by Joan Mathieu
When I was a kid, I believed it was my job to protect my parents from the world. Sounds crazy, right? But I was the youngest of eight children, raised mostly by sisters barely older than me while my parents loomed as these distant figures, orbiting outside our insular world like the moons of Saturn - liable to spin out, never heard from again.
My mother taught me how to jitterbug, throw a ball, meditate and grow sun flowers, but we were never close. Virginia (“Ginny”) Mitchell was a farm girl who got her first job riveting Corsair plane wings in Detroit during World War II. When she read about what was happening to the Jews in Europe, she enlisted in the Marines and was stationed at Camp Lejeune where, instead of fighting Nazis, she became a championship baseball pitcher. “Mitch the Pitch” they called her. After the war, she moved home, got a job as a computer programmer at Dow Chemical and met my father.
Over the years, she saved all of my school papers and articles, and read my book six times, she said, to feel what it was like to walk in my “scary” shoes. But I couldn’t relate. Over the years our typical exchanges had been affectionate, polite and halting as we searched for common ground.
Years later, I moved from New York City to my childhood home in Michigan to care for Ginny in her early years of Alzheimer’s. That first day, we sat at the kitchen table and she spoke to me in a way that was warm, lively and without inhibitions. I thought finally we are connecting. But then she sucker-punched me with five words: Is your mother still alive?
This baptism into caregiving reversed our already muddled roles as, over the next few months, I watched her unlearn everything in the order she had learned it. Forgetting how to write her name, how to pour milk, tie her shoe. As I bathed her, she’d shiver with delight at the warm water in the same way I had as a little girl, looking up at this stranger’s face filled with mysterious fondness.
Ginny never lost her charm and was always, miraculously, cheerful. Like the time she showed me the obituaries and said brightly, “It says here that I’ve died.” Now and then, she’d emerge from her twilight—truly herself for one stunning moment—to give me a piece of advice. I just want to tell you that, in life, there is more than one love for any of us.
She passed away peacefully, surrounded by her daughters and sisters. Since then, I’ve been a caretaker for my father (Parkinson’s) and husband (cancer) and surely others will follow because this is how life goes, even as I wonder who will be there for me.
As caretakers, we get worn out, angry, sad, isolated and, in many ways, diminished by this role that is presided over by guilt that demands we do better, be more patient, be kinder. On good days I believed every shattering emotion would earn me points to be redeemed later for something like insight, self-knowledge or a scrap of wisdom.
When I felt really overwhelmed, I gave myself pep talks. You’re not losing your mind; you’re finding it. You can’t change the world, but you can change worlds. Mostly though I was whistling past the graveyard. What changed, I think, was me. Incrementally, invisibly – a sound detected only by dogs.
What remains today is that I got to see my mother more clearly and appreciate, for the first time, her importance in my life. In the end, she was less a moon and more like a star—both as an idol and a point of light by which to navigate. Strange as this sounds, she visits me sometimes, tapping on my heart to say, You’re on the right track. Don’t be afraid. And I’m with you still.
Joan Mathieu is the author of Zulu: An Irish Journey.