The Long Goodbye

Judy Wiggin stood in her mother's dining room in Sanford, Maine , surveying the setup. It looked strange to see her own dining room table and china cabinet where her mother's had been for so long. Judy sat down at the table and closed her eyes, remembering a previous visit on a Memorial Day weekend 18 months earlier.

"Judy, what am I going to do?" Jeannette had come into the room, wringing her hands in frustration.

Judy put down the fourth-grade papers that she was grading. "Mother, it's almost bedtime. What are you doing?"

"I've got to get the payroll ready for the insurance company! They're waiting on me!"

Mother retired from the insurance company almost 20 years ago. What is she talking about? Judy wondered, frightened.

It wasn't like her mother to be muttering strange things. Despite being 85, Jeannette had always been unusually healthy and energetic.

"Mother, I'll help you look." The sooner I can help her find whatever it is she is looking for, the sooner Mother will be back to her normal self, she hoped.

Nothing turned up.

"Maybe we should quit for the night," Judy said as she turned around. "Mother?" Jeannette had left the room.

Moments later, her mother returned, gleefully holding a roll of toilet paper in her small, wrinkled hand.

"Oh, here it is!" Jeannette exclaimed happily, clasping the toilet paper to her chest. "I found it. It's $1.59! Now we can go to sleep."

Looking back, Judy realized that everything had changed from that moment. Her mother did not return to normal. After repeated doctor's exams and the expense of hiring help to stay with her mother, Judy had decided to retire from her 30-year teaching position in Lexington, Mass., and move back home to care for her mother.

Being an only child and unmarried, Judy had a close relationship with her widowed mother. Her father had died almost 20 years earlier. Judy knew that full-time caregiving was not going to be easy. Not only had her mother become more forgetful over the past year, but after Judy had moved in and taken over the older woman's domain, Jeannette also turned cantankerous.

I'd always wanted to come back home to Sanford, but not under these circumstances, Judy thought.

Judy walked into the living room, where her mother sat watching television.

"Are you tired, Mother?"

"Only of you. You never do anything for me," her mother snapped and then turned her attention back to the TV.

"How can you say that, Mother? I just gave up my career to stay with you!"

Jeannette had always been so kind and loving, but lately her jabs cut Judy's heart. Lord, why is she suddenly so mean? Please give me patience and understanding.

Jeannette continued her "zingers," and Judy soon found out why. Just a month after she retired, Judy took her mother to a doctor.

"Your mother is in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease," the doctor told Judy. "Has she become more childish? Is her personality changing?"

"Well, yes," Judy said numbly. She turned to look at her mother, who was sitting in a cushioned chair, staring off into space. "What are my mother's prospects?"

"She probably won't die from Alzheimer's," the doctor said. "Your mother is otherwise in very good health."

Judy nodded in relief, then glanced at her mother, who was off in her own world.

Arriving home from the doctor's office, Judy pulled the car up to their house and told her mother that she would help her out of the car. Judy reached for a carton of milk in the back seat, but her mother did not wait. She was already at the front steps. Suddenly her mother was on the ground, crying out in pain. She had missed the first step and broken her hip.

After surgery and some physical therapy, the doctor told Judy that her mother would be better off at home. Jeannette managed well, but Judy had almost reached the end of her rope. Her mother was now completely dependent on her. Judy had to sleep on a cot next to her because Jeannette needed help getting in and out of bed, and she went to the bathroom several times each night. Her mother needed help in every conceivable way getting dressed, bathing, walking, using the toilet and doing her physical therapy exercises.

The work was exhausting and humbling. Overwhelmed both emotionally and physically, Judy could only utter frantic prayers to God. Lord, what am I doing? I can't help Mother. It's too hard. Why am I even trying? Please give me strength and guide me.

One particularly trying evening, after four weeks of 24-hour care, Judy broke down and flung herself on a bed, sobbing into a pillow. Her mother's zingers had been especially cruel that evening. What are you here for? You're not needed. You just like to show off. Get out, and leave me alone!

Judy wrapped a blanket around herself tightly. The mother she had always known and loved was gone. Lord, I can't do this anymore, she cried. Help me to love this stranger that my mother has become.

The phone beside the bed rang, startling Judy. She took a deep, shaky breath. "Hello?"

It was Lillian, a close friend of her mother's. "I'm worried about you and Jeannette," she said, her voice soft. "I know you're spending a lot of time caring for her. Are you getting enough rest, Judy?"

Judy closed her eyes. "No."

"You need to get someone to help you! You shouldn't be trying to do this all alone," Lillian told her. "I'll call the hospital and get a name for you, ok?"

Lillian called back a few minutes later. "The hospital's sending a certified nursing assistant. She'll be arriving at your house in an hour so you can rest."

"Thank you," Judy told her friend gratefully. Finally, she'd be able to sleep through the night.

An hour later, the nursing assistant walked up the front steps. When Judy opened the door she froze in surprise. The woman's kind eyes and tentative smile were unmistakable. I know this woman! Judy realized. They had been in high school together.

"Joanne Gray?" she asked, her mouth open in shock and delight. They had not seen each other for 30 years.

Joanne looked equally pleased. "Judy Wiggin?"

Judy smiled widely and nodded. She wrapped her arms around her old friend, fighting back thankful tears.

Judy knew the Lord was taking care of both her and her mother. He had not only sent help at just at the right time, but He sent a friend who is an integral part of Jeannette's ongoing care. The Lord had heard Judy's cry. They would make it through this.

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