The Hardest Journey Home: Caring for Ailing Family
My grandmother had a stroke the evening before I flew down to Florida to spend a quick visit with her. Since then my quick visit has turned into 13 days and counting. I have played the role of caretaker, steadying my arm and my heart in order to help her and her husband, Carter.
My grandmother, an 87-year-old rock star who still steals cigarette breaks on the side balcony overlooking the bay in Clearwater, Florida. She does pretty well for herself despite suffering from two strokes in the past 10 months. She still loves her white wine with ice. She still walks around refusing a cane, and she still cooks up a mean meal.
Carter was aide-de-camp to President Johnson. At 94, he suffers from Parkinson’s — such a cruel disease that I find myself having a hard time describing just how cruel. I’ve been called the “doc” and “stalker” all in one sentence because I hover over him in fear he will fall when he tries to move his unwilling legs.
Last night I sat on the edge of the couch with him, after placing a glass of water into his hands. Slowly and with great determination, he lifted the glass to his mouth. A great amount of effort. The kind of effort you see babies exerting during their first days of standing. He drank so slowly and for so long that he fogged the glass from the inside out.
“I’m sorry I am so slow.” He elongated the word “slow.”
“I’m not going anywhere Carter. We have all the time in the world.”
I returned his sad smile with one that was warm, then touched his calloused hand and gave it a squeeze. We nodded in understanding that these moments were both tender and heartbreaking. Every evening as he shifts from the living room chair to his bed he murmurs, “What a life. What a life.”
Traveling has taught me patience. Kindness. There is no other place I want or need to be but here in the present moment. It makes no difference if I am kayaking in Abel Tasman or hiking the Kalalau Trail on Kauai. On the back of a motorcycle with a camera in hand in Borneo or deep in meditation with Tibetan monks in Nepal, asking at a cab driver to slow the hell down on a windy road in Indonesia or sitting on the edge of a chair waiting patiently for Carter to move when he will.
Being here is enough. At the pace of a snail, it’s life’s gift.
While my Aunt Kim was still in town, one early evening we both walked through the kitchen door at the same time and watched curiously as Carter bent down to place a blue bucket on the floor in front of the freezer’s ice machine.
“Whatcha doing Carter? Do you need any help?” I tried not to laugh but found the image to be hysterical.
“The ice machine is broken.” He said, quite upset.
Indeed, it was jammed and all you could hear was the gurgling noise as ice cubes stacked themselves behind the plastic walls of the freezer. When Carter arranged the bucket on the floor just the way he liked — just in case the ice got unjammed and launched itself across the kitchen — I laughed and said, “OK. Are you ready?”
“Ready for what?” He slowly mustered. His eyes widening. Hopeful and eager for something miraculous to happen.
“To see if we can get this ice unstuck. To see if the ice will actually make it that far across the kitchen. To see if the impossible will become possible.”
Too tired to respond, he kept his eyes wide, smiled and nodded. I pressed the button — nothing. I stuck my hand in from behind to try and push it out — nothing. I tried again — nothing. And then, just when we’d all given up hope, when ideas of flipping through the phone book to call for service appeared in my head, the ice started shooting out of the machine. Across the kitchen floor. Landing perfectly in that blue bucket. We all stared in shock, and then laughter quickly filled the spaces between our frustration, sadness, pain, heartache, and above all, love.
Traveling has taught me to expect the unexpected. That humor can be found in everything. To believe in magic. To have hope. To offer assistance. To laugh in the mist of sadness and frustration. To bring laughter to others.
While I miss the road and the constant unexpected thrill that it offers, there’s no doubt this same kind of unexpected living is here in this house. It is just a bit quieter. Not as loud and in your face. But still here.
Traveling has taught me this: To live simply. To slow down. To be kind. To bring a little joy and comfort into the lives of those who struggle so much. It has taught me that while I think I put my life on ‘hold’ when I travel, or when I stop to care for my grandparents, it is in these moments that life chooses to show itself in the most beautiful light.
The other day I discovered the music of Kishi Bashi while I took a break from being slow and ran fast through Clearwater back roads of palm trees and old homes from the early 1930s. It made me smile, cry, laugh. It stirred emotions of gratitude, excitement, fear, sadness, joy, hope. Sometimes words can’t explain what the heart can only feel. This is that kind of music. This is the life of a traveler.