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  • Writer's pictureMary Balistreri

All the Guilts: Great & Small (or, Was I A Good Sister? Am I A Good Daughter?)

I am flying. I am free. I feel great relief and boundless freedom. I am free.


It's a taboo in our culture to admit the happiness one can feel when, after years of care giving and worry, a loved one passes away. We use the acceptable phrases like, "I am happy for her" or "Finally, her pain has ended." Those thoughts are true and heartfelt, and, (take a signification pause), I will say it whether it is acceptable or not, "I feel free!"


As you have read in this grief blog, much of my life has been spent in states of worry and anxiety. My sister has been ill since I was seven years old. I may not have been born this way, but I was raised this way. In the 50+ years since then, my journey has risen and fallen always with the worry strapped on my back. Guess what? I don't have to worry anymore. Yippee!


I filled my summer with love, fun, adventure, connection, and grief. I gave myself time to feel and time to heal. Something was missing. The missing emotions were worry and guilt.


Let me explain the guilt. For most of my life, I have felt guilty for being able to do things my sister could not or would not do. The simplest example was running around outside and riding bikes. Ann could no longer ride, so I stayed home with Ann. A more complex example came when we tried to meet up with our sisters, as adults, in Chicago for a little celebration of Sue's birthday. Ann was invited but refused to go claiming her bad knee would not allow her that freedom. If I went on without her, I felt uneasy and guilty. If I stayed home with her, I felt uneasy and resentful. In that case, I went without her and let my feelings flow. I missed her.


Sometimes, the guilts were little - I am going to hang with my friends and dance all night even though Ann only dances sitting down and this is a thing she cannot do. Sometimes the guilts were big - I am going to go on vacation with my sisters, Chris and Sue, and have a fabulous time. Add a big spoonful of guilt and uneasiness to the trip, and I am fine. Doing great...really. That was last year, and I missed her so much. I wished she could have been there with us, but there were stairs. Stairs seemed to be everywhere and were not conducive to my sister Ann. Ramps were not so easy, either.



This year, I went on that vacation with Chris and Sue guilt free. Shame free. Responsibility free. I am free. I am flying with weightlessness! Did you see me drift by? Ann passed away six months ago, and I am free.


When I think about the guilts of the past with Ann, I wonder if I was a good sister. She told me many times, "You are a good sister," so I should take that at face value, right? I tried to help her any way I could while drawing boundaries for myself and living my own life. I WAS a good sister. I accept that and am at peace regarding it.


What about my mother with the Alzheimer's? Am I a good daughter? Sigh.


It's COMPLICATED! As I coasted down from my end-of-the-best-summer-ever high over Labor Day weekend, the gnawing, anxiety bugs returned to nibble at me. What was this feeling interrupting my happiness and freedom? Mom! I did not forget her (even though she has forgotten me), I just moved her out of focus a bit. The truth is, I don't know if I am a good daughter.


So, I gulped down my grief with an extra-big mug of coffee and decided to visit mom. A habit formed with me during COVID when no one could visit anyone. My greatest joy during that time became sitting and drinking coffee. Our special plague finally made me stop. I am an active person who tends to be in constant motion unless I am asleep. One of my favorite sayings (only to myself, in my head) is "A Mary in motion tends to stay in motion." And COVID made me stop. While stopped, Mary sits and drinks coffee.


There I was drinking coffee, thinking about the long weekend ahead and determining to visit mom. It hurts. I will be blunt - It hurts when your own mother cannot recall your name or who you are! My mom is very polite and has impeccable manners. So, she believes I am her daughter and Owen is her grandson when we tell her it is true. She converses with us, shows concern, makes jokes, and tells us she is "blessed to have such a wonderful family," even though she has no recollection of us. Hence, visiting is not an activity at the top of my list if I want to feel free.


I am always a bit sad after visiting my mom, but it eases the guilt. The small guilts stem from the distance between visits. In the time of BAD (Before Ann's Death), I visited mom every other weekend and always brought her a special treat from my local farmer's market. Now, in the time of AAD (After Ann's Death), long stretches of time have separated some visits. That fact creates small guilts.


The GREAT, big guilt derives from the fact that we put her into assisted living at all. Caring for your parents is an area of big social divide, I have found. Some people, random people I barely know, will tell me, scathingly, "We are meant to care for our elderly at home just as they cared for us as children." Others, also random people, will state, "You visit your mother? I dropped her off last year and only visit when they call me." Clearly I live in an in-between state. A limbo as it were.


Which is exactly what Alzheimer's and dementia is - limbo. Except it is the kind of limbo that expands and contracts unexpectedly with pain and relief. And, of course, it happens to people who are alive. Today, for instance, it seems like mom was a bit more "with it", and she recognized me. Then, perhaps yesterday, she barely spoke and seldom met my eyes.


Then there is the limbo the people with Alzheimer's and dementia are living in. What is that like? Truly an in between heaven and hell, maybe both sometimes? Like a bus stop where the bus never shows. Waiting and waiting. Then, forgetting what one is waiting for.


I forget sometimes, too. I think of mom every day, but I forget what to pray for. Am I praying she passes soon so that she will not have to undergo more humiliation? Does she feel humiliated by the need for caregivers? I know she does not think about it, but I also know if she were her normal, Audrey-self, she would be appalled by it. Do I pray she keeps on living?


Is there a special chapter on confusion and grief in one of the thousands of grief books out there? There should be. There must be.


The guilt. The grief. The confusion. The horror! I'll just drink coffee until it passes.

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