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  • Writer's pictureMary Balistreri

Care Giving & Care Receiving

What would you do for your sister? These words echo in my mind lately as we scramble to tie up the loose ends of Ann's life. We includes my sisters, Chris and Sue, as well as me. I would do anything for my sister. And, I eventually learned to also do what was needed to keep myself happy and healthy.

As I ponder the many losses associated with my sister Ann's death and my mom's dementia, I know in my soul the loss of both taking care of them and receiving care from them. So many people in the world know the strangeness of taking care of a parent with Alzheimer's, and I believe all of you know what I am expressing. But, what if you received that care and nurturing from someone else - someone who was not your parent, someone who had lifelong illness, someone whose life was so completely intertwined with your own?

My codependency I noted a few blogs ago is complicated by the fact that I received care from my sister. It's confusing. Not just once or twice, but many times, in my life she took care of me. Actually, I was raised by my brothers and sisters to a degree. That's a privilege of being the youngest of a big family. I have seen pictures of that care being given to me as a baby, toddler, and little kid. Pictures of my oldest sister Chris carrying me on her hip. Images of my next oldest sister Sue playing with me on the floor. If it takes a village to raise a child, we had one in our house of eight, and in our best friend's house, the Kelley home. I benefitted from all of that.

Ann and I came into the world of the Balistreri home three years apart. In a sense, we were both the babies of the family with the next oldest child being Steven who is seven years older than me. So, most of our childhood, she did not take care of me. She was my role model, idol, superstar sister, and my nemesis - she was always thinking of ways to make trouble after which I would be punished. She would be punished too with the scary red paddle.

Later, as the "sick one", she got away with a lot of bad stuff. I was a caregiver for her starting very young, at seven or eight. In addition to taking physical care of her much of my life, I also protected her from the rest of the world by covering for her when she did bad crazy, life-endangering stuff.

Like the time she went out riding on a motorcycle (something she was not supposed to do) with an older guy she was not supposed to be seeing at a time of night when she was supposed to be in bed. She had also been drinking (another big no-no at age 16). And, she was wearing skimpy clothes but not wearing a helmet. Of course, they got into an accident and she skidded across the road primarily damaging her ankle.

She snuck into the house by tapping on the window. I was in the living room watching TV. She signaled to me to keep quiet with a big exaggerated, finger-to-her-lips gesture. I let her into the house quietly and saw all the rips in her pants and the blood seeping into her brown clogs (who wears clogs on a motorcycle?). "What happened?" I whispered it so no one would wake up. She told me the story.

I felt like a war doctor because she asked me to, "Just fix me up, doc, so I can get back out there." There was the giant unknown world which terrified me completely. I knew she would be back out there tomorrow night on the same motorcycle with the same guy taking chances. She wanted me to keep it quiet. Never let the parents or our older brothers and sisters know. I fixed up her bloody ankle with a washcloth and some gauze. I reluctantly kept her secret.

I kept all of her secrets. Many memories were steeped in her self-destruction like the time she grinded up her pain killers and made a cigarette to smoke for the highest possible high. The effects of those cigarettes left her lying on the floor in the living room half-conscious and writhing in pain while she vomited bile. I told the parents everything was fine and they should keep their plans for dinner with friends while I blocked their view of the real state she was in.

Why am I telling her secrets now? Because the time is now. I know she would be okay with this. It makes a good story. And, there are plenty of times when she took care of me.

Life is a give and take. Love and comfort come to you sometimes and are required of you other times. Nature creates a balance if only we would embrace it.

That was childhood caregiving, and, as we grew older, mostly when we were in our twenties, she often took care of me both physically and emotionally. Her last attempt to try to cure her osteomyelitis was to Mayo Clinic soon after she married her first husband. When they failed, like all the rest of the doctors and specialists, she decided to hang it up. Narcotics were no longer constantly available. She was in the prime of her life and loving it.

How did she take care of me? My mind is overactive. It goes and goes and goes, barely stopping for a few hours of sleep and starting back up before my eyes open. Ann was not this way, but she understood me when I talked about all of the millions of things my mind was talking about, worrying about, fantasizing about. She listened and listened. She seldom tried to solve my problems unless I specifically asked for her advice. This is a great talent to possess. Listening without judgement and with empathy. Such a gift. A gift she gave easily and patiently to me.

Sometimes she took care of me physically. At Ann's Celebration of Life in March this year, I told the meat story. Ann was married and living with her husband and little girl, Valery, in a big old farmhouse in Illinois. Her husband was a hunter of all prey and all seasons. I was going to college, working full time and living on my own in a little studio apartment. I often ran out of money for food. Casseroles were the thing that kept me going.

One day, she called me and told me, "Stay home! I am bringing you meat today!"

"What?" I was completely bewildered. Sure it was Saturday and I was not working, but stay home all day and wait? For meat?

"Just stay there! You'll see when I get there," she said.

Literally three hours later she buzzed my apartment door buzzer. As I came down to let her in, she said, "Help me quick! I don't want to drop these."

These were six tightly neatly, foil-wrapped packages.

"Bob got a deer this year and these were in the freezer," she said. "It's venison!" Her beautiful, brown eyes got big as she told me. "I attached recipes to each one so you will know how to cook it. If you follow my recipes, the gaminess will cook right out. It's delicious!"

"Eat a deer?" I replied. I was doubtful. I had very little interaction with wildlife. It seemed so foreign and a little bit wrong.

"You're hungry aren't you? Can you afford to buy steak or roast beef?" She said indignantly. She stuck her chin out defiantly, the way she always did when she was making a point. She looked so much like Scarlett O'Hara from Gone with the Wind when she did that. "This will be the best roast you ever made. I know what I'm talking about!"

Okay, Scarlett. So, I tried it. It was the best roast I ever ate. And my body was so hungry for the meat. I felt like a whole new person.

Fast forward a few years, Ann had left her alcoholic husband and we were living in a townhouse - Ann, my mom, and Ann's two children now, Valery and Joshua. One week, I was too depressed to emerge from my bedroom. She banged on the door.

"What's going on in there? Open the door!" she yelled. She was a yeller, too. She had the kind of voice that was loud and carried far, shaking the doors. The hallways trembled.

I set down the book I was reading and rolled off the bed. She stormed in, grabbed the book, and proceeded to ransack the room grabbing several books in her arms. She stopped at the door to yell, "You have to stop reading Alice Walker! You know what this stuff does to you! Come down now and play with the kids."

She was right! When I read books, I not only identified with the characters, I felt all the emotions that were described down to my core. I did this with people, too. I would learn of someone's grief or misfortune and feel their feelings. There were too many sad things happening in those Alice Walker stories (she wrote The Color Purple). I don't think Ann ever gave those books back to me.

It was easier back then when I was less mature and she was less sick. As I grew older and raised my son, Ann's needs became bigger. I became more and more crazed about caring for other people.

In one of our last conversations, Ann blessed me with the kind of insight and support that only comes from those who know you and love you best. It demonstrated care giving, to me, at its highest level. I was calling her to talk about all the things I was doing to launch my business - classes in facilitation I was taking, involvement in a women owned business group, making connections for work.

She said, "It's going to be hard right now, Mary, because you are on the road to self-actualization."

"Really? Me? Thank you, Ann. I had not thought about it that way," I told her and I cried that day. I cried with fear for my future and the hill I was climbing. I cried with happiness for the path I was taking and the promise it held. I cried with grief and happiness for the loss of my sister who just now returned to me with that statement. She had been so sick the last ten years or so, it was amazing to receive this clarity from her.

Life is a give and take. Love and comfort come to you sometimes and are required of you other times. Nature creates a balance if only we would embrace it. Caregivers sometimes are blind to the balance. Receiving care can be hard for us.

The problem is enmeshed with my codependency. I define myself by the people I am helping, supporting, and assisting. Who am I if someone is helping me?

Nearly 20 years ago, I started working on this problem - my codependency and all of its side-effects.

  • First, I established boundaries, mostly with Ann, but with others in my life, too.

  • Then, I worked on acknowledging my accomplishments and understanding it was okay to be proud of myself.

  • Next came the epiphany that I offered value to the world just by being me - my value is not dependent on how I help others.

  • Finally, there is this. I, like everyone else in the world, deserve to be taken care of by someone who loves me.

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