
I remember visiting the Alzheimer’s Association and having the social worker show my father and me a picture of the brain with advanced dementia. After I returned home, I wrote about my feelings, saying, “ I look around my living room and imagine a man walking in and silently removing the sofas. No comfortable way to sit down. Another man comes in and takes the coffee table. No place to set down a teacup. One person removes the pictures and lamps, another hauls out the books. I imagine the room stripped down to its original emptiness.
“My mother is going to lose everything,” I say aloud, hearing my voice echo in the imaginary emptiness …
Then I remember walking into my house before I bought it, and falling in love with the emptiness, the scarred wooden floors, the wide-open space, and the plain cream-colored walls. Even without any of the comfort and familiarity of furniture, the rooms had their own beauty.
I close my eyes and imagine that beauty. I pray I will have the courage to discover who my mother is, day by day, and to love her as her new emptiness unfolds.”
Robert knows just how to take in his loss: stand still, take your time, remember everything you’ve lost and then appreciate what is still there.
As for my mother, even though she’s passed away, she never “gave up the ghost.” She’s still here with me.