Caregiving

Today, I let my mother climb a ladder

15 March 2013

Today, I let my mother climb a ladder. It was one of the greatest achievements of my day.

She had asked me yesterday if, the next time I watered the plants, I would mind adjusting a loose strand of leaves from a pathos ivy nestled in the hollow area above the kitchen cabinets. It was a gentle request, but it was also a way of subtly reminding me to water the plants. I made a mental note but it was more like a note you scribble on a brightly colored sticky sheet and then lose in the next moment. I completely forgot about it in light of the work deadlines I was facing.

Until I saw her on the ladder.

I took over plant-watering duty just over two years ago when I moved in to help with my mom’s care. She had just suffered a second stroke and the doctors did not give her much chance to live. My mother has been a lifelong fan of plants — and, fortunately for her, has the requisite green thumb to go with that passion. Our house has never lacked in the area of pathos ivys, palms, philodendrons, bromeliads and various other combinations of healthy, growing plants.

My mother’s method of plant care is quite different from my own. My attention is usually attracted to the plants when I see something abnormal, like a yellowing or browning leaf. I’ll think, “Wow, how long has it been since I watered those plants? Two weeks? Three?” Then I reluctantly drag the step stool from the closet and grab the oversized plastic measuring cup and step up on the counters to reach the plants high above the kitchen cupboards and on top of bookshelves and china cabinets.

The smell of wet earth and plant mold fills my nostrils as I watch the water slowly infiltrate the earth and rise again, sometimes dangerously high, in the saucer beneath the pot. I pluck off decaying leaves and sometimes am a little too hasty in trimming (what I think are) dead strands. When I finish with them, the luscious locks of the pathos ivies look like they’ve been sheered by a very bad hairdresser — a little like the trim I gave my younger sister back when we were both kids, much to my mother’s horror.

On the other hand, my mother “tends” to her plants. She names them, talks to them, nourishes and grooms them — treats them almost like pets. They thrive under her care.

Are the plants mad at me? I’ve wondered that so many times. Do they know I’m not her and I really don’t care about them and that’s why they always seem to be pouting at me?

So today I caught her balanced precariously on a ladder. Well, it was only a two-tiered stepping stool but it might as well have been a fireman’s ladder stretching to the sky. She was reaching high above the fridge trying to restore to its original home a cascading strand of glossy pathos ivy leaves.

My first instinct was to jump up and scold her: “Mother, how many times have I told you not to get up on stools?” Fear is always my first emotion when it comes to my mom. The “what ifs” race through my brain faster than thoroughbreds at the Kentucky Derby. I’m her caregiver, the one in charge of her wellbeing, her health, her life. The weight of responsibility nearly crushes me sometimes.

I take a deep breath. What’s the worst thing that could happer to her? She could fall and hit her head. But then a voice inside my head asks, Is that really the worst thing that could happen to her? No, not really. The worst thing would be to treat her like a helpless child, to deprive her of control over her own life, to take from her the need to feel needed.

And so I let my mother climb a ladder today.