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summer of gratitude

summer of gratitude, blog post by Andrea Hurley

by Andrea | July 28, 2014

This writing is an excerpt I wrote for a forthcoming book to be released this fall (2014) by Mary Beth Sammons. Upon discovering WhenTheTableTurns.com, Mary Beth asked Judy and me to each write a chapter for her book. This is what I wrote. It is longer than my usual essays, but I hope you will read to the end. In this story I was finally able to articulate an extremely difficult experience, which took place on July 28, 2011, exactly three years ago today. This experience has been woven into a core value of my life, transforming and informing how I relate to the care of our elderly.

Gratitude plays a central role in my life. It plays a particular role in caring for my elderly mother, as well as in what I write here, in “When the Table Turns.” As my mother became older and more vulnerable and dependent, I noticed something surprising in the experience of caring for her. I noticed that my heart was full, content, and pouring with gratitude a lot of the time. This was not something that I willed or made effort to experience. It was just there, as part of the caregiving experience. And it was surprising because I didn’t expect it. I didn’t expect it because our culture does not focus on this dimension of caregiving. So much of the narrative around caring for our elderly is geared toward stories of burden, stress, and frustration. Basically negatives. Those experiences are of course real and I would never pretend otherwise, but I stumbled upon a deeper source of strength as well. It was a quiet place inside, that was free of problem, burden and frustration. I started to pay attention to this dimension of my experience as I cared for my elderly mother, and began to notice that at the heart of this quiet place was gratitude. As I paid attention to it, it seemed to grow of its own accord, filling me with a strength I didn’t know I had.

My mother was close to 90 years old in 2007 when my siblings and I began to wake up to noticeable changes in her. She was living alone, not eating so well, taking a few too many drinks, and her memory was slipping. Her personality was getting more rigid, and our conversations were more like a broken record. I felt my mother needed more from her kids, more time with us. She needed more engagement. She needed a big huge dose of love, regularly infused into her life. But at that time most of us had full time jobs, lots of responsibilities, with kids and grandkids of our own. Our full lives did not make it possible to be with my mother 24/7. We did what we could, and even more than what we could, to keep her from slipping further away.

Then came the summer of 2011, which was the most trying summer of my life on one hand, and on the other, it was the summer of gratitude.

My mother was 93 years old. She was making her annual migration to the Adirondack’s in New York to spend her summer on a lake in our big, old, friendly family cottage of over 60 years. It is a charming cottage, with 5 bedrooms, requiring an ascent up 14 very steep stairs to go to bed at night. My mother spent all her summers there since the early1950s (along with my dad when he was alive). And so this year, just like every other year, she packed her small suitcase, and asked if someone could drive her there from her home in Massachusetts. (This was the first summer since she had given up driving.) Lovingly and willingly, one of my sisters jumped at the opportunity to take her. I, on the other hand, panicked. “No! She can’t be alone! We didn’t find anyone to take care of her yet! This is all happening too fast! The stairs!” But it was too late—off she went to the lake.

Long story short, in those panic stricken moments, I thought hard and deep, searching for who could help my mother. And then, in an unexpected moment I looked at my life and saw that I could do it. I could leave home for the summer, pack up my office, work from her cottage, and take care of her. And within 3 days I was driving to the Adirondack’s, with my files and my computer and a surprising degree of calm in my heart. That was the beginning of a flowering of gratitude that took me by surprise.

Fast forward to July 28, 10pm. I had been watching my mother like a hawk for the past month, as she hiked up those 14 stairs to her bedroom at night. I would always stay close at hand. And for the whole month, she did remarkably well. I said to one of my siblings just that day, "mom is doing great on the stairs, she really is so careful." So when evening came and she said she was going off to bed, I relaxed my hawk eyes and let her go on her own. "I’ll just check my email mom, and will be up to kiss you good night in a couple minutes." Two minutes later the nightmare happened. The tumble. The scream. It seemed to last forever. By the time I reached her, she was almost at the bottom step. 93 years old. 14 stairs. Oh my god, could she survive this?

Enter terror. Enter grace. My mother, with her head pouring blood, could still speak to me. She only wanted to go back up the stairs to bed. A neighbor was walking by outside the  house. I yelled for their help. Within 3 minutes there must have been 15 or 20 people in the house, several first responders. Calling the ambulance. Calling the rest of my siblings. I stayed locked onto my my mothers frightened eyes. All I could see was the flickering of the life force—it could go either way. And through the ambulance ride, 1 hour to the hospital, all she kept saying was "Andrea, where are you?" And I would say, "Right here mom. I’m right here." Into the ER, hours of waiting for tests and then results. Ten staples in her head. The doctors, like angels, didn’t bat an eye at that. Her neck still in a brace. Her body still strapped till the results from the cat scan. 

It wasn’t that I was meaning to pray, but it felt like the universe was praying through me. Not moving, it was as though I could hear every good intention of everyone who knew my mother. Praying. What will be will be. But if my mother broke her hip or her neck, the quality of her final years (or less) would be profoundly changed. And I knew I would have to live with this, with the knowledge that my family entrusted me with taking care of my mother, and in one moment of not looking, everything changed.

In the ER, I held her hand, poured comforting words into her heart, and waited. Waited till after 5am when the doctor came in with the report. Braced, I listened as his words entered the space, reached into my heart and released me from the evening’s nightmare. "I have no idea how this was possible. I have never seen a 93 year old make such a tumble and not break a bone—but there is no evidence of fracture in any of the scans. Your mother must have an angel looking over her." A silent gratitude filled the room. I looked at my mother, knowing she passed through the eye of a needle. I knew this was a miracle. Maybe my dad, gone now almost 40 years, played a hand in a spiritual way we can’t really know with the mind, but can intuit in our hearts. Whatever is true, along with the doctors, EMTs, and emergency responders, I give him my thanks for that mysterious unknown factor that not only saved my mother's life that night, but spared her of breaking a single bone.

And the rest of the story is about gratitude. A gratitude that filled every cell of my being that night, and gave me a strength I ever knew possible. I took care of my mother for the rest of the summer, tended her as she recuperated and regained her strength. We lived in a state of gratitude. Many times a day she would say, "Andrea what would I do with out you?" Her gratitude filled my gratitude. My gratitude filled hers. And out of this gratitude came so much lightness of being, so much joy, and so much understanding. It was as if this gratitude had a life of it’s own, greeting the day through the morning rays of light, in the sounds of the ripples of the lake, in the music of the wind as it danced through the quaking leaves of the majestic poplar trees, or in the ephemeral appearance of the double rainbow arching over my mothers cottage a few weeks later.

Gratitude, I came to see, is the deepest essence of life itself. It is everywhere, all the time. And when you see this, your life is never the same again. So that is the story of the gratitude that changed my life, saved my mother’s life, and is the source, energy and commitment from where I engage with my mother, now 96 years old, and from where I write for “When the Table Turns.”

my mother and me

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