When we moved to this beautiful rural village seven years ago, we considered it quaintly romantic and part of the charm that there was no garbage collection. We live only a few miles from the landfill and lugging our trash cans and recyclables was not such a big deal. The charm wore off about five years ago. It became “the dreaded dump run!” We would sometimes chuckle at car commercials on TV and comment that “you’d never get three large garbage cans in the back of that!”
Still, much as I came to hate loading up the car every two weeks or so, I began to realize that it had taken on a kind of symbolism. We are somewhat isolated here, far from family and often in need of help from friends and tradespeople, but this was one thing we could do like the natives … dispose of our own garbage. We hoped people would notice that we weren’t the soft city slickers that we appeared.
As my husband Tom’s Alzheimer’s has progressed, he has had to relinquish nearly all of the household chores to me. Some were easy to take on, a few very challenging, but there has never been a question in my mind about who had to manage each task. It could only be me.
At times, of course, it is overwhelming, so much so that I would sometimes wake in the night in a panic that I had forgotten to do something important. One July night a year ago, I woke around 2 a.m. and realized that I had forgotten to pay our quarterly estimated taxes that were due on June 15. I spent the rest of that night berating myself for obvious incompetence and devising a new foolproof system for managing serious deadlines.
Now, back to the garbage. Yesterday, as I faced an overflow of trash in the garage, I realized that we should have gone to the dump last weekend, but, oh, instead we spent most of it at the E.R. where Tom had been airlifted following a frightening fainting episode. As I stared at the full cans and recycle bins, tears welled up and I realized I could not do this anymore.
Not that it was such an odious task – though it really is – but I realized that neither Tom nor I could perform this task any longer. For seven years we’ve been doing this, in spite of his eye surgeries, my nerve damage and arthritis, partly out of my obsessive need to be “large and in charge!”
I began asking questions of my friends and neighbors, the keepers of knowledge and all things vital to life in this town, and within minutes I had a name and number of a local independent contractor who will come weekly to remove the wretched, stinking pile of refuse. I DON’T HAVE TO DO THIS MYSELF! And it doesn’t make me weak or incompetent!
You may be thinking that I was making much ado about very little. See, the thing is that Alzheimer’s drains hope away. You can’t fix it, you can’t stop it. You can only watch its hideous power steal what you love. You stop operating on a rational basis and become fixated on control. It’s a bit like being on the losing end of a tug-of-war. It becomes about resisting the slow slide into loss by trying harder to keep it all under control. And to surrender control feels like another defeat … or at least it did until today.
This morning I watched a large pickup truck loaded with our garbage drive away and I suddenly felt like crying. This was something I was no longer responsible for; I could let it go. I admitted that I needed relief from one of my responsibilities and nothing bad happened! For what seems like a very small amount of money, I can cross one task off my list and still feel strong and competent. It almost made me laugh to realize I’ve been doing this for seven years and never wondered why!
The larger question here, especially for caregivers, is why it is so hard to ask for help. For me, it is part habit from a lifetime of taking care of others, and part fear. Taking care of this man I love, with all the emotional impact of watching him sink into this deep and dark place, is terrifying. Can I do this? How will I get us both through what lies ahead? With my own health issues, can I stay strong enough to do what is needed?
One thing became clear today. I must get more comfortable asking for help. I have to give up the illusion of control. It is the only way we will get through the time we have together. I don’t have to do it all myself. Perhaps I got rid of another type of garbage today … an attitude of independence, maybe even stubbornness (it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve noticed that trait!) that has been weighing me down needlessly.
waking in the night
I do not open my eyes
but listen for your breath.
in the dark you are whole,
deep of soul,
together we breathe
each other inward,
I pull the cover around me
like hope, sweet comfort
to my soul,
in the dark
where you are