Saturday, 18 May 2013

Contact - Being in the Family Way

Expecting the Unexpected

     Bad things happen in life but we rarely expect them to happen to us. When they do it can have devastating effects and we can lose focus of what's important. In late 2009 my mum was involved in a road traffic accident that resulted in her suffering an acquired brain injury. Prior to the accident she was a vibrant and independent 77 year old lady who had travelled to see me in Ireland and who took regular trips abroad with her younger sister. The two of them together were tearaways. Full of fun. The accident left mum a shadow of her former self. Unable to live independently and presenting with the symptoms of a very bad dementia patient. She now relies totally on institutional care and physical assistance for every day living.

     I often find myself wondering about the fairness of this situation and having to accept that there is nothing fair about life. Things just happen. During a recent visit we were together as a family for the first time in ages and it brought home to me how important those moments are.

Strength of Character

     When someone suffers a traumatic injury such as this all kinds of things can happen. Chief amongst those is that you can have a complete change of character. For my mother this has been the case to a certain extent. She has fewer inhibitions than she previously had and shows little interest in the programmes she used to watch on the TV or the things she used to do, such as keep fit or cooking.

     Underlying all of this there are certain strengths of her caring and nurturing character that still shine through. I've always been the one son who lived away from home in another country. I was in Germany before living in Ireland and my mother always fretted about how I was doing. When I speak to her on the phone she'll still ask the same questions. Am I happy? Am I with someone? Am I settled? Do I like my work? She's delighted to see me when I visit and with all her own problems and confusion, the first words that pass her lips will always be asking about how I am.

The Gift of Contribution     

     Mum is what we would call a giver. Her main role in life has always been to give of herself to others. Her first husband died of Leukemia after a tragic accident when she was 29. This left her widowed with two small children, my elder half brothers. Then she met my father. I was born and within a very short time he became ill with Parkinson's Disease. Mum nursed my father for over 30 years as his condition steadily deteriorated.

     Finally, in 2007, three years after my father's death my mother started going on holiday with my brothers and her sister. It was time to start living the life she deserved. That's what seems the most cruel thing. She only had a couple of years of freedom before the accident that changed her own life beyond recognition.

     And yet her first concern is still her three children. We'll visit and she'll want to know we're all right. I may not see her for months at a time. When I do she'll want me to "leave at a decent time" so that I'm not too tired!

Small Pleasures and Big Rewards

     It's obviously tragic for the person to whom this kind of thing happens. But it's also hard on the people around the situation. My two brothers who are based in the UK bear the brunt of most of the burden of caring for my mum. They do it gladly. I was already living and working in Ireland when the accident happened. It didn't seem logical for me to move back to the UK. I get involved in any way I can but this is obviously limited. There were massive question marks over mum's future, in any case, and though I was prepared to live with her if that was a possible solution, the option was ruled out because of the risk she poses to herself and to others.

     So we developed this kind of code of conduct. None of us visit at the same time. And certainly no one intrudes on anyone else's precious time with mum.The thinking was that she would reap the most rewards this way. It seemed the best use of our time and the best way for mum to have more visiting.

     Recently we had a family meeting with the management at the home where my mum lives. It was the first time since the accident that one of these has coincided with one of my trips to visit mum. So for a change all three of us brothers were together in mum's home. We had our visit and the conversation turned to the last time we had been together as a family. It was with some shock that we realized that the three of us hadn't been together for almost four years. That also meant that mum hadn't seen us as a family for the same amount of time.

     We went to see her. The reaction was magical. She beamed with delight, chatted, laughed with us and seemed the happiest and most relaxed she's seemed in ages.

     To me this just shows the way we can get caught up in thinking about things from our own perspective. If we put ourselves in the shoes of someone else we can see a whole new set of needs. Judging by the way mum was so happy I think this was really what she needed more than anything. One of her biggest concerns has always been that the family bond would disintegrate if "anything happened" to her.

     Well something did happen to her. The biggest and most reassuring gift we could give her now is the loving connection and contribution as a family that she always gave us, unreservedly and totally selflessly.

     Contact with mum as her whole family once again has been one of the most positive experiences in a very long time, for her and for us. Family ties are not a burden. They are a natural necessity. I don't think there's a stronger bond in life.