You Can’t Imagine

My 93-year-old mom has been going through a rough patch these past weeks. So have I. I’m her number one caregiver – or as she recently put it, “her best help and her best friend.”

In the past year or so I’ve noticed that she gets into a repetitive pattern with certain statements. Here are several of her recent favorites:

When you get to be my age, you go to bed at night and wonder if you’re going to wake up in the morning.

It’s so strange being out in the world. (Spoken from the front seat of the car.)

 That was a looooong time ago. Seems like another lifetime.

Mom had a fall in her bathroom two weeks ago. She was badly bruised up, but amazingly didn’t break any bones. In the whirlwind of the visiting the emergency room, being admitted to the hospital, transferring to transitional care, and returning back to her apartment, Mom lost some things. And found some others.

She lost her sense of time completely. In the ten days she was at the hospital and in transitional care, she remarked over and over that it felt more like months to her.

She also lost a lot of basic memories about her apartment and how she lived her life there. She didn’t lose her memory of the people though. That’s who she is. People first. Always.

She found friends – as she always does — among the staff and patients everywhere she went. That’s my mama.

The experiences of these past weeks have yielded a new favorite refrain. Every time I am with her, she says the same phrase over and over with wonder in her voice: “You just can’t imagine what this is like.”

She’s right. I can’t. The world my mother is inhabiting is a mystery to me. I get glimpses of how lost and overwhelmed she feels. I sense how tired she gets of struggling with the simplest things. As close as I am to her, I won’t ever understand even a fraction of the story.

She can’t imagine how it is for me either. How it felt to see her tumble into a level of sadness and despair I’d never witnessed in her. How it was to juggle conversations with innumerable health care professionals, do her laundry, manage her money, play Scrabble with her, drive hundreds of miles between her place and mine, and eat late night drive thru dinners because I somehow forgot to eat. She sees how hard I am working and apologizes for being “so much work,” but she doesn’t know the half of it.

The truth I am realizing is this: none of us can imagine what it’s like to be in someone else’s experience. We only get glimpses and hints of the whole story. That is when we are called to empathy. To at least try to imagine what it’s like over there. To bring deep listening, an open heart and kind presence to whatever that other person is living through. That’s the best we can do. And it is a great gift.

I hope to bring that gift to my sweet mama through whatever days remain. And what comes after she’s gone…well….”I can’t imagine.”

About Barbara McAfee

Barbara is a voice coach, singer/songwriter, keynote speaker, and author who merges lessons from 12 years in organization development with the transformational power of sound. Her book, Full Voice: The Art & Practice of Vocal Presence (Berrett-Koehler Publishers) was a #1 Amazon bestseller in Business Communication. The book is based on her 25 years as a voice coach, supporting people from many professions in learning how to access the full power and expression of the voice in service to their work and relationships. Barbara’s musical keynotes blend practical content, sophisticated humor, and thought-provoking questions on topics including voice, leadership, and engagement. She was “the band” for Margaret Wheatley’s Women’s Leadership Revival Tour, which visited 15 North American cities. She also appears with authors Parker Palmer and Peter Block. Barbara has produced seven CD's of mostly original music and is founder of the Morning Star Singers, a volunteer hospice choir in the Twin Cities. She lives across the street from the Mississippi River in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA.
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14 Responses to You Can’t Imagine

  1. liz kohlenberg says:

    Oh honey, it is hard and precious time. Just soak it up; try to do as little other stuff as possible because THIS IS THE REAL WORK, what happens now, when you are with her. My sister and I split that time, so I was able to keep on working. But what I remember best is the time with her. Much hard, much wonderful, all precious. HUGS to you, dear Barbara!!!

  2. Rosetta McGee says:

    Beautiful thoughts Barbara, thank you. We can’t KNOW, imagining is all we can do. I sometimes try to imagine what my parents were doing and thinking and feeling when they were the age I am now. Fifteen years from now, when I am closer to the age they were when they died, I wonder if I will sense a closer connection to their world. If I make it that far!
    I always enjoy your reflections.

  3. LouiseHagen says:

    Thank you, Barbara, for your thoughts. After 4 yrs since my parents deaths at 95, I am still trying to imagine what it was like for them. They gave me insights and I cling to those expressions. May you find the strength & energy to see these days through. I sing back your song to you: I wish you courage for the next step and the next…
    a warm hug to you

  4. Linda Saveland says:

    Dearest Barbara,
    I spent time with your mom on Wednesday. We had a wonderful talk about getting old. Being 70, I relate better now to how she is feeling. I love to hold her hand. I miss her standing in her doorway and waving good bye when i get to the end of the hallway. She is seeing her independence fade. She thanks me over and over for our friendship….which i cherish.
    I understand how you are feeling…..caretaking takes a toll. You are blessed to have siblings who are supportive.
    Your words have me in tears. Tears of admiration. And tears of heartache knowing how you are feeling. And tears of knowing the emptiness you will feel when she will no longer be here needing your care.
    Bless you, Barbara. Bless Daughters who are the Caretakers.

    • Thank you so much, Linda! Your friendship has meant the world to Mom — and me — especially in this hard time. The good news is that she is now getting dressed and going down to meals….and waving me off from outside the door again. A huge and small victory. Thank you again for loving Mama so faithfully and well….

  5. Kitas says:

    ah my friend…a beautiful homage to the stages of this existence…one many of us are dancing with in ourselves as we witness and participate with our own deteriorating parent(s)…thank you, dear wordsmith, for once again graciously naming ‘the thing’.

    my Papa is strong in my heart and thoughts thus morning…

  6. Elizabeth Pennell says:

    Thank you. My mother died over 30 years ago. I remember her always. You are blessed to have had your mother for so long and yet the hardship is also a part of it. I get that part as my mother in law lived to be 96. I would agree that you can’t imagine the days once she is gone. That is part of our mystery. You are special.

  7. Liz Anema says:

    so grateful for your post, Barbara. Thank you for speaking to my heart. xoxoxo I am on this journey with my mom as well. xoxox Blessings to you too.
    I am back at the marsh on Monday..if you would like a guest pass to give yourself a day, a moment a class for recentering, please do reach out.

    peace peace and prayer,

    xoxox Liz Anema 612 251 3631

    [cid:F35E1A70-9C57-44DF-BC22-331627E4FED7@hsd1.mn.comcast.net.]

    Liz Anema RYT 500 :: lizanema.com :: 612-251-3631

    Heaven on Earth: Costa Rica Retreat

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  8. iancarrick says:

    Thank you Barbara. Helps me have some compassion/empathy for my mama and myself.

  9. Ah, darlin’ so much of this is familiar, as I’m in this dance with my mom, too. Thank you thank you (as she would say) for getting it down so eloquently and accurately. Love you and your mama.

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