I recently took a month off from caring for my 81-year-old mother. Granted, the month was February, the shortest month of the year, but it was the longest respite period I’d taken since she moved in with us two years ago. My brother and sister-in-law have always been available to look after her during our short and sporadic family vacations, but that has never left me alone in my own house for more than a day or two at a stretch.
A month felt dream-like and I could barely visualize it. A month. When I told a friend about Mum’s vacation, she said, “Only a month?” My friend is in a rotation with her siblings for caring for her own elderly mother. And she’s a good friend.
One of the reasons I requested my brother’s help was because it’s ski season. When a child competes in a competitive sport, in this case downhill ski racing, it consumes a parent’s life. It’s about getting up before the crack of dawn, commuting, volunteering, preparing equipment, paying fees and drinking a lot of wine. There are races at hills that are two hours away by car, and spending a few nights in a nearby hotel makes sense when the team is skiing there several days in a row.
With my mother at home, however, I don’t have the flexibility to spend the night away or not be at home to prepare dinner. Mum can manage alone during the day or evening, but is unable to prepare meals for herself (aside from breakfast). In fact, this photo shows how I make sure she gets lunch when I have to make the twice-weekly trek into the office.
What would I do for a whole month (aside from the ski obligations, my full-time job, and looking after the rest of the family whom I couldn’t farm out to relatives)? I would write, read, exercise, go for long walks, snowshoe, eat ramen noodles for dinner in front of the TV, learn a foreign language. What did I do? Not nearly enough of the things I’d hoped to do. Instead, I played a lot of Sudoku.
Sudoku is a simple distraction when your mind is otherwise occupied. Reading and writing are difficult with only half of your brain because you really need to concentrate. Solving a Sudoku puzzle takes just enough brain power to challenge your intellect but leaves just enough brain power to let you still think about other things, like where my seventeen-year-old is with my car, the deadline I have at work, or how to find time in an evening to bake a banana loaf for the volunteer lunch and watch the latest episode of The Walking Dead on the DVR.
But all this Sudoku playing taught me something. Solving the puzzle grid, with its nine little boxes that each contain nine little boxes, depends on recognizing patterns. If you can see the pattern, you can solve the puzzle. I began to notice that when I got stuck, when I just couldn’t see what the solution might be, I could take a break from it, look away, clean a bathroom, bake a loaf. When I returned to the puzzle with fresh eyes, the solution magically presented itself.
Taking a break = Fresh eyes + Magical solution.
Now, math is not my strong suit, but given this rudimentary equation for solving Sudoku puzzles, could life be like that as well?
My conclusion is: sort of. We all know what they say about absence and what grows within in one’s heart. A month without my mother gave me enough moments of solitude to reflect on my life and hers. She has spent 81 years living on this earth, and even though I know plenty of seniors who are still spry and full of wit and conversation, she is not one of them. But, however frail, Mum’s still here with us. She’s still able to give a hug, hold a hand, offer a kind word.
The other day, my father-in-law, who I love with all my heart, asked, “When do you think you’d need to move your mother into a home?” He recently lost his wife after years of caring for her while she slipped into the fog of Alzheimer’s. Less than a year since my mother-in-law’s death, I can still hear the grief in his words and sense the sadness in his gestures. I thought for a moment and considered.
“When she’s no longer able to look after her personal needs,” I said, suddenly sad at the prospect of this horrible loss, should it ever happen. And I realized that some problems don’t need to be solved. Making the best of a bad situation is more about acceptance and tolerance, and then being ready to face the next challenge. Because you know there’ll be one, it’s inevitable.
One day, this phase of my life will be over and I will be devastated when my mother is gone. I will be heartbroken. I will be an orphan.
Life can be a puzzle but sometimes it’s one that you simply cannot solve. And all you can hope to do is approach it with fresh eyes and a new perspective, and accept the vagaries of its changing landscape.