25 Weeks of Rediscover: Chapter 5 – Give and Take

Posted February 9, 2015 by jimhigley

My mom - enjoying a rare quiet moment in her kitchen!

My mom – enjoying a rare quiet moment in her kitchen!

(This is the sixth week of a six-month journey of self-discovery. Thanks for joining me. Today we begin with Chapter 5 from my book, “Bobblehead Dad: 25 Lessons I Forgot I Knew.”  I hope you’ll come back tomorrow for some background on this chapter as well a few thought questions for you to think about. Later this week, I’ll share a new story focusing on this week’s lesson. 

Chapter 5

Give and Take

It’s interesting to me that my mom, who had the most wonderful gift of gab, was given few opportunities to speak during the final eight days of her life. Perhaps that is what makes her last words so poignant.

My mom was moved to a hospital in Omaha the day after she was taken away from our house in an ambulance the night of March 10, 1975. Having her in Omaha, which was about thirty miles away, gave us hope.

It gave us hope that some magical team of doctors who we had never met before would take care of her, fix whatever was wrong, and send us all back to the world we used to live in.

My four brothers, Dad, and I spent the last eight days of my mother’s life in a dimly lit, brown-toned waiting area off a wide, sterile hallway in the intensive care unit. While I don’t know much about camping, I think there must be some sort of similarity in the bonding that takes place among total strangers in a hospital waiting room—especially in the ICU—and a campsite. My family had a particular corner of the waiting room we took over day after day. Other families followed the same routine, each staking out their own area. As new families joined us, we all embraced them with a compassionate understanding of what they were going through. Most families stayed a day or two and then disappeared from our lives because their loved one had improved. Some families, however, were more like ours; their story was complicated. I learned over time that when one of those families moved to a special inner waiting room—basically a smaller room off of the large waiting room—their loved one was close to death.

It was a room I never wanted to be sent to.

During those eight days, our routine was identical. We were allowed to be with my mom—usually two of us at a time—for ten minutes every hour. My dad would decide which of my brothers would join him for each of those visits. I refer to them as “visits,” but actually they were nothing close to that. My mom slipped into a semi-coma early on so our time with her was spent holding her hand, stroking her arm, or brushing her hair while we talked about who had visited that day, what the weather was like, or how beautiful the newest bouquet of flowers was. How much she was aware of I will never know. What I do know, however, is that it was the only time I can recall my mom relinquishing her nurturing role in our family. For once, we were taking care of her.

At times she would open her eyes and stare into the void of her room. A few other times she actually “woke up” and was able to speak a word or two, share a grin, or pucker her lips to blow us a kiss. But those moments were rare.

One of those moments, however, was with and for me.

I was in my mom’s room with my dad. She had not been alert for over a day. For about fifteen seconds, though, she forced opened her eyes and shared with me the last words I ever heard her speak.

“I’m sorry,” she said as I gripped her hand tighter.

“I’m sorry I can’t take care of you anymore.”

For me, that was the end.

Within a few days, our family found that our time had come to be in the small, inner room off the main waiting room.

We stayed there until she died.

With her death, while Dad took over the dual parenting roles, my brothers and I tried to pitch in and fill the many voids left by our mother.

I assumed several of the “around-the-house mom” jobs in our family even though I was only fourteen. I was probably the one best trained—at the time—to tackle some of those jobs because I knew so many of the tiny details my mom had quietly taken care of for all of us.

So, while my dad dealt with all of the heavy lifting that came with the loss of a parent, I was able to provide some of the small continuity in our family, our home, and our world that made the absence of our mom a little less painful.

I was good at cleaning. Or organizing a closet. I rallied everyone to decorate the house at Christmas. I took care of some of the random things my mom was in charge of like planting the gardens. I was good at keeping tabs on everyone and felt the responsibility for fixing things when there were problems.

I became a caregiver. And I remained one ad infinitum.


While Karens promise of an awaiting gift put me in the right frame of mind for my entire cancer journey, it was my close friend Chris who helped put something else into perspective in what turned out to be the second most meaningful conversation I had shortly after learning I had cancer.

“Listen to me, Jim,” he said to me over the telephone after I called him to tell him what was going on. “This is your turn to let other people take care of you. And I think you’ll stink at doing that. You’ve got to let us—the people who love you—give something back to you.”

I couldn’t find the words to reply. At first I felt as though Chris was stripping me of my role in life.

“Chris,” I said after a long pause, “I . . . I don’t . . . I don’t know.”

I knew how much Chris cared for me. But I could tell from the tone of his voice that he wanted to make sure I was listening to him. He was offering me something very tangible, but I wasn’t quite getting it.

“Then you just defined my job, Jim. I’ll make sure you find out what it’s like to be taken care of. I’m going to ride you and make sure you experience what it’s like to be taken care of.”

His words were finally sinking in. I felt as though Chris had somehow flipped on an old movie reel that started playing scenes from my life in my head. With each passing scene, I began to understand the recurring role I played in so many relationships.

For the more than thirty years since my mom had died, I was a “go-to” guy. I was the fixer. The rock. I could steady any ship.

The problem with being that guy is you eventually believe you really are as strong as you try to appear. Then you begin to thrive on being viewed as that person. But the reality is everyone has limits—and I had long surpassed mine.

So I learned to bobble to compensate. It was the only way I knew how to keep the illusion in motion.

I have known Chris for twenty-plus years. We met as young men, fresh out of college, living in Chicago. He was a squeaky clean stockbroker and I had just started my job with a real estate development firm. We were introduced by a mutual friend and eventually started hanging out together through a volunteer group we both became involved with. Our friendship was solidified the day we met. Chris and I are very similar. Frightfully similar. He’s the first person I would call in a crisis. And he’s the only person I would call to share my excitement about a new way to better organize and store Christmas decorations.

Need I say more?

Chris is also a caregiver. A doer. An organizer. A solver. A fixer. A believer. And he’s one of the few people who could tell me point-blank what was in my best interest and have the impact he did.

He was right. It was time for me to take a break from the bobbling. I had some healing to do.

Chris was inviting me to a place I hadn’t been to in a long time. I was not only ready to go back.

I needed to.

Lesson 5: The best caregivers have received the best care.

Want more?  Read last week’s posts including Chapter 4, and some thoughts on Tuning In and Tuning Out. And come back tomorrow for thought questions about today’s post.