Rebecca Hamilton is a former pro-abortion activist and leader. As the Oklahoma Director of NARAL, she helped establish the first abortion clinic in Oklahoma, and she continued her activism after being elected to the Oklahoma House of Representatives. After experiencing a profound conversion to Christ, voters returned her to office as a pro-life Democrat and she spent twelve years defending life and families in the Oklahoma Legislature. Rebecca left her political career in 2014, and along with the National Catholic Register, she writes at Patheos on her blog Public Catholic.
Cancer is about more than the person who has cancer.
It’s also about the family and friends who gather around to support you through this illness, who walk with you and take care of you and, sometimes, hold your hand as you say that final good-bye. Cancer takes a toll on everyone. The unsung heroes of cancer are those the caretakers.
There is nothing easy about having a wife, husband, mother, father, son, daughter or friend with cancer. Not only are you stuck with taking care of them and adding the chores they did before they got sick to your already full list, you’ve got to face your own grief, fears of mortality and lostness; and you have to do it without the attention and support that is given to them.
Cancer is a tough bogie for everyone, not just the person who has the disease.
In my family, cancer was massively complicated by the fact that we were also caring for a 90-year-old two-year-old. My Mama, my sweet, wonderful Mama, had and has no idea that I was ever sick. She cruised through the early months of the diagnosis and treatment without picking up a thing, even though it was happening right in front of her.
In fact, she was sitting beside me in the car when the doc told me the pathology reports showed cancer. I had just picked her up from adult day care and was heading home when he called. I don’t know if it was a gray day, but I remember it that way. The doc and I talked back and forth on the speaker while she sat beside me and nattered on about the birds on top of the signal lights and the bright colors on the cars driving down the road beside us.
Not one word of it went into her addled brain, and for that I am profoundly grateful. One of the very real blessings of her dementia is that she did not have to suffer through what would have been the horrible knowledge that her baby had cancer. If she had known and understood her grief and worry would have been terrible. As it was, she never knew a thing.
That was the good part. The not-so-good part of caring for a 90-year-old baby with dementia was that she also gave no quarter to the burdens the rest of the family faced.
She was still up all night, every night, getting into things and needing constant attention. She still required constant supervision. She still could not be left alone, not even for a moment, without going into a panic. She still never let up in her demands for attention.
Caring for a 90-year-old two-year-old is a lot harder than caring for a two-year-old two-year-old. I’ve done both, and there’s no comparison.
I began the cancer journey with the resolution that, even if it cost me my life, I would not put my Mama in a nursing home. I simply, as I put it, would not trade my life for hers.
What I didn’t reckon with when I made that decision was that there was more than my life on the line. My adult children and their spouses ended up shouldering much of Mama care load. That might have been workable except for one thing: Mama is not portable.
We couldn’t move her from house to house, letting people take turns with her. We tried that, and the resulting mental meltdown from Mama was horrible to behold. She came completely undone and verged on being unmanageable.
It became apparent that Mama needs sameness and unchanging routine. She needs rock-solid stability and calm.
So, we took the idea of moving her off the board and tried having the kids move in when I went for treatment and take care of her at my house. That lasted a few weeks before things started to melt down.
When it began to cause family problems for my kids, I knew it was time to stop doing this. I won’t sacrifice my kids.
So, I tried to do it all myself while being sick. That was very difficult. But I persisted, day after day until I reached the point where I knew I was going to be totally down and out for a period of weeks.
By “totally down and out,” I mean flat on my back, couldn’t even pick up my purse, drive the car, take a shower, or play the piano. I mean too sick to read a book; too sick to take care of Mama.
Not, mind you, “won’t” take care of Mama.
As in, it’s not possible.
I had reached an impasse that was as hard and unyielding as cancer.
There was no one to help with Mama except my kids and husband and my kids have full-time jobs, and families of their own. My husband also had a full-time job and was doing hard duty caring for me.
I toyed with the idea of asking my girlfriends to help me, but, when one friend told me straight out, “Becky, that’s asking too much,” I ash canned that idea. I was out of options.
I toured nursing homes and finally worked out an arrangement with one where Mama could stay there for about three months. We had her continue at her adult day care during the day to give her continuity.
Since I was going to be far too sick to visit her and this would go on for long periods of time, we decided to tell her I was away on vacation. I hated lying to her like that, but the truth would have caused her great pain. Besides, she wouldn’t remember it for five minutes anyway.
So, the whole family took her over there one night and set up her room. Then, we agreed that my sons would visit her while I was unable to. Mama settled in nicely. When we left, she was asking the aide to bring her some ice cream.
And I went home and cried myself to sleep.
I felt like a failure as a daughter.
I felt like a liar who hadn’t kept her word.
I felt like I’d left my baby at the bus station.
In all the cancer things I’ve dealt with and continue to deal with, this was the hardest by far.
I woke up the next day and told myself to stop crying. This was what I had to do if I wanted to live, and Mama, if she had understood the situation would have said, Do it. I went to visit every day while I could, and my oldest son did his share of visiting, too.
What happened next took all of us by surprise.
Mama settled into her new environs and — get ready for this now — liked it there. As she told me when I took her out for a drive a few days ago, “It’s nice there.”
After a couple of months, we ended the adult day care and she began participating in the activities at the nursing home. Many times, I’ve gone to get her and take her out to eat or what not, and she’s told me to come back later because she’s (a) watching a movie with popcorn with her friends, (b) playing Bingo and winning, or (c) going to get her nails done in a few minutes.
She can walk all she wants in the nursing home. She drove me nuts walking around in circles inside my house at all hours of the day and night, they just smile and let her roll. When she gets up at night, it’s no bother. The night shift is up anyway.
She eats with her girlfriends in the cafeteria and gambols about visiting them during the evenings after her hard day of activities, which she refers to as “my job.” She has a social worker who comes and chats weekly and a beauty shop where she gets her hair done and a weekly manicure. There’s Bingo, arts and crafts, movies, Bible study and congregate meals.
I am amazed and happy at this turn of events. I prayed and prayed before I did this and I think my prayers have been answered.
I still feel like a bad daughter. I get sick so often with various little bugs, and I have to miss going to see her whenever that happens. I know that my immune system took a hit these past months and that it will be back. In the meantime, I just have to plough through the various illnesses that jump on and knock me flat until it does.
I feel guilty any day I miss going to see Mama. Although, I admit, she’s often too busy to bother with me. I’ve gone to see her a lot of times and found that I was an unwanted intrusion in the busy life she’s got going at what she calls “my place.”
Cancer is a tough bogie. It forces all sorts of things on you that you don’t want. But, God has a way of working things out, even when you least expect them to.
I ultimately decided to leave Mama where she is because she’s happier there than she was at home with me. I spend a lot of time with her. I visit her all the time. I also take her out of the nursing home for drives, to eat out, and for family celebrations and meals. She was home with us for both Thanksgiving and Christmas.
This isn’t the way I wanted to do it. But, it seems to be working out really well.