My introduction to being a caregiver began last year. I was in Chicago, visiting friends and family, when my father suffered his third heart attack. As distressed as I was when I first found out, I was also strangely calm, as his first two episodes were quickly addressed with angioplasty. This time around, though, the cardiologist said that bypass surgery would be necessary.
In preparation for the procedure, my dad underwent a CT scan, and that's where the trajectory of my story changes.
The scan revealed a mass, and his surgery was put on hold so that they could biopsy it. A few days later, we found out that it was lung cancer. By the end of the week, we were told that he was stage IV. I flew back to Los Angeles, where I had been living for nearly the last decade, and started preparing for a second trip to Chicago. But this time, I was booking a one-way ticket.
Deciding to return for my dad was never a question, but everything else was. How long would I be there? Where would I stay?
Even as I got my affairs in order, I could feel the stress of so much uncertainty weighing on me. Hours before I was to board the flight back home, the anxiety of what the next few months would bring made me vomit.
In many regards, though, I was lucky.
For one, I was already working remotely before my father's health took a turn for the worse. I didn't even tell my clients that I would now be on central time. Two, I had wonderful friends who offered up their homes to me with open arms. I knew that I would eventually move in with my father, but given that he had no internet connection, which is imperative to my work, my transition to his condo took a few weeks.
However, I didn't anticipate how difficult it would be to live in a constant state of flux. Living out of a suitcase is fine when you're on vacation, sipping mai tais and basking on the beach. Living out a suitcase for months at a time while caring for a terminal parent isn't as nice. But each time I thought about how I had put everything on hold to come home, I felt guilty.
I had created a life for myself in Los Angeles, and as much as I was trying to cherish every moment that I had with my dad, I was also longing for the mundane things that suddenly meant so much. I wanted to drive my own car. I wanted to shower in my own bathroom. I wanted to wear something other than the half-dozen outfits I had brought with me.
After just a few weeks, I was feeling burned out. My sleeping schedule was sporadic. My eating habits were in rapid decline. Each time I talked to my boyfriend, who was back in L.A., I would break down in tears. At the same time, I tried to keep my unhappiness from my dad. I knew he felt somewhat embarrassed that I had come home for him, and the thought that I might add to his unfounded guilt was more than I could bear.
That's not to say that I didn't regress to my 10-year-old self at times. After getting short with him one particular morning—and feeling instantly shamed by my behavior—I realized that I needed an escape.
For me, that escape became the drive-thru Starbucks just five minutes away. If I was feeling cranky, overwhelmed or in need of a little self-indulgence, I'd grab my dad's car keys, tell him I'd be right back and take off. After a few minutes of fresh air, loud music and delicious coffee, I was human again.
I also knew that I would go crazy if I focused on the uncertainty surrounding me.
I'm a planner, so believe me, it wasn't easy to let go. Rather, I found new ways to regain some control over my life. I also wanted to spend as much time as I could with my dad, so I tried to create a routine that included him.
Because he was couch-bound most of the time, that meant a lot of television. Every afternoon, we watched "Jeopardy!" Every night, we tuned into PBS.
Once I moved into his condo, which was in severe disrepair, it became clear that my weekends would be devoted to painting, cleaning or some other household chore. As weird as it sounds, I cherished those days. Given how little control I had, being able to give the bathroom a fresh coat of paint or clean the ceiling of cobwebs gave me a profound sense of satisfaction.
So many times I told myself that should be able to power through my weak moments; after all, I knew from the beginning that my role as caregiver would be only a temporary one. But without a doubt, those Starbucks runs preserved my sanity. I can't speak to the individual circumstances of every caregiver, but I can say that even though your loved one has needs, you must still prioritize your own. It may not be easy, but it is mandatory.