By Emily Cooper
My mother, an 86-year-old widow, lives alone in a
small town in the farming country of central Kansas.
Born and raised in the town, she returned there with my
father after his retirement, leaving the big city in
order to spend their “golden years” with her sisters,
brothers, and childhood friends back home.
Unfortunately it wasn’t long after my parents’ return
that the siblings became ill and died; many of the old
friends died as well. Mom took care of her family,
one by one, through dementia, strokes, and cancer; and
just when she thought she could take a break, my father
was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and her
caregiving resumed again. During those years, Mom
had her own share of health problems that required the
care of family, and that care always fell to me.
Like mother, like daughter.
I moved from Kansas to Colorado back when my parents had
plenty of family and relatively good health. But
over the last 20 years, in addition to regular visits,
I’ve probably made two dozen trips to Kansas to be with
them during each health crisis. When my father was
in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, I frequently went
home to relieve my mother and helped her move him to a
nursing home a few months before his death.
My brother lives only an hour from my mother and he
provides a lot of support—but of a limited kind.
My sister also would be willing to help, though she
freely admits she is not a nurturer. Having a young son
with health problems makes it difficult for her to get
away. It appears that I’m the ideal caregiver:
female, nurturer, no kids.
My mother’s most recent health problem is a condition
that has caused her much discomfort and stress for more
than a year. Her doctor has been reluctant to
recommend surgery to correct the problem because of
Mom’s age and history of heart disease. Mom has
tried her best to live with the condition, but finally
she can’t deal with it any longer and insists on the
surgery, with the understanding that the choice could
endanger her life. Soon after, Mom calls to tell me
about the planned surgery. Though she doesn’t ask me to
come home, I know she’s hoping I’ll volunteer.
After the call, I switch into “caregiver mode,” and
everything else in my life takes a back seat to Mom’s
urgent need and my concern for her. I quickly
arrange for unpaid leave from work. It’s easy to
do, thanks to employers and co-workers who are sensitive
to the issues of family caregivers, but still I feel
guilty about leaving. I find myself justifying the
need to go by explaining, “Mom’s 86 and she has heart
problems...,” as if the surgery alone isn’t important
enough to require my leaving to be with her. I
know my employers understand, so why do I feel the need
On the long drive to Kansas, I have too much time to
dwell on the possible outcomes of Mom’s surgery.
She’s basically strong, but she is 86. Will she
come out of the anesthesia? Will her high blood
pressure cause a stroke? Will she have a heart
attack? Or maybe, just maybe, will she be fine?
I remind myself that Mom has weathered dozens of health
crises. Whatever happens, we’ll find a way to deal with
it. But in the background, in spite of my
“Whatever will be, will be” line, is the whispered
prayer, over and over: “Please let her be okay,
please let her be okay ...”