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The Caregiver’s Mantra

Patricia Williams ~

If one more person tells me to be sure to take care of myself, I’m going to bury my face in a pillow and scream.

“Go for a walk, take a vacation,” they advise. I know they’re trying to help, but really? Giving me one more thing to do? Oh well, they’re just doing the best they can.

I moved my folks across the country, from Florida to Washington State, and into an apartment near me so that I could care for them in what seemed to be their final months. My brother, who’d been looking after them, was leaving to get married, and we didn’t think they were safe on their own.

They’d always been fiercely independent, but at almost eighty, with minimal financial or supportive resources, they were struggling with declining health. My father had suddenly lost most of his eyesight and suffered from serious cardiac conditions; my mother was bedridden due to deteriorating joints and alcohol abuse.

Having just retired, I thought that a few months of managing their medical and household needs was better than flying from Washington to Florida for every crisis.

That was ten years ago.

After the move, they rebounded, relieved of the stress of negotiating the twists and turns of aging by themselves. They feel independent, and I can be there in two minutes flat for any emergency. We add and subtract care as needed, with nurses, physical therapists, home-care aides, Meals on Wheels and housekeepers ebbing and flowing in sync with medical crises. None of us ever imagined any of this, but day by day we keep putting one foot in front of the other, trusting that we’re each doing the best we can.

As my parents approach ninety, I know that my caregiving days are numbered, and that the number is a secret only to be revealed in a last breath. I’m not going to miss a minute, or let the number be determined by my lack of attention. I’m willingly on call, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. My phone goes everywhere but in the shower; then it sits within earshot, on the bathroom counter. I barely travel outside of my zip code. I check wounds, change lightbulbs, evaluate skin color for circulation and organize pills. Doing the best I can.

My parents smile whenever they see me, but their smiles are tentative, weighed down by their dread of burdening me. There’s always a to-do list–pills, bills, groceries, appointments–and I’m the main tool in the toolbox. There are nurses, bath helpers and every kind of aid to preserve their independence, but I’m the foreman. I can never let them know that I sometimes feel I’m crumbling under the weight of this; it would crush them.

I’m buoyed by their spirit and gratitude. Who knew that, at age sixty, I would flat-out love them? At eighteen, I couldn’t wait to get away and spread my rebellious wings. At thirty, I established a minimal equation of visits plus phone calls that seemed to equal a reasonable relationship across our 3,000-mile geographic divide and the emotional barriers of our opposing politics and my mother’s alcoholism. I’m so glad that when duty called I answered, just as I’d seen my parents do when anyone else was in need.

We’ve each put our best selves into the ring (which includes my mother’s not drinking at all) and battled the ravages of aging together. Now I genuinely enjoy their company and am grateful for ten years of seeing them through my adult eyes.

Still…why does my mother wait until midnight to call and tell me that Dad’s leg is bleeding, when it started bleeding at 3:00 pm after he bumped into the end table? Now he and I have to go to the ER, instead of to the doctor.

My voice stays in the calm fake-nurse mode as I say, “I’ll be right there.”

I know they’d hoped that they wouldn’t have to involve me, I tell myself. They’re doing the best they can. And everything is scarier at midnight.

“I’m sorry,” the ER nurse says. “I’m afraid you’ll have a long wait.”

I’d like to protest, but she’s doing the best she can. We sit in the only available chairs, next to a young mother and a wailing baby.

She’s too young to know how to care for a baby, I think, poised to be critical. But she coos and rocks him with such tenderness; she’s doing the best she can.

The tired-looking older man sitting next to her puts his arm around her shoulders and takes the baby’s hand.

Probably her father, I think. He’s a master of doing the best he can. There’s a good chance that he’s also taking care of his parents; no wonder they call us the sandwich generation.

“It’s nice and warm in here,” my father says. There’s not much good to be said, but he finds something. I wrap more gauze around his leg to soak up the blood.

After a doctor creates a labyrinth of stitches and bandages to lace together Dad’s gossamer skin, we return to a kitchen fragrant with warm gingersnaps, my father’s favorite. Mom has relied on her chief coping mechanism, baking, to calm her nerves and pass the time. She does it for herself, for Dad and for me. She’s teaching me by example how to navigate through stressful times–always being the parent, always doing the best she can.

Dad gives her a glowing report of the hospital, concluding, “We’re lucky to have such good medical facilities nearby.”

I’m not feeling particularly lucky, but I remind myself to value this time with them–to save it in my heart to use later, when I need comfort. I know that I’m lucky to still have both my parents at their ripe age.

Really, the good luck is that this Greatest Generation faced war, economic collapse, drought and disease with fortitude and faith. They’re my generation’s role models for doing the best we can.

As I care for my parents, I understand more deeply the magnitude of the obstacles they’ve faced through the decades, and I respect how they hurdle each new challenge. I realize that I’m resilient because they pasted on smiles and were grateful for postwar factory jobs and a VA shoebox home. They met the future with courage and accepted their fate with grace. Even when that fate is dire, they still do–living and dying as best they can.

Caring for them is my reward for doing the best I can.

About the author:

Patricia (Trish) Williams, a retired dental hygienist, lives in Olympia, WA; she enjoys genealogy, gardening, crafts, reading, pets and visitors. Her parents passed away shortly after she wrote this piece. Her memoir While They’re Still Here has won several awards, including the IBPA (Independent Book Publishers Association) 2018 Ben Franklin Awards gold medal in autobiography and memoir. “My writing began as scribblings to share with my brother about our parents’ fortitude and foibles. The words became paragraphs of joy and solace, growing into chapters, and ultimately my book.” Her website is

Story editor:

Diane Guernsey


13 thoughts on “The Caregiver’s Mantra”

  1. Nearly every week, I spend a day or more with my 102 year old mother where she lives in an independent living apartment in a senior complex. As she has lost her vision to macular degeneration, her world has narrowed. No longer able to read much, or write emails or handwritten cards and letters, all of which were an important part of her daily life, she has become more isolated. I consider the time I spend helping her and talking with her, a real blessing…while she’s still here. Thank you so much for sharing your story.

  2. Thank-you for reminding me my sister & I aren’t alone in deed or emotions. My 94 year old mom still drives, goes to the gym, and prefers living alone. But the “what ifs” are ever present. I saw myself in every sentence.

  3. The best I can. Love this piece, for this is what we all do. I went ‘home’ to care for my mother, for one year that became three. But wouldn’t have missed a day of it. So many mistakes, so much laughter and so much love. Thank you for writing this and ‘While There’re Still Here.’

  4. Lovely reminiscence with which I identify. It’s only now, years after my parents passed away that I can fully appreciate my parents commitment to our family. They were not perfect but, indeed, did the best they could. And, it made all the difference.

  5. I am enjoying my 90th year and can appreciate Dorothy’s job. As I enjoy the great care I get from my daughter, Dorothy reminds me of how I can make my role easier on her – no late night emergencies, etc.

  6. Dorothy laughed, I sobbed. Thank you, Diane for living through and with us, along with your parents. Bless you. v

  7. I laughed out loud when I read the first few lines mentioning the people who tell you to “take care of yourself”. I was my husband’s caregiver. I leaned to bite my tongue when I heard those words, but those who spoke were doing the best that they could.
    I never say those words and suspect you do not either. Blessings on you for caring for your parents and putting it into the best perspecive and doing the best you can

  8. Ronna Edelstein

    Patricia, I have lived your story. From age 56 to 67, I cared for my mother and father and then only for my father. The process of caregiving frustrated me, exhausted me, and frightened me; it also profoundly connected me with my parents. I would love to have them back, even if it meant my loss of sleep and independence. I would love to hug them one more time.

    As for the people who said, “Make time for yourself”–I do that now. When my parents were with me, my time was for them–and I do not regret one single moment I gave to them.

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