I spent this past Thanksgiving with my mother in law, who is suffering from dementia. For the majority of the past twenty five years, I have struggled with feeling compassion toward her (I did mention she's my mother in law, right??).
Historically, our holiday meals include her preaching to me about her version of Catholicism (which is very 'unique' to say the least) and I spend my time seething and biting my tongue until it nearly bleeds. I typically decide it's time to do the dishes when she announces that everyone in the world is most likely going to hell due to a variety of sins, none of which she has ever engaged in (most of which, I have engaged in).
This time was different. I watched her picking at her food, staring at the wall while the rest of us engaged in conversation. At that moment, I made a decision. I stepped back. As her expression appeared distant and, at times, confused, I found myself stepping out of the relationship I had with her, out of the dance we typically danced. Instead, it was as if a collage of fast-moving scenes from various memories flashed through my mind. First, there was Irene, my patient who cried each time I visited her. Next there was Sylvester, who didn't answer the door one day when I arrived. The police found seventy five miles from his home, lost and confused, driving the wrong way down the freeway, with no shoes on. Next was Ethel; I recall the way she stroked my hair and told me I was beautiful each time I came to visit. Finally, I saw Gladys, who over the course of two years went from gardening in the back yard to bed bound, incontinent, and speechless. My time as an RN has provided me with countless stories of beautiful people who needed me. Who needed love.
My mother in law represents all of those patients. She becomes more lost and afraid, as each day her memory fades further into darkness. She is not a threat to me (and the truth is I never needed to view her this way in the first place). She appears to be more like a frightened child, a child who desperately needs love and support. It is in that moment, that I am able to feel something I have never felt for my mother in law before.... compassion.
As I looked at her across the table, I began explaining that I was there to help and that I wanted to make sure she was well taken care of. She smiled warmly at me. I held her hand as we was walked into the bathroom. I changed her clothes and assisted her into the tub. I talked to her gently while the warm water ran down her back. We laughed as I soaked her feet and massaged her legs. I helped her put on warm pajamas and we then walked back into the living room, joining the rest of the family to watch the football game.
This Thanksgiving I was given a gift I will not soon forget. I learned that sometimes, stepping back is exactly what is needed to in order to lean in to exactly what we are most afraid of.
Thank you Irene, Sylvester, Ethel, and Gladys. Thank you to all of those I have had the privilege to care for. The gifts you have given me are something I will forever be grateful for.