We stood on the asphalt that paves our circle as we said goodbye to Kathy, Mom’s sister, and Peggy, my own sister, while the sun began its climb above the eastern horizon. Our family’s “goodbyes” after visits and holiday get-togethers can take several minutes; we’re constantly throwing in last-minute remarks and discussing small things we could just as easily chat about through e-mail or a later phone call, just so we can put off that moment of separation.
But the moment finally came, as Ted wheeled his F-150 around and the last two out-of-town relatives waved adieu to us. We watched them pull out of the cul-de-sac, then Mom turned to me with a wistful smile. “Well, it’s just us now.” We embraced, then walked into the house to begin a day full of an abnormal normality.
How could the mundane chores of an average weekday for an elderly woman and her middle-aged son be abnormal? Because over the last seventeen years our lives were increasingly defined and circumscribed by my younger brother, his illnesses and incapacities. Now they no longer obtain; God is taking far better care of him now. However, this leaves us with a curious and unsettling freedom to act: What do we do without Bob to take care of?
I could shine my pennies or clean my lava lamp;I could spend all day in my underwear watching Ernest Goes to Camp;I could sit and count my hair;I could burp my Tupperware.I’m not busy now, anyway ….
So “Weird Al” Yankovic sings in “Calling In Sick”, and so it feels to me: I could spend the rest of the day doing any number of useful tasks and pointless wastes of time that people do when they have nothing else with which to occupy themselves. Yeah, I’m on fire, baby; I’m alive, I’m alive, can you hear me world, I’m alive.
The one thing I can’t do is move away so I don’t have to walk by a room already being stripped of the personality that occupied it for the last five years, chain-smoking and watching endless repeats of M*A*S*H, NCIS and Man vs. Food. Not that I haven’t contributed to the stripping; since the flat-screen I bought was for the living room, I took Bob’s for mine, along with his new Blu-Ray player … remembering the scene in A Christmas Carol where Scrooge watches his bed linens being sold by his charwoman, and feeling rather ghoulish about the matter.
One other thing I can’t do is circle back about fifteen years or so to pick up the wife I never married and children I never had, to make another stab at The American Dream for myself. While it’s not impossible in the time I have left — a cousin of mine recently married a man who had been a bachelor for all of his fifty-odd years — at some point in the last ten years I accepted lifelong celibacy as the most probable outcome of being my brother’s keeper.
Now let’s look at it from a different angle: This long episode began when Peggy and Ted unceremoniously dumped “the problem of Bob” in my lap after they had taken turns with Mom in trying to “fix” his life (what makes you think we’re codependents?). Then we discovered that the Army doctors had misdiagnosed his diabetes as type-2, that it was really type-1. Far from getting Bob out of their hair, Ted and Peggy found that they’d placed themselves out of range of giving Bob direct help as he struggled to get assistance from the government. And though both have provided plenty of support over the years, they’re grappling with the feeling that they didn’t do enough, that they somehow evaded their share of responsibility for Bob by putting it all on Mom’s and my shoulders.
Grief, guilt, regret. Nothing particularly Catholic about these aches and pains. They’re very human feelings, neither more nor less intense because of faith in a loving, paternal God or in an afterlife of eternal youth and bliss.
Nor is there anything to be guilty for or regretful of. In orienting my life towards helping my mother take care of my brother, I’ve learned so much and actually had a good life to boot. My older brother and sister made the decisions they needed to make because they had spouses and children to take care of … I didn’t. That I did step up isn’t so much to admire as the fact that the opportunity to step up was there to begin with; had I that notional wife and children, Mom might have been left to manage Bob’s deterioration alone. Although the praise and plaudits I’ve gotten for devoting so much of my life to this task has sometimes made me feel a bit of a fraud, the fact that I was available to do so is something to be wondered at and to praise God for.
This still doesn’t fix the problem of what caregivers do after the homebound person is bound for our true home.
As we smoked a cigarette out on the inaptly-named sun porch, I regarded my mother. Through the last week, she had been withdrawn, indecisive and soft-spoken, tears always at the edge of her voice. Sunday and Monday, she began to come back out — going out with Kathy and Peggy for a gig bag with which Peggy could take Bob’s bass guitar back to Virginia, shopping with Peggy for a birthday gift for Ted, starting her familiar grumble over having dinner at some restaurant forty-five minutes away (“For my birthday, I want Wing Stop wings and fries brought in and to play board games with my family”), and chatting happily with my sister-in-law Annette about volunteering at the library around the corner from our house.
She looked at me, touched my hand and said, “You need to get some activities.”
I blinked. “I’ll be able to make Knights of Columbus meetings more often.”
“You need more.”
It looks like our lives will go on after all.