What is the greatest kindness one can perform? According to Jewish tradition, it's preparing the dead for burial. A dead person cannot thank you for the services you perform, nor gratify your ego. There is no payback. While most of us enjoy doing kindness for others, ultimately we want our good deeds validated, noticed, or appreciated.
I wonder: does caring 24/7 for an elderly parent stricken with Alzheimer's count as caring for the living dead? Truthfully, I have found it to be a mostly thankless task that is emotionally and physically exhausting. Although I am pretty sure I’ve got the mitzvah of honoring a parent mostly covered, it seems like I’m caring more for a stranger than a parent.
Until Alzheimer's, my mother was never physically, verbally or emotionally abusive to me. Some days she doesn’t remember my name. Yesterday, a new milestone: she no longer remembers that I am her daughter.
This angry, fearful, and depressed person is not my mother.
My mother, so meticulous about personal hygiene and always dressed so smartly, cannot be coerced to take a shower or wear clean, matching clothes. Once a kid magnet, she often detests being in the same room with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren and isn't shy in telling them so (one small granddaughter was so traumatized that she now cries and shakes with fear every time she comes to visit, so I rarely get to see her anymore in my home). This angry, fearful, and depressed person is not my mother -- she is a stranger.
I love to cook; it is not unusual for me to prepare and serve meals for 25 people. How ironic that now one of the most stressful parts of my day is meal planning for just one person. So much time, thought and expense goes into meal preparation for my mother. I strive for variety, visual appeal and nutrition. Even a single skipped meal could result in disaster for my mother: nausea, weakness, mood changes or even dehydration.
First, one must be a whiz at anticipating needs -- when my mother is hungry she wants to eat right now. But two minutes after dinner, she may forget she has eaten and complain that she’s being starved -- so you start over again. A menu she found so delicious days or even hours ago now “looks like it came out of the garbage can,” is “rotten,” has “bugs in it,” is “too hot” or "too cold," is touching another food thereby rendering the entire meal undesirable, is too salty, not salty enough, too seasoned, too flat -- and didn’t I “ever learn to cook?”
She may be truly hungry but will claim, “I am not the least bit hungry” and after tantrums, coercion and bribes, she grudgingly eats -- only to gobble up the entire meal. A breakfast that would be eaten by a healthy person in 15 minutes could take my mother an hour to finish.
I wish I could say I have taken on this enormous responsibility with a feeling of love and joy. I am trying but I’m just not there yet. I may not be happy with my mother’s affliction, but I’m not angry at God. I don’t ask, Why me? But I do ask at regular intervals, How can I better understand what God wants from me?
Recently my eldest daughter gave birth to her sixth child; the eldest is only eight years old. After arranging for respite care for my mother (thanks to my husband, married children and a caretaker) I traveled to be with my daughter and grandchildren to help out for a few days.
Mealtime was perhaps the most difficult time of the day. One kid wouldn’t eat if different foods touched on the same plate. Another kid thought the food was too hot or too cold. Another became very crabby when not served right now. One kid said the food was too spicy, another said it was too boring. Another said the food looked like worms and eyeballs (but happily ate it anyway). One kid refused to eat altogether. One took two minutes to eat; a dawdler took 30 minutes to eat the same meal after much coaxing. The spills and stained clothes! The noise and occasional sibling rivalry!
It struck me that their misbehavior mirrored my mother’s. Yet when the children acted out, I hadn’t felt tense or upset -- there was joy and nachas. Is it not ironic that when a baby is unresponsive or soils himself, we still find him utterly adorable? Sadly, the same cannot be said of identical behavior exhibited by an elderly person. As I ran from child to child, kissing a boo-boo, providing a meal, sorting the laundry, cleaning a spill -- the things all mothers around the world do -- rhetorically I thought, Where is the gratitude? The nature of a child is narcissistic, and expectation rules over appreciation. And we love them unconditionally.
Why did I find it so difficult to do this with my mother?
That’s when my revelation occurred: What does God want from me?
If we are created in His image and He is our Father, are we not like the unappreciative child? We take for granted the “regular” kindnesses shown to us daily -- that there is food to eat, and it’s mostly tasty! That we have clothes to wear, and they are (mostly) clean and attractive! We have a room to call our own, and a bed to sleep in!
Did I thank her properly for enduring all the sleepless nights I caused when under her care?
But if any of these things were denied us, even for a short period, we would be despondent because we have come to expect them, just as much as the air we breathe and the sun that rises (more things to be grateful for!). The daily blessings we recite in the morning are a vehicle to show gratitude to God. They help us to be aware of His kindness and not take any part of our lives for granted. It raises us above a child’s sense of entitlement and encourages us to live a conscious -- and conscientious -- life. And imperfect as we are, God loves us unconditionally.
If the harsh criticism I receive from my mother, despite my best efforts in taking care of her, makes my ears burn and my heart sick with grief and frustration, I must look at myself and ask: did I thank her properly for enduring all the sleepless nights I caused when under her care? Did I thank her for providing me with daily meals and for laundering my clothes? Helping me with homework? Advising and encouraging me?
Most of us could never run out of things for which to thank our parents. Now that my mother is slowly becoming an empty vessel, it is tragically too late for me to make proper amends. Verbally recognizing her past kindnesses would be met with confusion and incomprehension.
But it is not too late to show my appreciation to God. When I wake up in the morning, I say modeh ani (I gratefully thank You) with newfound conviction. I say blessings with more sincerity, and I have a greater appreciation for things large and small. Ironically, my gratitude list grows as quickly as my mother’s decline.