Adrienne's bag of tricks

“Be prepared…” I’m prepared for everything. “That’s the Boy Scout’s marching song…” according to Tom Lehrer. “Be prepared! As through Life you march along.” It fits because everyone counts on me to have everything—even the lyrics to the trickiest Steven Sondheim songs.

But if Bobbie had never said anything, I might never have given it a second thought.

Half the time, her insights were not insights at all. Yet when “Your handbag! It’s everything that’s wrong with you,” came out of her mouth she’d hit a nerve. Years ago, my boss gave me this oversized bag. A big beautiful burgundy leather duffel that I felt obliged to fill. I always had this feeling that I needed to be ready for anything—this chockablock bag was visible proof that I could take care of myself. Hell—it was almost proof that I could take care of a small country.

My whole life felt like it was “just in case.” I carried an assortment of pills—just in case. Just in case I had an allergic reaction. Just in case I felt a migraine coming on. Just in case I had an anxiety attack. Just in case someone else needed a Valium.

shutterstock_110654438-300x257I carried a virtual first aid kit—assorted Band Aids, Neosporin ointment, eye drops, cortisone cream. Nasal sprays, menthol inhalers, oil of clove (for toothaches), a toothbrush, a comb and a brush, just to be sensible. My eyeglass requirements really weighed me down. One pair with clear prescription lenses just in case my contacts bothered me. One pair of prescription sunglasses in case my contacts bothered me while I was driving or happened to be allergic to something. Of course I also had a pair of non-prescription sunglasses for normal wear. My other paraphernalia included a pre-Filofax loose-leaf book that functioned as an agenda and address book. It was just way more comprehensive than it needed to be. It was replaced by my Filofax that was then replaced by my Wizard pocket agenda and then my Palm and finally my iPhone. But now I carry an iPad as well as my phone. There was always a hard-bound sketch-book and a hand-picked assortment of writing implements—my personal fetish. Way back when there were no cell phones, I carried a large Texas Instruments calculator that was larger than my iPhone is now. Of course there was the book of the moment; now I’ve got my Kindle with its virtual library. Steve Martin recently told a joke: “I just downloaded ten thousand books onto my Kindle, and now I can’t lift it.” For more reading material, there were always one or two magazines and the Sunday New York Times Magazine section which was good for a read or for the crossword puzzle.

I always had a key ring with keys to everything and at least half of them were “expired.” I’d long ago forgotten what they were for but was afraid to junk them—just in case. I was never without a twenty-five foot retractable measuring tape (an eight footer might not be long enough) and at least a twelve-inch metal ruler with a non-slip cork backing. For good measure, I carried an Exacto knife, just in case there was a mat that needed cutting.

My overstuffed bag, in order to be ready for anything, needed my comfort items: a mini rain-stick and a wooden “touchstone” were both small enough to include and there to calm my nerves. This breakdown of contents wouldn’t be complete without mention of loose change, subway tokens and crumpled bills of many denominations. I still find money in my pockets when I least expect it. And oh—a sensible collapsible umbrella.

I’m certain I’m leaving something out—oh yes, a checkbook; these were years when I didn’t charge anything. And I almost forgot a make-up case which, by itself, weighed five pounds. Suffice it to say I wanted to be as prepared for anything as a person could be in order to feel secure. This has worked both for and against me—I’ve been “Johnny On-the-Spot” with help for friends and strangers, but I’ve done irreparable damage to my back and shoulders.

Newfound self-confidence has allowed me to pare down the load a bit, but now I’m writing lists (of varying lengths) that can be found in the one notebook I now carry—and on a variety of digital devices. The iCloud has made it possible for me to create lists on one Apple product and have it saved on all of them. (I carry two.) I’ve been successful at editing down my bag; but now I feel like my head’s overstuffed with all the nonsense my trust issues force me to try and remember.

This aspect of my character, when paired with outstanding organizational skills, makes me a great hostess, event planner and superior caregiver (she said patting herself on her aching back). Although the handbag issue is somewhat under control, I still have issues with my “ready-ness” at home. My beach house is well stocked with suntan lotions of every SPF formula available and bug repellants of every kind. My pantries are stocked with a constantly growing stash of artificial sweeteners. There’s a new brand on the market every year. I did, interestingly enough, just discover I don’t have any real sugar (brown or white) in or out-of-town. I’ve also got to have honey for the tea drinkers and agave for the rare soul requiring it. I have herbal, caffeinated, decaffeinated, diet and high-test, still and bubbling beverages of every kind.

Everyone knows “Adrienne will have it,” whatever “it” is, and I usually do—if not on my person, at my destination. I brought all of these talents to caring for Steve and his mother. Constant, ever-changing lists and mental charts would actuate on my computer and be output by my printer. (Of course there’s a good supply of paper and ink cartridges on hand.) I was confident that it was a matter of “when” everything was needed and not “if” they were going to be needed. Prepare for “it.” Steve always depended on me to have every possibility covered.

When Steve’s mother, Sylvia, came to live with us she was eighty-nine and pretty spry. She had been diagnosed with lymphoma and had lost a great deal of weight, ergo she needed new clothes. I decided it was high time for a makeover and assigned myself to the task at hand. I wanted to get her out of her dirndl skirts and into trousers. She was a tiny woman, not quite five feet tall, but she had a big personality and winning smile. I became her personal shopper, and would go to the fashionable discount stores to find her pantsuits, or tops and bottoms. I bought her one pencil skirt and one lovely black wool crepe sheath. She was a different woman after she had new clothes. The makeover had a positive effect. She was no longer seeing herself as a sick woman. She loved the new Sylvia and felt healthy and strong; ready to take on lymphoma and win. I only relate this story because she was an unforeseen element in the scheme of my life, which now included a husband with lung cancer.

“Be prepared” had become my mantra. I found I was ready to tackle anything that blocked my path and there were many hazards to deal with along the way. Somehow, nothing threw me. I had become secure enough to know how to anticipate dealing with the new realities that came at me fast and furious. Doctors and hospital personnel knew I was part of the team; whether the patient was my husband or my mother-in-law. I earned their respect and that came back to me in their cooperation. I had become a force of nature. A natural-born caregiver.

My handbags are still full of “what if” items, and sadly it’s all about me now. I’m alone again, but the self-esteem I garnered year after year of being counted on, has left me feeling secure. I can leave the house with my keys, a few dollars and a credit card and not feel I need the “big bag” to be safe. I can conquer anything; widowhood, money management, creating this website and more—discovering a whole new me, day by day.

I’m ready.

Written by Adrienne Gruberg
Adrienne Gruberg is a former family caregiver and founder of The Caregiver Space. After six years of caring for her late husband and mother-in-law she conceived of an online support space all caregivers could come to. Adrienne holds a BFA from Boston University. She founded AYA Creative in 1982, an award winning graphic design, marketing and advertising company. Her design training has helped shape the website and her personal and professional experience continues to inform and influence the caregiver centric support experience she has created at The Caregiver Space.

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