ReShonda Tate, Nancy Blacknell and Tanisha Tate

November is National Caregivers Month and the Defender is shining a light on Caregivers, who spend so much time taking care of others, that it’s easy to lose sight of taking care of themselves.

Defender Managing Editor ReShonda Tate shares the personal story of life as a caregiver for her and her sister.

Our New Normal

It was August, 2013. I had just wrapped a wonderful booksigning for my latest novel in Southwest Houston. As usual, my vibrant, independent mother was in attendance. As the signing wrapped, she complained of a headache and said she was heading home.

Tanisha Tate, Nancy Blacknell and ReShonda Tate a few weeks before the surgery.

Fifteen minutes later, a reader ran back inside and yelled, “I think something happened to your mother!”

I raced outside and found my mother passed out in the parking lot. Thank God she had on white because it was dark and a passer-by just happened to see the white clothing. My mother was rushed to the hospital where she was told those incessant headaches (for which she swallowed Aleve like candy) was actually a grapefruit-sized brain tumor and she would have to undergo surgery asap. After fighting my sister and I (she had a trip to Arkansas the next day that she didn’t want to cancel), she was taken into surgery.

Those were the longest hours of our lives. The Aleve had thinned her blood tremendously (read those side effects warning labels, people). Fourteen hours later, we got word that my mother had suffered a stroke during surgery. Her skull had to be removed and her prognosis was bleak. She couldn’t talk or walk. We hid the mirrors because my Diva mother would’ve never been able to handle seeing herself without a skull. As she lay intubated and close to a vegetable, I remember a doctor telling me clearly, “This is as good as it’s going to get.”

But seven surgeries and six hospitals/rehab facilities later (thank you, TIRR), my mother was released home.

We still have regular dinners out.
A good support system is crucial, along with normalcy. Phil taking Nancy out on a date.

That’s where our lives changed forever. My sister, Tanisha Tate, became her primary caregiver, leaving the house she owned and moving into our mother’s home. To date, she remains her primary caregiver, with my assistance, my mother’s longtime boyfriend, Phil, and a few family members.

We try to continue to give my mother a sense of normalcy, including her in events, taking her to Ross every other day (no, for real) and allowing her to get fully dressed, complete with makeup, even though she’s only wheeling to the living room to watch TV. Little things like that used to be frustrating, but in those moments, I try to remind myself that if I’m frustrated, imagine how she feels.

Enjoying an afternoon tea.

When I have my mom, it’s hard. She’s in a wheelchair. She has aphasia, which is the loss of ability to understand or express speech, caused by brain damage. She’s still feisty and knows what she wants, and can often communicate those needs to those who know her. But because she can’t talk or walk, she will always need a caregiver. I know that if it’s hard for me, it’s ten times tougher for my sister, who is there with her every single day.

My sister is an inspiration to other caregivers, though. For ten years, she’s been carrying the torch, yet she has found a way not to lose herself in caring for our mother.

“I had to find a way to have my own life,” Tanisha said. “I schedule time for self-care. I get massages regularly. Get my hair done. I’m active with my sorority. I enlist the help of family members and go places with my friends. I would tell anyone in this position that it is okay to have whatever emotion you need in order to sustain. It took a long time, but I have finally figured out how to make this situation work for me.”

She’s even started a blog – https://whocaresforthecaregiver.net to help others. And one of her biggest pieces of advice – release the guilt when it’s time to make yourself a priority.

“It’s important that you don’t feel guilty about taking care of yourself,” she said. “You’re no good to the person you’re caring for if you don’t. You can’t pour from an empty cup. That is advice that I live by.”

I often find myself feeling sad because my mother was such a fierce and independent woman and now requires constant care. But instead, I have chosen to focus on the positive. That despite what doctors said, God had the final say – and mother is still here and He’s given us – especially my sister, the strength and means to care for her. Just as she cared for us all our lives.

Read: Black Caregivers: Taking care of themselves while taking care of others