My mother was a positive thinker. I don’t think her brain was necessarily hardwired for happiness, and I’m certain it didn’t have anything to do with her upbringing. My grandmother could find something negative to say about almost anything or anyone. And yet, my mother chose to believe that every challenge in life provided her with an opportunity for mental and spiritual growth.
She didn’t develop a positive attitude because her life was easy. Rather, her practice of positive thinking evolved over time because her life was hard.
My parents, Madelyn and Quentin, got married in 1942. Madelyn was eighteen-years-old. Quentin was twenty-three. Shortly after the wedding, Quentin was shipped off to the South Pacific where he fought in WWII for nearly three years.
When the war ended, he returned to Kansas and they started their life together on a dairy farm. It certainly didn’t turn out to be the romantic life she had envisioned as a teenager. They had four babies in five years. There was a tremendous amount of hard physical work, and there was never enough money.
The summer I was nine, we had prospects for a great wheat harvest, and then late one afternoon, thunderclouds started building in the southwest. When the rain started, it came in huge, heavy drops that quickly turned into hailstones the size of tennis balls. The storm couldn’t have lasted more than fifteen minutes, but by the time it passed through, our crops and our primary source of income for that year were gone.
That was the year Madelyn realized she hated everything about the farm, but she had four children to raise and she loved Quentin. Divorce was not an option, so she had to figure out a way to make it work.
She did two things that summer that changed her life. She got a job in town and she became a devotee of self-help books. Every evening shortly after five o’clock, she’d pull into the driveway rush out of her car and into the house. She would change out of her business clothes and into her work clothes, and then I would follow her straight to the milk barn.
I hadn’t learned to milk yet, but I loved to go with her and sit on the concrete steps that led into the pit of the barn and listen as she shared with me all the ideas she was gleaning from the newest book she was reading.
I will never forget the night she told me about Dr. Viktor Frankl, a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, who wrote the book Man’s Search for Meaning. She described how the Nazis had taken everything from him, including his family, his home, his business, and even his clothes. While she cranked grain into the metal stanchions, washed the manure off the cows’ teats, and swatted flies away from her face, she described how he and other prisoners at Auschwitz had suffered. I can still remember her reverence when she repeated Dr. Frankl’s statement, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Viktor Frankl became Madelyn’s personal hero. She knew she couldn’t control the weather. She was fully aware she would never have any influence over what they were going to get paid for their crops, but like Viktor Frankl, she believed she could become the master of her own mind.
Choose Your Attitude
Over the next thirty years, she had ample opportunities to choose her attitude toward multiple challenging situations. In 1970, she and I stood at the kitchen window and watched my three brothers, all dressed in military uniform, walk toward their cars after being home on a short leave. Her oldest son and youngest son were both carrying orders for Vietnam. In the 1980s, she took over the care of her parents, as well as her cantankerous father-in-law.
By 1990, she was struggling with some very serious physical problems. She was losing her vision due to macular degeneration. Her back was humped with osteoporosis. Although she’d had open heart surgery, her energy was minimal because of her congestive heart failure. But the thing that was frustrating her the most was the severe hearing loss that had been brought on as a result of the medication she was taking for her heart.
Then, on October 30, 1993, my father suffered a debilitating stroke and she became his caregiver. Over the course of the next six-and-a-half years she developed a lot of strategies to cope with her isolation, loneliness, and the emotional strain of caring for a semi-invalid husband. She went to the library frequently and checked out stacks of books by New Thought writers such as Charles and Myrtle Fillmore, Emmet Fox, and James Dillet Freeman. She learned to meditate. She listened to Deepak Chopra tapes, dabbled in flower essence, and at age seventy-five became a certified Reiki instructor.
Throughout the entire time she was caring for Quentin, she also wrote letters to me. I saved them, because to me, each one was like an episode of M*A*S*H. There was always something that made me laugh, something that made me cry, and something that proved it was possible to find hope even in the midst of loss and tragedy.
Give Yourself Permission to Be Human
My mother was not a saint. She prayed every day that she would be a willing channel for God’s love and compassion, and yet there were many days she felt like telling God to go find himself another servant. She got angry often, and she felt guilty often. She struggled with reactionary depression as well as clinical depression, and she constantly grieved the loss of the man my father had been before the stroke and prostate cancer assaulted his brain and body.
In spite of all that, about five years into her caregiving experience, she wrote to me and said, “I wish I had been keeping a journal all of these years. I think it would be interesting to see how I have grown mentally and spiritually. I also think my experiences might help other people who are in a similar situation.”
She knew I saved all her letters, and I believe she was giving me permission to share her story. Two years after her death, I started editing her unflinchingly honest and surprisingly funny letters into a book. I self-published, Letters from Madelyn: Chronicles of a Caregiver in 2007. Since then, as I have spoken at healthcare and caregiving conferences across the country, I have learned that her story is every caregiver’s story. The thing that makes hers unique is the fact that she wrote about everything she was experiencing and exactly how she felt about it in real time.
I came across a quote by Napoleon Hill recently that made me think of my mother. He said, “Every adversity, every failure, every heartache carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.”
I suspect Madelyn was very familiar with that quote, and I believe this philosophy helped her get through some very difficult times. She learned early on that her joy would not come from an absence of trouble or sorrow. Rather, it would come from having a purpose in life and knowing that although she would never have the ability to control her circumstances, she would always have the power to choose her attitude toward any person, thing, or event.
Often when I speak, people come up to me afterward and say, “I love your mother! She says the things out loud that I have been ashamed to think. She has given me permission to be human!”
If Madelyn were alive today, she would be humbled and overjoyed to know that her experiences actually are helping others cope with the emotional stress of caregiving. She would tell you that it was the hardest thing she ever did. She would tell you that she never felt noble, and she wouldn’t wish her experience on her worst enemy. She would also tell you that in the six-and-a-half years she cared for Quentin, she experienced more personal and spiritual growth than at any other time in her life, and if she were given the opportunity to do it over, she wouldn’t change a thing.