There is power within each of us. The power to act quickly and decisively; to take a stand; to protect those weaker than ourselves. We have differing beliefs on where that power truly resides; yet, whether we believe it is the Holy Spirit or some essence of who we are independent of a guiding Force—we have power.
The first time I remember feeling it and using it was when I was in my twenties. I was a home care nurse and enjoyed all the people I visited, listening to their stories and their worries, learning their traditions and histories. I soaked up a lot those first few years, about how to keep people independently living in their own homes, and how to help them transition when living at home was no longer possible.
Sometime during those formative home care years, my second-cousin Vicki called me to talk about her grandparents. Vicki and I were the same age and had grown up as closely-knit friends, having shared vacations, teenage dreams and teenage fears. Vicki’s mother, Martha Anne—well, I don’t know what was wrong with her. She could freeze you out with an unending indifference or fill a room with raucous exuberance or just terrify you.
Martha Anne was taking care of Vicki’s grandparents in their home. Vicki’s Grandpa—my Uncle Eddie—was disabled after a stroke, although his mind remained razor sharp. Her Grandma—Aunt Mary to me—was fine physically, but was lost in her Alzheimer’s world of dreams and visions.
“Grandpa says Mother isn’t taking good care of them and they need to get out of the house,” Vicki said. “I don’t know what to do—I don’t even know where to start.”
I thought about that a moment. “Well, we could call Adult Protective Services,” I said, putting my home care brain to work. “If he truly wants to leave, they can help Aunt Mary and him do that.”
We talked some more. Uncle Eddie had an attorney who was managing his funds through a trust—helpful, I thought. We agreed on the next steps: a preliminary call to the attorney and to APS, seeing if they had funds to go to a nursing home, and if APS could help us get them moved there.
Vicki and I met with APS a few times, driving an equidistant number of miles from different directions. I think I told my parents what was going on, but I don’t remember asking for help (even though this was the kind of thing PARENTS IN CHARGE normally took care of.) It just felt like we were taking the appropriate baby steps, things I would have recommended to someone else if I had been taking care of them.
I went around to a few nursing homes APS recommended and found one I really liked—clean, attentive, personal and caring. They had a grand piano in the lobby, something my Julliard-graduate aunt would love. Even though her mind was tucked away somewhere safe, her fingers still knew what to do when they found themselves on piano keys. The admissions director assured us they had room available and could keep Ed and Mary together in the same room.
So, on a Friday afternoon, I went to Uncle Eddie and Aunt Mary’s house with a couple APS workers. Vicki stayed at their offices, sitting by the phone. Her mother’s temper found its poison whenever Vicki was around so we decided to try to keep things pleasant.
I knocked on the door and waited until Martha Anne answered. She looked at me with those piercing eyes.
“Well, Margie, this is a surprise,” she said, not moving away from the doorframe and not bothering to smile. “What are you doing here?”
“Hi, Aunt Martha Anne,” I said, smiling as winningly as I could—no doubt with guilt leaking around the edges. “I met some friends here and thought we’d stop by to see Aunt Mary and Uncle Eddie. OK if we come in?”
The door closed a few inches. “I think not,” Martha Anne answered. “Today wouldn’t be a good day for that.”
I pressed on; Martha Anne became increasingly agitated and hostile—and wouldn’t budge. The APS workers expressed concern about Ed and Mary’s condition and that just made things worse. Martha Anne started screaming at us. We weren’t getting into that house. We went back to the APS office, defeated; we didn’t have the authority to force our way in.
There were few options on a Friday afternoon. We tried to get a court order but—well, as I said, Friday afternoon. We were told we didn’t have a prayer of getting one until Monday.
“I’m afraid she’s going to hurt them over the weekend,” I said. I looked at one of the APS workers, Anne.
“I agree,” she replied.
That was when “simple” ended. Anne called her husband, a police officer, who was off duty. He and a couple of his buddies donned their uniforms and went back with us to the house, standing with us at that front door. When Martha Anne answered, they told her there were concerns about her parents’ safety and they needed to check on them. She stood back and let just the police in, diligently watching me and the APS workers with hate-filled eyes.
A few minutes later, one of the policemen called for us to come in, and made sure we could. He looked at me.
“Your uncle wants to leave here with his wife,” he said. “He says it isn’t safe here for them anymore and he wants to go with you.”
With Martha Anne screaming at us, we somehow managed to get Ed and Mary downstairs and outside to my car. There was no time to grab clothes or any personal belongings, although I picked up a couple pictures on the way out to give them some little bit of home.
As I got into my car, Martha Anne chased after me, threatening to kill me. It was odd to see this tiny woman raising her fists and shaking them, filled with vitriole. One of the policemen pulled me aside.
“I’d take her threat seriously,” he said. “Stay away from her.” He paused, then let me know that they had never been there.
Somewhere along the line, Vicki and I had gone from honoring a simple request to finding ourselves in the middle of this bizarre, over-the-top drama. Somehow, we both figured out that we would have done anything—anything—to make sure that Ed and Mary were safe and cared for. Even when that “anything” was beyond what we thought we could do.
While Vicki and I went to Walmart to buy basics for Ed and Mary, the director of nursing made sure Ed and Mary were made to feel completely welcomed to their new home. I know that’s odd to say about an institution. But, the nurses stripped Ed and Mary’s dirty clothes off them, and found enough evidence of abuse that they decided to take pictures of both of them, in case Martha Anne tried to get them back home. The nurses’ protective instincts were on full alert.
It was an extraordinary day for Ed and Mary, for Vicki and me, for the APS workers and the policemen and the nurses. We all went beyond our own limits and found power. For Ed, the power to say “enough.” For Vicki, the power to overcome fear. For me, the power to ask for more from the APS workers who had done so much. For the APS workers themselves and those extraordinary policemen, the power to put humanity first.
That was my first moment of power and it was extraordinary, its reverberations still felt in my life today. And yet, it would be decades before I found that same power again, not turned outward, but turned inward to help myself. Why is it that we are willing to use that power for others, but not for ourselves? Why does “empowerment” sometimes feel like self-indulgence?
We have everything, everything we need inside ourselves to harness our power for ourselves. Isn’t it time that we loved ourselves with the same dedication and willpower that we love others? If we take up the power to be our best selves, doesn’t it give us more capacity to be present and powerful for those around us?
Think about it.