Redefining Parental Roles – the Transition from Daughter to Caregiver

We’ve all met them. People who are never happy, never content with the way things are. If there’s a silver lining, they’ll find (or create!) the tiny pulled thread in a one-of-a-kind piece of fabric and bother it until it’s a mess.

My Dad is the cure for people like this. His nickname is Eeyore, but only because he’s self-deprecating to the point of silliness at times. And yet, he is one of the most positive people I’ve ever known. Even through a cancer diagnosis and the months following.

Thanksgiving 2013 was a laid-back dinner for my Mom and Dad. Mom baked a turkey breast and the fixings and Dad tried to eat it. He’d been feeling poorly all week and thought he had the flu. As the days progressed and he didn’t recover, Mom worried that it was something more.

That Friday she thought his eyes looked a little yellow, jaundiced, but Dad didn’t think so. By Sunday she was sure his skin was taking on a yellow cast. She got him in to see his doctor on Monday and within a week, following multiple scans, blood tests, specialists’ visits, etc, he was told he had pancreatic cancer. AND something else that had to be fixed immediately–his common bile duct was completely blocked.

He had a procedure to try to open up the duct but they weren’t able to do that through endoscopy. So they went in surgically and put a tube in so that the bile could drain out of his body. The next week they did it again but tucked the tube inside his body for it to drain. The week after that they went in again and put in a stint so they could remove the tube.

Each time they did one of these procedures, Dad had to stop eating for hours beforehand. He didn’t eat a lot anyway, but for these he had to fast. Every time they went in, they took biopsies.

This went on until December 22nd, the day he fell for the third time and didn’t have enough strength left to even help Mom as she tried to get him back up. My father, who in August helped me landscape around my home, who worked out three days a week at the gym, who took his puppy for 12-mile walks the week before he got sick, could barely hold his head up. He collapsed and Mom called an ambulance to take him to the hospital. The doctors told them he was dehydrated. They said he needed to stay at least overnight until they could rehydrate him. They spent Christmas Eve and then Christmas in the hospital.

On December 27th I flew down. My plan was to be there when Dad was released from the hospital so that I could help out with him while he regained his strength. I was shocked at how thin and how sick Dad was when I walked in his room. He saw me and his face lit up. He said my name and smiled so widely that it relieved my fears. He was still weak, but he seemed determined to get well. His appetite slowly returned. They were pumping him full of very strong antibiotics.

The day I flew in, my dear aunt stayed at the hospital through the night with Dad. She said Mom and I needed a good night’s sleep. After that, I started staying all night with Dad in the hospital. I didn’t want him to be alone. And I wanted to question his doctor when he came in each morning because I didn’t trust him anymore. And maybe it’s my imagination, but it seemed like they started kicking it into high gear after that. They started him on physical and occupational therapy. They prescribed him meds to bring his appetite back. And finally, on January 3, 2014, they released him to a rehab center so that he could regain his strength.

And his specialist, who told us after each biopsy that they hadn’t found the cancer yet, also said that even though he couldn’t prove it, he still felt sure that Dad had pancreatic cancer. He mentioned other things that they couldn’t explain–like immature white blood cells–but didn’t give us any other scenarios for Dad’s illness.

Mom and I were fed up but Dad liked his doctor so we kept it to ourselves. Dad stayed at the rehab center for three weeks. I had to leave a week before he’d be released but by then it was apparent to all three of us that Mom couldn’t handle Dad by herself any longer. They put the house on the market and we set a date for my return–this time to help them pack up the house and move in with me.

Dad and Mom lived with my husband, two youngest daughters, and me for three months. In that time, Dad saw numerous specialists and underwent more procedures. The difference, however, was that Dad was slowly getting stronger! His lab results improved without any treatments, he gained the weight back that he’d lost, and the tumor near his pancreas shrank so much it was difficult to find on the MRI.

In the meantime, their house sold for exactly what they’d hoped to get for it, and they found the perfect house, in the perfect town, at the perfect price. Dad says he knew it was THE home for them the moment they walked in.

Let me tell you how many miracles there have been:

1. For years, my Mom, sister, and I had tried to talk Dad into moving to our state. He was never ready to seriously entertain it enough to even list the house to see if it would sell.

After Dad was released from the hospital, we found out FROM THE PHYSICAL THERAPIST READING HIS CHART, that Dad had been SEPTIC in the hospital. Mom and I were never informed. But Dad survived even though he was weaker than he’d been since he was a small child. Dad agreed, without too much encouragement, that it was time for Mom and him to move in with me.

2. Within six weeks of the move, Mom had a stroke and was hospitalized for five days. I took care of Dad and when Mom was released I took care of her too! If they had still been living alone, I don’t think Mom would still be here with us. I doubt she would have ever left Dad to go to the hospital. As it is, I couldn’t convince her to go to the ER until the symptoms returned the second day!

3. Mom and Dad got the offer on their home and we started looking for an apartment because Dad didn’t want to commit to living here long-term. But the monthly rent was much higher than they’d imagined. So one morning Dad came into the living room and said they wanted to start looking at houses. They wanted to be in the city, but as we looked up houses in their price range, it became clear pretty quickly that what they needed in a home was too expensive in the city.

4. I mentioned to a close friend that my parents were going to look at a home in their small town and she told me that a house had just gone on the market that week. We decided to take a look and put in an offer that night. After some negotiating, a price was agreed to, and Mom and Dad had a closing date!

5. Mom, Dad, and I, with help from aunts, uncles, and cousins, packed up the house, signed the final papers on the sale, and moved 600 miles north. The owners of their new house allowed us to unload the moving truck into their now-empty house and everything else fell into place. We found out later that the owners had been telling their neighbors they were going to sell it for over 20 years. It had only been on the market 7 days when Dad and Mom bought it, and the realtor’s sign had only been up for 2 days!

6. It really is a perfect town for Mom and Dad. It’s so small that they don’t have mail delivery service so everyone has to go to the post office to pick up their mail. Dad, and his Cocker Spaniel, Buddy, walk every day to get their mail. It’s about a block away. Dad ties Buddy’s lease to a pole outside and goes inside while Buddy waits. Sometimes they walk to the convenience store about a block away from the post office. Dad does the same thing with Buddy and everyone knows whose dog he is. Mom says the only thing that would make it more perfect would be a full-size grocery store. And maybe a restaurant. Haha!

7. In the meantime, every biopsy they’ve taken from Dad has come back negative for cancer. His blood work, which used to have markers which could indicate cancer, have all returned to normal. And his new gastroenterologist now believes that Dad’s a walking miracle! He thinks that what Dad has had all along is an auto-immune disorder that attacked his pancreas (and will continue to do so until the pancreas stops working entirely). The normal treatment for auto-immune disorders like Dad’s is steroids, but Dad can’t take them because of his diabetes. Fortunately, they have pills that Dad will eventually have to take to compensate.

It’s been an adjustment for all of us, this reversal of roles. For quite a while I paid all of their bills and balanced their checkbook. Mom’s hand shook so much, a side-effect of the stroke, that she couldn’t write checks. Dad doesn’t really like that I have that much knowledge about their finances, but he also asks for my opinion before they make major financial decisions. And he takes my advice. It’s a big responsibility and one that I try to fulfill to the best of my ability.

It’s also difficult to watch your parents’ health decline. They’re both rebounding from their illnesses, and Mom can handle the checkbook again, but I’m not sure if Dad will ever fully recover. Those high-powered antibiotics they gave Dad in the hospital, hurt his kidneys substantially. They’re still functioning, but at 30% less than they were a couple of weeks before he fell ill. He’s now on insulin for his diabetes and will be for the rest of his life. Mom’s on blood thinners for the rest of hers.

But they’re here, 10 minutes away from me, and I usually see them every day. When I don’t, Dad tells me how much they’ve missed me, so I know he’s gotten used to being close-by. His memory isn’t what it used to be either. And every once in a while he says something about making the most of our time because he might have to move Mom away to someplace warmer if she can’t take the winters up here in the North. Mom and I just listen because I don’t think they’ll be going anywhere. We’re doing our best to spoil them so much they won’t ever want to leave! And I don’t think they’ll ever be strong enough to live far away again.

I know the adventure’s just begun for us. I know there will be a time when I’ll have to say goodbye to these two people who’ve shaped my life with their love. Knowing this makes me treasure our time together even more. I’m thankful that I can see my parents more than twice a year now. I’m glad to go with them to their doctor appointments and help with their finances.

I thank God for the gift of time. With them. Right now.

There are Times when it’s Hard to be Optimistic

I’ll be honest.  I’m not always cheerful, content, happy, peaceful or thankful.  I’m usually optimistic, but sometimes that feels impossible.  There are sounds and pictures locked in my brain that sometimes sneak in and haunt my dreams.

For example, if you’ve ever held your child down while doctors or nurses administer their immunizations or have to start an IV, then you will understand that those cries of pain have been seared into my very molecules and I cringe when I remember them.

Or when I’ve looked into my older children’s eyes and see pain reflected there–emotional pain from break-ups or betrayals–and know that all I can do is listen and sympathize/empathize with them.  That there are no band-aids to cover this kind of pain and make it better.

But the day my optimism took the biggest hit occurred in 1996 when I gave birth to a full-term stillborn baby boy.  He was physically perfect: 7 lbs exactly, 21 1/2 inches long.  No flaws, nothing to suggest a problem except for his gray color and dark red lips.  It was an umbilical cord accident–he had a “true knot” in the cord which had pulled tight earlier in the day and cut off his oxygen supply.  I’d only realized something was wrong when he stopped moving for over an hour and by then it was too late.  If the cord had tightened while I was in labor his heart rate would have dropped and he would have been delivered by emergency c-section and probably still be alive today.  How can anyone be an optimist in a situation like that?

At the time, I couldn’t.  I’d never experienced emotional pain like that before.  I was amazed every day when I woke up that I was still alive.  Our bodies can withstand an awful lot and keep going.  The part of my brain involved in keeping my body alive seemed to be unaffected by the part of my brain that was grieving.  Or maybe it was affected, but kept doing what it was supposed to do anyway.

Every evening, as the sun began to set, I would sigh with relief that another day was over.  I had gotten through it somehow.  Twilight became my favorite time of day.  I could quit pretending that I was okay.  I could put the kids to bed and let the tears flow freely.  But the middle of the night was the worst part.  I would awaken at regular times through the night, almost as if my body knew it was supposed to be feeding a baby.  And I would feel so horribly alone; my arms so painfully empty.

If you don’t know me well, you don’t know that my favorite season of the year is spring.  It has been for as long as I can remember.  But Stephen’s death was in April and for the next five years I couldn’t appreciate spring.  I dreaded it instead.  It brought another anniversary marking another year of living without a part of my heart.

What got me through it?  My husband was my rock.  He listened to my rantings and held me when I cried.  And, most importantly, he didn’t let me keep quiet about my anger at God.

I was very angry at Him.  I felt like He was the only one who could have changed the outcome.  When Jay made me express my outrage, it was the beginning of the healing.  My mom helped too, by asking me gentle questions about my faith and getting me to think through the implications.  Could I still trust God?  Did I still believe that everything He put me through was going to ultimately work out for my good?  Why did He take my son?

Every week, in church, we prayed the Lord’s Prayer.  Now the words “Thy will be done” took on extra significance.  Was it His will that Stephen died?  I found out, through the many sympathy cards I received and conversations I overheard, that Christian people have differing views on this.  Some believe that God had nothing to do with Stephen’s death.  That He was just as surprised as we were when he died.

Believe it or not, that made me even madder.  Where should I direct my anger if God didn’t have anything to do with my son’s death?  Does what happens here on earth matter to Him?  Or is it insignificant–our lives.  No, I couldn’t accept that.  I believe we matter so much that He sent His Son to save us.

Which left me with the fact that God knew what was happening and He still let it happen–or made it happen–depending on what you believe about predestination.  Either way, Stephen was dead.  And I had to deal with that.

I could go on and on about my struggles during this time and for the 15 years since then.  But I don’t want to lose anyone who’s trudged through this post until now.  I’ll cut to the chase.  For me it came down to a battle of the wills.  I wanted things my way.  God said no.  And now, this might sound really stupid since my decision wasn’t going to change the outcome in any way, but I had to decide whether or not to submit my will to His.  To accept that His decision was the right one and trust that His reasons would make sense to me sometime (probably in Heaven) or deny Him and walk away from the faith entirely.

Truthfully, there were days when I thought I was going to chose the second option.  I was that angry.  I kept going to church though.  And one day we were singing a hymn, “Jesus Shall Reign,” with a verse that said “Infant voices praise His name” and I broke down.  Why wouldn’t God want infants in heaven?  They are the purest of us, aren’t they?  That made sense.

But when I got to that line in the Lord’s Prayer I stopped.  Was I going to accept God’s will even if that meant He chose to take my son?  Yes, I still believed that He had a purpose to everything He did and does.  I still do.  And, incredibly, accepting it brought peace.  And hope.

I believe God has Stephen with Him.  And I believe someday I’ll see him again and get to hold him in my arms.  The answer was tied up in faith and trust and acceptance.  I had to let go of the anger and believe that what the scriptures say is true.

1.  He didn’t give me more than I could handle because He gave me the grace to get through it.

2.  He knit Stephen together in my womb for His glory.  He shared Stephen with me for those nine months and I will be eternally grateful.

3.  Christian’s don’t grieve without hope.  When it comes to death, we are cock-eyed optimists, knowing that things aren’t what they seem.  Our loved ones are still alive, in a spiritual dimension that we can’t see and experience until we get there.

4.  He works out all things for our good and for His glory.  I am changed since Stephen’s death.  But I’m changed for the better.  I have a new capacity for compassion that I’ve never had before.  I have a desire to help others who have experienced/are experiencing the aftermath of a stillbirth or infant death.  And I have more patience for those who are suffering through the torment of questioning their faith.  I pray they will come through it with a stronger faith, as I have.

For who better understands the pain of losing a son, than the Father God who gave up His only begotten son for me.  For us.

This is a part of my story.  It’s my story and may be completely different than yours.  That’s okay.

I’m not really sure why I’m sharing this with everyone.  I keep re-reading it and not pushing the publish button.  I’m afraid to open up like this.  Afraid I’ll be criticized or dismissed or considered one of those “religious nuts.”

But maybe my story will encourage others to become cock-eyed optimists along with me.  So I thank you for reading.  I hope you feel you know me just a little more.  And please feel free to comment, but be kind.

Summer Squash/Zucchini/Whatever-You-Have-Available Skillet

One of my favorite dishes every summer is this veggie one.  I always start with extra-virgin olive oil and chopped onions or shallots or leeks (whatever you have on hand).  If you like green peppers, throw those in, too.  Saute the onions in the olive oil until they’re tender.  I’m using a 10-inch pan (with lid for later).Add sliced zucchini and summer squash.

Saute until tender. You can add mushrooms or anything else you enjoy.  Add a shake or two of salt and pepper if desired.

At this point, I love to add a layer of sliced fresh-from-the-garden tomatoes (but they won’t be ripe until next week so I’m doing without them here).  Next, add a layer of shredded mozzarella cheese (or sliced if you’re using fresh mozzarella).

Turn the burner off, place the lid on the pan and let it sit for a few minutes until the cheese is melted.  It’ll look something like this:

This is a very versatile recipe for your summer veggies.  Simple, quick, and delicious.

Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer

A week ago my daughter, Valerie, and her two girls, Natalie and Isabel, came out to Grammy’s house for a swim.  Valerie, Jillian, Julie, Natalie and Isabel all got in pretty quick.  I took longer.  Even though the day was just a tish on the warm side (upper 80’s) the water was cool so it takes me awhile to adjust.  I finally climbed in and immediately started walking around the pool doing some clean-up.  Leaves always fall in and bugs drown so I get my net and clear out all of the debris that finds its way in.

Natalie wasn’t content with this.  “Come on, Grammy!  Sit down,” she said often and with emphasis.

I walked around for 20 minutes or so, acclimating to the water and trying to keep from getting splashed.  I finally put my net away and sank into the cool water.  Jillian had gotten out before this and was sitting on a towel nearby.  Natalie and Isabel found a new plaything–me.  We had a blast as you can see from the pictures.

As the summer winds down we’ll do our best to enjoy every day.  And Nat King Cole’s song–about one of my favorite seasons–echoes through my mind.  =)

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Amy’s Corn Salsa

Feel like something a little different with your tortilla chips?  This salsa is delicious!  Here are all the ingredients you will need (minus the salt and pepper).  And, for those of you who are new to cooking, here’s a picture showing how you dice tomatoes–cut them into slices, then into smaller pieces.
The black utensil on the left is a Pampered Chef corer which also makes melon balls with the other end.  It’s excellent for coring tomatoes and strawberries.  (Can you tell I used to sell Pampered Chef products? The cutting board, tomato knife and towel are also Pampered Chef.)  =)
6 Roma tomatoes, diced
1 can of chopped olives
1 large can of chopped green chilies
1 can of whole kernel corn, drained
2 or 3 green onions, thinly sliced (can use chopped onions if preferred)
Chopped cilantro to taste (I use my kitchen shears and snip it into small pieces instead of chopping it with a knife, but you can do whatever you want.)
A cup of shredded Colby Jack or cheddar cheese
A can of black beans, drained and rinsed (rinse the beans until the water runs clear)
½ cup of Italian dressing (any brand you like)
1 t. of garlic salt
Salt and pepper to taste (remember, you’ve already got some salt from the garlic salt, so err on the side of too little and adjust as necessary when you taste it.)
¼ t. of cumin
Mix together and serve with tortilla chips for dipping.  (Note: I’ve even used Taco Doritos, which were surprisingly good.)  Makes several cups depending on the size of the Roma tomatoes.  Here’s what it will look like when you’re done.  It will store nicely in the refrigerator for a few days.

Myrna’s Grape Salad

This is an easy but delicious recipe that my mother-in-law shared with me.  It is perfect for those hot summer days.

Here is a picture of all the ingredients you’ll need (the white teapot is actually a PartyLite wax warmer and is NOT necessary for a great Grape Salad, but it sure looks pretty and smells great!).

Mix together:

  • 8 oz. cream cheese
  • 8 oz. sour cream
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans

This is what the above ingredients will look like when they’re mixed together:

Gently stir in:

  • 4 cups green grapes
  • 5 cups red grapes

Refrigerate.  Stores well for several days if refrigerated promptly.

Here’s what it will look like after you’ve mixed it all together:


A Day with Good Friends at Valhalla Resort

Jay, Jillian, Julie and I were invited to spend the day with our good friends Brian and Janna Nelson at Valhalla Resort on Island Lake yesterday.  The girls waited just long enough to get sunscreen on before they were swimming in the beautiful lake with the Nelson boys: DeForrest, Simon and Connor.  Brian took Jay and I around the lake in his boat while Janna hung around with the swimming kids.  He pointed out a Bald Eagle’s nest, the other resorts on the lake (there are also many private homes) that are on one side and the protected, wild land on the other side, and many other interesting sights.

The high temperature was around 80 degrees.  It was sunny with fair winds, perfect.

Janna and I took a short ride around the cabin area in the paddle boat.  Great exercise.

After eating grilled hamburgers and hotdogs, three-bean salad, grape salad, broccoli salad, chips, and s’mores we watched the almost-full moon begin to set over the lake.  Absolutely gorgeous.

Four Hershbergers unaminously agreed that it was a lovely time of relaxing and enjoying the company of our friends.  Memories were made yesterday.  We are truly blessed to have the Nelson family in our lives.

A year ago, if someone had said that my girls would enjoy hanging out with a family of only boys, I would have been skeptical.  But in the past year our families have spent more time together and I think the kids enjoy it at least as much as the adults do!

Skepticism erased.  I’m just a cock-eyed optimist again!

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