ROLE OF A LIFETIME
Giving up her Big City dream, a Midwest girl takes on the reality of caring for her mother—and discovers the relationship she might otherwise have missed.
She had her future all planned. A college student majoring in theatre and journalism, Bridget Bennett intended to go to New York after graduation and become an actress. But fate had another role in store for her: Caregiver.
Flashback to 1996: Bridget, who lived in the Columbus, Ohio, suburb of Grove City, was in her third year at Ohio State University when she got devastating news: her mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Bridget's father had died of a heart attack in 1994, so her mother's illness hit then-19-year-old Bridget and her two siblings-brother Brett, then 24, and sister Brittany, then 15-doubly hard. The teenaged Brittany even asked, "Does this mean Mom's going to die, too?" Trying to reassure her sister, Bridget said, "We have to take one day at a time." It's a philosophy she's lived by through the difficult decade since.
Her mother, Helene, said Bridget was now needed in the family business, Mike Bennett Insurance. "Mom had inherited it when Dad died," Bridget says. "She never worked in the company; she'd been an Avon sales manager. But my brother was already an agent there."
Bridget switched from college to the PIA insurance school, and after a few months she was a licensed agent, handling both home and auto insurance. "It's not something I had dreamed of doing," she admits, "but I enjoy working with the people."
Her more difficult job has been caring for her mother. "Mom had a radical mastectomy and chemotherapy. Doctors were encouraging that the cancer wouldn't go further because it had been in just one lymph node."
When her mother went into remission, Bridget says she felt confident about the future. But three years later, in 1999, there was a recurrence of the cancer. "I was more devastated than the first time," Bridget explains. And since then, the cancer has slowly but relentlessly continued to spread.
Bridget and her siblings, who were all living at home, tried to share the caregiving responsibilities. They installed a "baby monitor," or portable intercom, in their mother's room so she could call when she needed help. Bridget got in the habit of carrying the receiver around with her. She and her sister took on the tasks of cleaning their mother's wounds and taking her to the doctors and for IV infusions. "I used to be queasy about open wounds and things like that," Bridget says, "but now it doesn't bother me." Her brother, Brett, helps by doing errands. But, she says frankly, "he's a very private person and can't deal with the emotional stuff too much."
Bridget had lived at home even while in college, but started to find it increasingly stressful to be "an adult under my mother's roof. I'm very independent and I wanted my own place," she explains. So, in 2002, she moved out to her own apartment just a mile away from her mother's house. She goes to her mother every day, including evenings after work and often at lunchtime, as well.
Then, last June, Brittany got married. She and her husband, Matt, continued to live with Helene. "Brittany's afraid that if she leaves, everything will fall apart," Bridget says. "And Mom's known Matt for years, so he's like another kid to her. He helps, too, by making sure she gets enough to eat." But Bridget told her siblings, "The only way I'd move back in with Mom is if everyone else moved out."
Like many caregivers, she finds that one of the most helpful things she can do is be willing to listen to whatever her mother needs to talk about. "She talks to me more than to my sister or brother because we're a lot alike," states Bridget. "I'm outwardly emotional, too. One of the most frustrating things is when she's in pain and it's not time for medication. I rub her back and talk to her. Sometimes I cry with her."
The one time Bridget couldn't listen was when the cancer recurred and her mother began talking about her will and how much of her insurance policy could go for the funeral. "I was resistant," Bridget says. Last year a determined Helene, who's now 61, went ahead and "made her financial arrangements," Bridget reports.
Communication, Bridget has discovered, is a two-way street. "Dad had died so suddenly in his sleep; I never had a chance to tell him things. So, with Mom, I tell her everything I need to say."
She finds it very hard to see a parent weakening this way. "The mother who used to take me to Disney World and drive me all over the place can't drive, can't cook, and has to use a walker," says Bridget. "And it's strange to see her wanting to be in bed a lot. She used to tell me, ‘Don't sleep your life away,' but now she gets radiation so she's very tired."
When the scene becomes too overwhelming, Bridget tells her mother, "I have to go home for a while." Otherwise, she says, she'd be too drained to be helpful.
Bridget's social life is "on hold," she confides. "I had a couple of serious relationships when I was in college, but now I don't date much. I go out with Mom to movies, and good friends come with us." Bridget claims she doesn't miss dating. "Maybe I haven't found the person, but I'm still young."
And she hasn't totally divorced herself from her theatrical dreams. Last autumn she acted with a group called Kids In Kamp, an Ohio-based not-for-profit organization which puts on shows to raise money for children with cancer. "The play was a mystery and I played a lounge singer." The production included audience participation in teams of four to eight people. Volunteers were needed to help with the logistics, and Bridget found a way to get her mother involved. "Mom sat in a chair on one side handing out cue cards so people would know where to stand."
Fortunately for both of them, Helene is able to express her appreciation of all the caregiving that's been provided. "She told me I'm a wonderful daughter," Bridget says proudly. She has no second thoughts about her decision to focus her life around her mother. "When my father died, Mom was the definition of strength to all of us. We could always talk to her about how we were feeling. So I want her to know that when the chips are down, I'm there for her."