How my caregiving experience changed my relationship with my daughter

The purpose of this article is to help others understand, that when care giving for a loved one, in my case a spouse, even loving relationships with other family members can be strained and even severed at times. The caregiver is often walking a fine line trying to keep the peace in the family. We know from studies, some of the worst things that can happen to a cancer or terminally ill patient, can be caused by too much stress from anything, to include family members squabbling. As caregivers we have to be very mindful of that, and keep the stress level down.

This is my story with my daughter Melissa and the strain it placed on our relationship.

To understand my care giving experience with my daughter, one has to understand the story within the story. What created the resentment and why things were so emotionally charged at times.

Introduction to Melissa

I loved my daughter before I met her. When Annie was pregnant with Melissa, at the time we didn’t know if it was a boy or a girl. We had to wait and see what popped out.

In May of 1973 at Seaside Hospital in Crescent City California, Annie was in labor and I was cast aside along with Annie’s mum Joan, (who flew in from England), to the waiting area. Finally the moment came when we were told we could go to the door and look in, as the baby had arrived. As luck would have it the door only had one small window, and Joan and I were banging our heads together to get a little peak at the baby. All we could see was a blue blanket wrapped baby. When I got to the bed I just kept staring into Annie’s eyes until in her little elevated English voice she said, “Well look at her then!” I was so amazed at the gift she just gave me that, I suppose I forgot there was a baby. That was a beautiful night, and it was love at first sight. Melissa and I have been extremely close for 40 years now. And to this day I don’t know why they used a blue blanket for a girl.

When Melissa’s mom, and my wife Annie, was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given only a short time to live, things did change between Melissa and I. I was now a 24/7 caregiver, and in my mind Annie needed me, and my life became consumed with the world of cancer. However, it wasn’t that cut and dry. Melissa worked as a nurse for a clinic, and had worked for quite awhile in the hospital emergency room. She was quite knowledgeable of cancer and illnesses in general. And I was not.

In the beginning, the first five months, every time I encountered a problem and found a solution, Annie would insist I called Melissa for guidance. And many times Melissa and I bumped heads. I felt that I knew what was best for Annie, but Melissa sometimes felt I needed to do things differently, so Annie would override my decision. It started festering some resentment in me towards both Annie and Melissa. But I really didn’t let it show for quite some time. I adored Annie and Melissa, but being piggy in the middle was not working for me.

Here’s a fact! If you are a caregiver for a terminally ill patient and things go wrong, as they often do, you are held accountable by everyone, even though your advice may be coming from some other family member. Family members love throwing out advice and guidance, even though they might not, often see the loved one…In the end they often try to take credit for the good, while denying the bad. As a caregiver you carry the workload and the buck will always stops with you. If you take bad advice from others, it can come back and bite you.

If you are a caregiver for a terminally ill patient and things go wrong, as they often do, you are held accountable by everyone, even though your advice may be coming from some other family member

One day I walked into the dining room, it was around the fifth month of her illness, and Annie was sitting in her wheelchair at the dining room table. I walked in, looked at her, and started crying, asking her, “What do I need to do to become #1 in your life again.” I said, “look at me Annie, I’m standing right here in front of you, and you don’t even see me.” “Where is everybody else?”

“Bobby, I didn’t think you would want to care for me.”

“Why Annie?”

“Look at me Bobby, I’m not the same person anymore.” Melissa is a nurse and I just thought it would be best to use her so I didn’t have to bother you so much.” Note: I still believe to this day, the appropriate words spoken by Annie should have been, I’m not sure I can count on you. This is coming from a lady that I loved from the day I met her.

That statement troubled me as Melissa worked eight hours a day and had a husband and four kids to care for. I was in the house with Annie 24/7 and doing everything for her. But she wasn’t seeing me, and when there was a problem she needed Melissa. So yes, I was now in a pity party mood, and a bit resentful of her and Melissa.

A little later on in this conversation she started crying too, and in a soft voice, she said to me, “I can go to my sister Lesley’s,” she can take care of me.

With my emotions flowing, I said, “Annie, what are you talking about?”

That’s when I got down on my knees in front of her wheelchair, still crying, told her how much I loved her, that I loved caring for her and was going to be her caregiver until my last breath if need be. She reached out to me and we hugged each other, with the tears flowing.

I said to her, what’s this about? You don’t think I’m going to be here for you, do you. She just stared at me with questioning eyes.

And that’s when I said, Annie, pay attention. I’m going to take you on a journey, and I’m going to show you what real love is all about. When you leave this earth, you will know you were loved. Annie knew I loved her, but didn’t think I loved her enough to give up everything for her, at this moment in time.

About a month or so later she turned her life over to me as the earthly being that she trusted more than anyone. And I never once let her down. I had now regained her trust.

Things really did change though. It got to the point that when Melissa was sitting with her while I made an appointment or whatever, Melissa would keep calling me and telling me mom was wondering when I was coming home or back to the hospital. She no longer felt safe without me in her presence. The only person she genuinely trusted was me, and in her mannerism she made that clear to everyone. I earned her trust by working hard caring for her and overpowering her with my love for her. When I pushed Annie in her wheelchair through the cancer center, or the hospital, I always saw the deep beauty in her, and was so very proud that she loved me. She was a source of pride and inspiration to me.

Cancer Will Destroy A Family

Cancer is an evil illness and will disrupt and bring a family down if allowed too. What I was beginning to learn from cancer is that it was quite natural for Annie to want Melissa’s opinion on things as she was trained in many aspects of care and medicine. Therefore, my resentment towards Melissa was probably a bit misguided, but I couldn’t help how I was starting to feel. As Annie’s caregiver, I did resent taking directions from Melissa at times. I felt that I knew what Annie needed and I didn’t need or want any advice. As for Annie, having a terminal illness with no hope of survival, I couldn’t possibly understand what she was feeling, thinking, or why she felt the way she did…Not wanting me to care for her, or not trusting that I would always be there for her. Just imagine, she was a fifty-eight year old young looking, very attractive and independent woman six months ago, and now has two broken femurs, a broken hip, a collapsed spine, and very badly diseased bones with cancer raging inside of her. So, perhaps in her mind, why would I want to care for her. Look at it this way. A day out for Annie was a trip to the cancer center or hospital. She was surrounded by folks with cancer, people dying, and heard many horror stories. Like, husbands that leave their wives when the wife gets a cancer diagnosis and the husband can’t handle the work load. Now that may not be normal, but it does happen. Getting Annie to understand that I would always be there for her even though she was a disabled cancer patient that feels she’s become an unattractive burden on her husband was not easy. Especially with the stories of desertion she’d heard. Annie was scared. And of course in her mind Melissa was always going to be there, even though from a practical point of view that would not be the case. She had her hands full with her own family.

I felt that I knew what Annie needed and I didn’t need or want any advice.

Annie survived a nasty cancer for 30 months. Melissa and I struggled often, both wanting the best for Annie, but not being able to reconcile our differences at times, which strained our relationship. Cancer can create complex circumstances, that sometimes leads to questions that can’t be answered. So who gets the last word? The daughter, or the caregiver husband. Someone has to take charge of the loved one’s life, so they don’t feel like their life is spiraling out of control, or that their living in chaos. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes Melissa was right and I was wrong. But these were not always life threatening emergencies and when Melissa and I were having a disagreement or hot topic conversation in front of Annie, she would become nervous and get anxious. Once we realized what we were doing to Annie, we took our differences outside. I was and am Melissa’s dad, and I could shut a conversation off at any time by saying, that’s enough. However, Melissa was my child and I loved her dearly, and hurt for her. She was losing her momma, and I, my wife. We were struggling to find our own path and place in Annie’s life in those early days. And there were always going to be some disagreements, and learning to handle them with grace made life much easier for us all.

She was losing her momma, and I, my wife. We were struggling to find our own path and place in Annie’s life in those early days. And there were always going to be some disagreements, and learning to handle them with grace made life much easier for us all.

It’s been four years now since Annie passed and Melissa and I still don’t agree on some of the things that went on or the decisions that were made concerning Annie, and still find it easy to get into a heated discussion. But, we’re learning to steer clear of the discussions, knowing that some things will never change.

I spoke to Melissa last night and told her about the article I was going to write on our relationship issues. She gave me her blessing and said, be truthful Dad, our relationship is still strained and you know that. Sadly, I do. We can live, laugh, and love, but we can’t change “What Was.”

Cancer is a tough world to live in as a family unit, and agreements between family members where all parties are on the same page are rather rare, but one thing I know for sure, someone has to step up, be a leader and make the hard decisions. That was me, the “Caregiver.”

In conclusion, if I had to take care of Annie all over again, there is no one I would rather have as my “Wingman” than Melissa. Yes, we struggled together at times, but we learned, and we took care of Annie. One month before Annie passed I took her to her cardiology appointment to see Dr. Farhat, her cardiologist of twelve years. He stood in front of her and said, “Annie, do you know why you’re still here?” Annie remained silent and just stared back at him. He raised his right arm and pointed his finger at me as I stood beside her saying, “I am convinced of that.” Had Melissa been in the room, someone he knew well too, I’m sure he would have pointed to her as well. Melissa and I had our issues, our differences of opinion, but I took charge, and together we were a “Kick Ass” team. And I guarantee you, many people in the hospital, cancer center, the nurses, doctors, and all those that had the pleasure of meeting Annie, still remember her, her caregiver husband, and Melissa. We all three shared a deep unconditional love for each other, and wore it on our sleeve.

Written by Bob Harrison
Bob Harrison was raised in the heart of the Redwoods in the far northwest comer of northern California. The little town of Crescent City, California was located near some of the world’s tallest trees, with the west shoreline being the Pacific Ocean. Bob spent most of his time fishing the two local rivers where some of the finest Steelhead and Salmon fishing is located. He was also well known up and down the north coast as an avid motorcycle racer, winning several hundred trophies, and one Oregon State title. Bob graduated from Del Norte High School with the class of 1966, then spent a one year stint at the College of the Redwoods, before having a strong sense of patriotism and joining the United States Air Force. After three years of service, Bob met Annie, the love of his life, and they got married in England in 1972. Bob’s love of country pushed him on to what turned out to be a very successful career, retiring in 1991. Bob’s last military assignment was Wichita, Kansas, a place he and Annie decided to call home. Together they developed and ran two very successful antique businesses until the stranger knocked on their door and changed their lives forever; “Because of Annie.”

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