People come into our lives for a reason. This is especially true of our teachers. I have known several powerful teachers in my life. The best ones, in my opinion, or the most effective ones, have been extremely unpleasant. The one before me now is a ninety-five-year-old aunt. She is irascible, irritating, and has a voice that sounds like fingernails on a chalk board. I am her caretaker.
Her knees are arthritic. Crippling, really. A few days ago, I’d ordered a walker/roller to be delivered to her. She’s somewhat of a hoarder and her apartment was, shall we say, unprepared for visitors. I went over to clean. “Don’t touch that!” she yelled, when I asked her if I could remove a pile of newspapers. Her kitchen floor was grimy. “Don’t put water on my floor!” she screamed, “It’ll be wet for hours and I’ll starve! If you make it wet and I fall and break my hip, it’ll be your fault!” When I suggested we open a window (it’s hard to breathe in there), she vowed that if I did, she would drive her car into the river. I cleaned the floor with a spray cleaner and paper towels and left the windows shut tight.
One might see this behavior as a form of dementia. The thing is, she’s sharp as a tack and clear as a bell, with a memory better than mine. I pressed on, vacuuming over more high-pitched vocalizing. I then went out to buy groceries. When I returned, she had calmed down. She apologized, said she didn’t know what came over her. I was calmer, too. I told her that I was not going to hurt her and that I was not going to take anything away from her. The fact is, I had not spoken to her as kindly as I could have when she was in screaming mode. I actually yelled back and told her to stop acting like a crazy old lady. I’m not proud of that, even though it did stop the screaming for a minute. I had never, ever spoken to her like that, and I suppose it shocked her. It shocked me, too, but, as they say, she had gotten on my last nerve. When I left she was eating the frozen yogurt and graham crackers I had bought her. She asked me to hug her and I did. And I meant it.
But that was not the end. It was the beginning. During the screaming and long after, I was besieged by anger and resentment. The walker I chose for her came. She sent it back and ordered a different one. The warm winter coat I bought her hangs in her closet. She won’t wear it. Nothing I do pleases her unless she orders it and I obey her orders to the letter. She commands. She never says please and rarely says thank you. She has an opinion on everything and those who disagree with her are stupid. For two nights after the screaming incident, I tossed and turned and woke up each morning exhausted and pissed. This is not my usual state. I pride myself on being calm and kind.
“Really?” said the Universe, and I think it laughed. It does not let me stay comfortable for long periods of time. Here I was again, thrust out of my “comfort zone,” suddenly and harshly, and finding myself in the clutches of yet another powerful teacher. The first thing I try to remember (when I regain my equilibrium) is that I am to be grateful for my powerful teachers. It took a while, but I finally got what it was she was trying to teach me. The only way to “get” it, I have found, is to walk around in your teacher’s moccasins for a while. What I saw, and felt, was fear. It is terrifying to be ninety-five and losing control. I could feel what it was like to be unable to walk without pain, unable to drive, to shop for my own groceries. She was screaming because she was angry and frightened. Here’s what I had to ask: If I live to be that old, will I be that frightened and angry? Will I turn that anger on my caregiver? Or will I be able to accept what is, no matter what? When the time comes, will I remember what my teacher taught me? Will I remember to thank her? Will my last days be ones of peace and joy in those around me because of what she has shown me?
We talked on the phone tonight, as we do every night. Our conversation was, for the most part, pleasant. Her pain medicine was working. We actually laughed once.
There is a sign on the wall above my desk. I put it there. It says, “Choose.” I was looking at it as she went on and on in my ear, and instead of wishing our conversation would come to an end as I usually do, I chose to remember that she was my teacher. Powerful and clear. Like a mirror.
Read The Messenger: The Improbable Story of a Grieving Mother and a Spirit Guide by Helen Delaney. Find it at www.Amazon.com