Carolyn Hax is away. The following first appeared in 2004.
Dear Carolyn: Ack. I need some advice here. My mom is being treated for leukemia in a city about four hours away. She's doing OK, but I'm a wreck. I have an older sister who's doing what she can to help out, but I really feel like I'm all alone in this. My husband is trying to help, but I can't define anything he can do besides buy me a new pair of shoes or two.
I just feel like my whole life is chaos — I'm trying to figure out how to handle the (heavy) demands of my job, be there for my mom and have some kind of life that doesn't revolve around me worrying that my mom is going to die.
Carolyn says: But she is going to die — maybe not of leukemia and maybe not soon (I hope not, of course), but of something, someday. What you fear is inevitable.
And therefore, all the time you spend fearing death is time wasted, time you could have spent doing something else more rewarding.
Your problem may seem like it's about your mother's illness, but it's really about managing limited time. This was true even before your mother got sick; everyone's clock is ticking, obviously. The gravity of her situation simply called this truth to your attention in a way that nothing else has in the past.
Call it the luckiest of unlucky breaks. So many people come to appreciate time limits only after they realize their time has expired on something — after someone has died, a child has grown up, an era has come to an end. You, though, are learning while you still have a chance to use that time.
So, use it. "Be there for her" by being there with her — and temper your own loneliness, too. Make a conscious choice to pare your life down to essentials, ruthlessly, to free up more time to spend with your mom. Be as strict as possible when you define essentials. Your livelihood, your mom, your marriage, your sanity. That's it.
Your sanity is easy. No matter what, choose one thing that sustains you, and keep doing it. Workouts, book group, church, ending each day with a bath.
As for your job, you can treat it as the immovable base of your schedule, but don't just assume you can't cut back or shuffle your days. Try. You would have to if you got sick, right? And the world would have to keep turning?
Your marriage, you should both use and nurture. Define your husband's job as running the household, also pared to essentials — keeping the fridge full and the clothes clean and the pets walked and the cars running. (This is in addition to the shoes, of course.) Then, thank him by saving a little bit of your time each week to give him your full, candlelit attention.
Once you're free to concentrate on Mom, keep only basic goals in mind: either to help extend her life, or to hold her hand as it ends. Either way, enjoy her, now. Use this hell as a lesson, to love those you love while you can.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at email@example.com, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at washingtonpost.com.