By JASON REYNOLDS
Tennessee Christian News
Shelbyville, Tennessee, native Mary Jo Graham talks about her experiences — and especially, her emotions — in caring for her elderly parents in a newly published book.
Graham is the daughter of Rhoda and the late Billy Gunter of Shelbyville. She has self-published a book titled, “When He Sends Redbirds: Walking Through Emotions as a Caregiver.”
Rhoda Gunter is a retired executive secretary from Nationwide Express. Billy Gunter was a retired Shelbyville postal worker. He was extremely social, and before his health got bad, would spend all of Saturday mornings shopping at Kroger and talking to people. He often met newcomers to Shelbyville and would introduce them to long-time residents so the newcomers would have friends, Graham said.
Rhoda Gunter is “an extraordinary woman,” said Graham, who lives in Murfreesboro. “She always took care of Dad.”
That is, she took care of Billy until June 6, 2012, when she tried climbing a ladder to cut down a large tree limb. That didn’t work — she fell, and shattered both legs.
You may wonder at a woman her age trying such a thing, Graham said. But at 73 years old, highly independent Rhoda had stayed busy taking care of Billy (who was 83), doing landscaping in her yard, volunteering at the hospital, and more.
Following trauma surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Rhoda was transferred to Glen Oaks Health and Rehabilitation, where she lay immobilized for the summer while her legs healed. She returned home close to the start of fall, but still faced mobility challenges.
Being a caregiver
In the meantime, though, Graham had to move into her parents’ home to take care of her dad, a job that took nearly constant attention. That meant leaving behind her husband, Jeff, and 18-year-old daughter, Mary Lee, and everything else in Murfreesboro.
The book is really about the emotions of being a caregiver and not about how to be a caregiver, Graham said. She is extremely honest in sharing her emotions and thoughts, both good and especially those that were not so good. She shares entries from her journal and from her favorite devotional, “Jesus Calling,” by Sarah Young.
She did get some relief from hired caregivers, allowing her to get a few hours off here and there. But the situation continued to affect her.
Graham writes about the impact of being disconnected from her own family and the daily struggles with her father, who had a very set routine and preferences for how things were done. Those two things quickly took a toll on her spiritual and emotional well–being. Those emotions ran the gamut from anger to guilt to loneliness. Eventually, she came to realize that she did not have to feel guilty about those emotions.
Graham said she learned to “pull on the Lord.”
“That made me appreciate him as a person, and his personality and his humor,” she said. “Without that perspective of the Lord, you tend to focus on the negative. The Lord realigns your focus.”
Her issues included a great deal of soul-searching, questioning where God was in the process, and coming to realize she had been making an idol of her time (wanting to be in control of her life and time).
“I shouldn’t feel upset that I had those emotions,” she said. “This book is a tool for caregivers, to relieve the pressure of feeling you have to suck up those emotions.”
Coming to those realizations helped her as her parents’ situation continued to change. When Rhoda returned home, she still could not bear weight on her legs for some time. In the meantime, Billy’s health was declining and he had to use a walker/wheelchair combo. Soon, Graham was able to return home; Rhoda and hired caregivers took over Billy’s care.
Billy’s health grew worse, and he moved into Glen Oaks in November 2012. He stayed there for about six months before passing.
Buying the book
Glen Oaks is featured prominently as that’s the location where Rhoda did rehab and Billy lived at once his health declined. The family’s home church, First Christian, is frequently mentioned as well.
Graham will hold a book signing on Sunday, Dec. 21, 2014, at First Christian, from 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. The book is available on Amazon and all major book chain websites, and it will be available in the bookstore at World Outreach Church in Murfreesboro, where Graham attends.
A daughter’s love
Rhoda told me that after reading the book, the thing that strikes her is her daughter’s love for her.
“She loves her mother, and I love her dearly,” Rhoda said. “I’m so proud of her.”
“I told her I’m glad that I could furnish you material for your book,” Rhoda said in jest.
About the author
Graham currently works as an event coordinator at a private Christian school. She left a job at a Murfreesboro school just before becoming her parents’ caregiver, and her book details God’s timing in that circumstance.
Graham published the book under the business name Hidden Crosses. The name refers to a concept of God showing Himself in subtle ways (through friends and circumstances. Graham paints “hidden crosses” in abstract art that she creates. She plans to eventually do more ministry using the Hidden Crosses title such as speaking engagements.