A Day In The Life of a Caregiver: Colleen Kavanaugh
In honor of National Family Caregiver’s Month, we’ve asked some special guests to tell us about 24 hours in their life as a working daughter. Today’s post is from Colleen Kavanaugh, host of the podcast, The After Life: Stories of Transformation After Loss.
Having gotten my 10-year old son on the bus for his day at school, I drive to my office. Today is my mother’s third day at the hospice center. The night before she left a voicemail asking me to go to Macy’s during all of my free time and pick up a nightgown for her. What strikes me about this request is her assumption any one of us involved in her care has free time. But, it is a classic mom comment. And, Lord only knows what I’d ask people to do if I was high on morphine.
After getting out of the area with spotty cell service that wastes 15-minutes of what could be productive drive time, I call my dad to see what his plan of the day is and then return calls from two of my mom’s sisters.
I’m the first one in the office and somehow things seem surreal to me. I am getting ready for a day of productivity as if things are normal. They aren’t normal. My mom is in hospice, which makes it official that she is dying. It seems oddly disrespectful to me that I am trying to be busy living.
Hearing the rest of the office in a meeting, I sneak in a call from another aunt. I feel like a child disobeying her parents by taking this personal call. I am on a deadline to get an ad into a magazine and every second counts. I am torn between which seconds now actually count. The seconds of communicating with family in the middle of a new normal? Or the seconds of doing my job for a client who is paying my bills? Both are matters of the heart. My matter has to do with my dying mom. My client’s matter has to do with their Valentine’s Day dinner ad in a magazine.
The hospice center calls me. I hear the nurse tell me, “Mom’s breathing has changed. Get here as soon as you can.”
The call. I just got the call. The world stops as I feel my center of gravity shift.
I walk-jog into the office of the partners and say I need to leave, immediately. Rather than say anything, they each get up and sympathetically hug me and then yell at me to get out of here.
By the time I exit the building and get into my car, adrenaline, my familiar caregiving companion kicks in, and I am on the phone with my brother. “I’ll be there in 25-minutes, be at the foot of the driveway so you can just jump in the car. We have to get to mom. Dad is already there.”
I call the next brother and all the aunts.
I call my partner and ask him to arrange another aunt to get my son after school and watch him until he can pick my son up after work and then that aunt can come to the hospice center.
I am racing down the highway at speeds I’ll go to jail for if caught.
Being bad at math I am unable to calculate the potential fine for all the cell phone calls I just made.
My brother is at the foot of the driveway and hops in the car.
I take the deepest breath ever as I walk through the automatic doors of the hospice center. Upon entering my mom’s room, I see a nurse taking care of her. The past two days she was unable to get warm. She has pounds of blankets on her and a space heater on full blast that are attempting to combat the bitter cold of this particular week in January. In stark juxtaposition to the warming blankets and heater, she also has a numbing morphine drip.
My dad is pacing around and our group begins to swell with her siblings and in-laws. We are in her room, out of her room, walking the halls, trying to find things to talk about in the midst of this moment none of us have ever been within. Conversation is surreal when you are all there in a state of morbid wait.
But the awkward conversations are music to my ears compared to the rattling sounds of my mother’s final hours of breathing.
Having not been herself since October (a brain tumor will do that to a person) months earlier I wrote to all her family and friends asking them for an emotional boost to give to her at Christmas. In the hospital, I got through the bulk of the letters written to her, but there were still a few left because I received double the number I requested. Holding my mother’s hand, I read the remaining letters to her. Memories begin to dance in the air as those of us present also recall the names and places these letters mention. Our fondness expands as we learn of private moments shared for the first time in writing.
My mom takes her final breath.
My aunt, my mom’s sister-in-law of four decades and a former nurse, gently guides me away from my mom’s bedside, wisely telling me I don’t want to see her too long this way.
My other aunt, my mom’s sister, and I can’t process this moment.
Leaving seems like a defeat or desertion.
The world we left in the parking lot upon arrival was now completely different.
We lure ourselves away in the frigid and raw night with the idea to go to the hotel restaurant that we all used to go for burgers and cosmos that serves until 2 a.m. This was the place we’d all celebrate birthdays. This was the place my partner and I would sneak to on late night dates. This was the place three years ago that my mom chose to tell her sisters she had Cancer.
We arrive to find that the hotel recently revamped its hours and the restaurant is closed.
Undoubtedly, this change in corporate policy was the first sign from my mom. If she couldn’t get burgers and cosmos, then we wouldn’t be getting burgers or cosmos either.
Back in my car with no reason for racing, I play the new album by Fleet Foxes. Atmospheric and sentimentally poetic it is a perfect soundtrack for this moment. Upon leaving the highway, I notice that I am the only driver on the quiet country roads that wind me back to my home. With the volume turned up unreasonably loud, I attempt to pierce the somber silent stillness of this icy clear star filled evening.
But I am unable to drown out the echo of my existence within this newly given space of motherlessness.
I arrive home to my sleeping partner and son. I don’t change and flop into bed.
I wake up. And for a second, that is all that happens.
Then I realize with a wave of pain and intellectual incomprehensibility that I am not just waking up. I am waking up, for the first time in my life, without my mom in it.
Then I realize the first thing on my to-do list. I have to tell my son who recently, with me, lived for two years with his loving grandmother.
If last night was impossibly hard, this is unbearable.
My son was by default part of her care team all these years. My son whose role was simply being a fun grandson to read picture books with, attend silly children’s plays, decorate the house for the holidays with hearts and shamrocks and bunnies and American flags and pumpkins and turkeys and Santas, and to be there to just snuggle and allow her to converse with a human who had no concept of Cancer and who was extraordinarily good at making people laugh by telling the world’s worst knock-knock jokes.
I ask my son to stop playing Legos.
I tell him his grandma has died.
He falls sobbing into my arms.
We use a lot of tissues and then begin the day.
Post Script: Observations Over 8 Years Later
That voice message was the last time my mother ever spoke to me, the last time I ever heard my mom’s voice, and somehow got deleted so I will never hear it again.
That stretch of highway I sped on during the drive to hospice always reminds of that day. Always.
I don’t recall ever fully stopping the car to let my brother in. Or what we spoke of during the ride.
Those letters, each read to my mom, ensured she knew how everyone felt about her. I have never once regretted making this request of family and friends.
The “gratitude box” that held all the letters I gave my mom that Christmas in the hospital now holds the sentimental jewelry of hers that I kept.
I will never forget the color of her skin after her soul left her body. But forever appreciate my aunt for trying to lovingly protect me from this image.
That restaurant my other aunt and I went to was never the same again. They changed their name and the buns they put on the burgers.
That album I played on the way back home I can no longer listen to because it is now indelibly imprinted with too many emotions. Music has a way of doing that to us. Just think of first junior high slow dance songs, prom theme songs, wedding songs and if you are Irish, bagpipes at the cemetery.
I began to cry when I wrote the part about my son’s role in my mom’s care.
Colleen Kavanaugh, at the age of 37, experienced the death of her 69-year old mother to breast cancer. She would instantly begin caring for her father who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. With no prior experience she was responsible for all areas of their care and wrapping up all the pieces of their lives and businesses. Colleen is now an advocate for family caregivers. However, until Colleen paused long enough to see how deeply these experiences changed her, if you told her this is the work she’d be doing, she’d have called you crazy. Colleen is also the host of the 5-star rated podcast, The After Life: Stories of Transformation After Loss which can be found on her website and iTunes.