October 13, 2022

Experiences Over Everything

I was searching for something online the other day, and I accidentally ran across an article I'd written for an auction company about why it was good to get rid of stuff. I barely remember writing it a few years ago, but I also remember thinking it was kinda silly. If you want to keep your stuff, keep it; don't let society tell you what to do. But looking back at it now, I kinda relate.

When I first wrote the article, I'd just moved in with my parents, my grandfather had died shortly after, and I'd helped them move into his house with plans to stick around for a few months until I could find a place of my own. But that wasn't in the cards. Plans fell through. We had a lot of issues with pets getting sick/injured. My mom was getting sicker. Eventually, she ended up on dialysis three days a week, and minus a few days when I was out of town or in a car accident, I took her every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday at 5 a.m. for five years. I didn't complain, but it does put a strain on things. The schedule makes you tired because it's not your schedule the other days of the week. It cost me sleep. It cost me work. It cost me relationships. I canceled any number of travel plans. I canceled plans I had to start my own family. Saturday activities were hit or miss, usually miss. We missed out on parties and social outings and showers and farmers markets and day trips. I remember sitting in the Target parking lot one Saturday afternoon while my mom cried her eyes out because she just didn't have the energy to go to a relative's baby shower.

And I'm not complaining now. I would have done anything for my mom and pretty much did. And, on the flipside, I got to spend time with her that I probably wouldn't have otherwise. She hated going, but sometimes, we'd go for drives afterwards or go out for lunch or shopping when she felt up for it. We had our own inside jokes about other patients or the staff. We made friends with some of them. We tried to make the most of those days off. I spent every single day trying to find ways to boost her mood and improve her confidence, to remind her that the world needed her, that she couldn't give up. We bonded over it, even though she hated it with a passion, and I hated it for her.

Over the next few years, a series of unfortunate events would see her mental and physical health decline, which meant I had to let go of more of my life in order to take on more of hers. She tried to start a home dialysis program, which felt like an answer to her prayers, but a broken pelvis prevented that from happening, and after a month of two of long nights and multiple hospital trips and all sorts of issues related to that, we were grateful to be back on the three days a week schedule at the clinic. Just as she'd recovered from that, we were out shopping one day when a door malfunctioned and slammed into her, breaking her shoulder and nearly costing her her leg. That led to months of added medical issues and surgeries and bandage changes and special diets. I was counting grams of protein in my sleep during that period. By the time she recoverd from that, my dad had a heart valve malfunction, and while he was waiting on surgery for that, he developed sepsis, and we were basically told he wouldn't survive. Fortunately, he did, but he had to have open-heart surgery and spent nearly a month in a hospital in another county, and I spent a great deal of time shuffling back and forth between that hospital, dialysis, and home. And then it took him a few months to recover, which included physical therapy, countless follow-up appointments, 40 days of me giving him daily infusions, and then, as soon as we were done with that, COVID hit. A few months into that, my mom began having some health issues that led to a complete loss of mobilty, which led to a whole host of other issues over the next 10 months before she finally went into the hospital and, after nearly a month in the ICU, she died.

If I could describe my experience during that last year of her life in one word, it would be "lonely." The truth is that I'd felt pretty lonely and isolated for a few years but in the beginning, it was okay because we had each other. Plus, I focused so much on ensuring that she was as healthy and happy as she could be that I didn't have time to think much about anything else. But that last year was tough. My mom wasn't herself. Every single day was hard on all three of us. Deep down, I knew I was losing my best friend. Even though she was physically there in front of me, all of the problems of the last few years had taken their toll. We were all miserable. And on top of it, I felt like I barely existed. Caregiving is a lonely art.

In the first few months after her death, some of that went away. Maybe it was shock. Maybe it was relief for not having to worry anymore. Maybe it's because I drowned myself in work and trying to cater to stupid roosters. By this spring, the loneliness had returned, and in the last couple of months, it's been almost overwhelming. I don't say this to complain — I'd do it all over again in a heartbeat, and I'm not looking for pity or advice or a pat on the back, please. And when I use the word "lonely," I don't even mean that I'm alone. You can be in a room full of people and be lonely, and I have been there many times. And I don't want to discount my dad or the handful of close friends whom I talk to almost daily. Thank God for them. It's just hit me that I've spent so many years chipping away at my own life so I could give it to her, and it's gonna take some time to rebuild it.

I wasn't really sure how to do that at first, but a few things have kind of pushed me in the right direction recently. It might sound silly, but the first was my cat, Lily's, death. It came on so suddenly and unexpectedly and for seemingly no reason. It sent me and even my dad into a really scary dark place, but I came out of it realizing that life can go away in an instant, and as cliche as that it is, it's true. You don't get another chance at it.

Second, I managed to sneak out of town for a few days in August. I have a friend whom I've known since college, and her family has a place in Hilton Head. They come down from Pennsylvania every summer, and I try to meet up with them. I haven't been able to since 2019, and I almost didn't get to this year because of some work issues that plagued me all summer, but I made it. And I had fun. And I think it's the first time I've just gone and had fun and didn't feel guilty about it in a long, long time. It was a reminder that I'm allowed to do that. And on top of that, it was a reminder that there are people out there who are selfless and supportive and thoughtful and not judgmental and actually enjoy my company. I just don't have much of that in my life anymore.

And third, I had to postpone school until January (see: the work problems that plagued me all summer). That hurt more than I thought it would. I started back at UGA last June, and initially, it was a fluke. I needed something in my life that was mine and had nothing to do with taking care of anyone else, and I just woke up one morning and that seemed like a good idea. It was hard to finish the end of that initial summer semester and start the fall semester with my mom dying in the hospital, but my professors were accomodating, and I kept it up, plus I was only going part-time. By this past spring semester, and after I'd dropped nearly $10,000 on tuition, I began questioning why I was doing it at all and if it was even worth the time and money. An awkward meeting with a staff member also had me questioning what I was doing, but somehow, by the end of that spring semester, I realized it wasn't a fluke at all. I needed to be there. Not only was I learning about topics that interest me, but I was enjoying myself. I was making connections with people with common interests. It opened me up to something. Suddenly, I wanted to finish what I'd started. I even added a minor and started thinking about going for two degrees. And I was really excited about my fall classes. It would be the last semester I could do most everything online, but I was going to attempt to go full-time. The day I had to cancel that schedule was a dark one, and I swore then and there, I'd never get myself back into this situation, even though it wasn't 100% my fault.

I know it seems like I'm off on a tangent, but I do have a point, and it all goes back to my first statement about getting rid of your stuff. I've been dabbling in cleaning out my mom's stuff over the last year. She had a lot of it. She liked it. She enjoyed it. I'm glad she was able to find some pleasure in it. But those three experiences I just listed have sort of made me realize that I don't value items that much or as much as I once did. I'd much rather go on an exciting trip or take a great class or spend time with good friends or fuss over my animals or grow the most beautiful flowers. Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating selling everything you have and moving into a tiny house. I've got many items I'll never part with. But I do feel like having too much stuff can overwhelm you and hold you back in some weird way. It's definitely not a great substitute for living your life. At least, it's not for me.

Oddly, that's one of the points I made in that article I wrote about decluttering, and at the time, I thought it was a bunch of psychobabble. But I've realized that as I work on rebuilding my life, getting organized and cleaning out a lot of this stuff that was mine from another life or the many things that were once my mom's and have now become mine is going to be a huge part of that. And as time passes, the "get rid of" piles become bigger. And that's okay. At the end of my life, I won't be thinking about whether I kept that picture my mom used to have hanging on her bedroom wall. I'll be thinking about that freaky trip we took to Edisto Island or the silly card game we used to play or the time we drove to up to Lake Allatoona on a whim and bought flowers and chicken or the night we sat up singing "25 Miles" and watching Impractical Jokers while the dialysis machine malfunctioned or the good yard sales we went to or the time we drove across multiple counties to get Sadie or the time we went out and splurged on food for needy school kids... You get the idea. My only regret about all of those experiences is that we didn't get to have more of them.

And as for the loneliness, well, I think I'll always be a tad lonely in life. After all, I'm an introvert with a touch of social anxiety who just lost the one person I could always turn to no matter what. The very best person. As an only child, I probably have better coping skills for loneliness than most people, but it doesn't mean I have to succumb to it. There's a world out there waiting for me, and I'm gonna work really hard to see what it has to offer.