Caretaker Crash Course

I am not a caretaker. I have known this in the abstract for a long time – in the same way that I have known I am not a skydiver or a bungee jumper or an educator of small children. I fear I am missing the fundamental skill sets needed to do any of these things well.

I am not patient. I am not tolerant of incapacity. I am not sympathetic for long periods of time. I am self-centered. I do not know how to converse with people of significantly lower mental capacity, whether due to birth, circumstances, medication, or age. I do not know how to act. I am not comfortable.

This is not me being overly harsh with myself. I know I’m a good person. I know I have many positive attributes. But I also know where my strengths lie and where they do not. They do not lie in care-taking.

Unfortunately, we don’t always get to pick the roles we fill. Today, my husband had oral surgery. Two wisdom teeth removed from the left side of his mouth. General anesthesia.

He took his pill as directed before we left the house to drop off the kids. As usual, he drove. After dropping them off and picking up some breakfast for me, we stopped at the grocery store to get his soft foods. I asked if he needed me to go in or if I could stay outside and finish eating.

“Um. I think I can do it but it might be good for you to start driving. If I don’t come out in a few minutes, you should maybe come in looking for me.” I looked up surprised. I wasn’t expecting to be needed yet, but the pill had left him feeling like he had had two large glasses of wine on an empty stomach. “My brain is still processing normally, but I don’t really care what it’s coming up with.”

Needless to say, I ate my biscuit as we walked the grocery store aisles and then I drove him to the surgeon.

I had brought some cards to fill out for people I know who are suffering right now. (Thanks again to the friend who taught me the value of writing.) As I wrote them and worried about my abilities to fulfill my duties for my husband’s care when he came out, I thought about two of the letter recipients. Both were older women who had been caring for their ailing husbands for a long time. One had just lost hers and the other was preparing to.

This awaits me in the future, I thought. Likely, I will someday be caring for my husband long term as I am today.

I’m not going to lie. It scared the you-know-what out of me. Shoot, even just today scares me. I’m not used to being the one in charge. Yes, I am a modern, educated, independent woman. I am the bread winner. I am responsible for many important things at work.

But I’ve also been married to my high school sweetheart for twenty-one years. Since shortly after I moved out of my mother’s home. He is strong and confident and capable. I haven’t had to pay attention to where we are going or what needs to be done. If nothing else, he’s always been there to bounce my ideas off of. I’m a waffler, not a decision maker. But now I’m in charge.

I listened to the doctor give me instructions and, incredibly, managed to come up with important and relevant questions. I waited for the nurse to guide him down the hall. As I reached out for his other arm, she asked me if I had him.

“I guess so, but if he goes down, I don’t think there’s anything I can do to stop him.” My husband has a solid 100 pounds on me. I thought of the absurdity of this petite woman leading this mountain of a man outside. Got him?! As long as he keeps walking on his own, I can guide him to the car, but that’s all I’ve got!

This again paralleled what I’ve heard the older women in my congregation talk about. Husbands falling in bathtubs and having to call sons to help get them out. Not being able to lift them out of bed or help lower them into a recliner. I was likely getting a taste of our old age together. Assuming we are lucky enough to get there.

When we got in the car, I told him that the office lady had suggested picking up the crushed ice at Sonic to use for his ice pack. He commented that it didn’t seem like it had been an hour. I reminded him he had been sleeping. He nodded.

I turned down the main road in town toward Sonic and he asked me where we were going. “To pick up ice at Sonic, remember?”

He stared out the windshield. “Can I get a slush?”

“You can’t drink anything out of a straw, remember?”

He made spooning motions with his hand. “You want to eat it with a spoon?” He nodded. “Ok. What flavor?”

The flavor conversation didn’t go very well. Actually, he didn’t give a flavor at all. Despite having grown up getting slushes at Sonic, he needed to see the menu, where he then chose the same flavor he always chooses and that I had recommended to him at the beginning.

Then he mumbled something to the effect of, “Don’t they still have sandwiches?” I think he might have said “ice cream sandwiches”, but I wasn’t sure.

“You can’t have a sandwich, remember?”

He used his hands to pantomime cutting it up in little pieces and shoving it in the far side of his mouth. “I can cut it up and suck on it,” he said.

“You aren’t sucking on sandwiches. We bought you plenty of soft foods.” He let the request go.

When the lady at the window handed me the bag of ice and the slush, he asked, “We didn’t get any ice cream?”

“No, we didn’t get any ice cream,” I said as I pulled away. “Do you want some ice cream?”

“Ice cream would be nice.”

“You want me to stop at Braum’s?”

“Sicilian Orange would be nice. We have eggs?”

“Yes, we have eggs.”

I headed down the street to Braum’s, wondering how strictly they really meant the instruction that said to take the patient straight home.

As I pulled into the parking lot, he said, “Sicilian Orange would be nice.”

“Ok, honey. Just wait here.”

Ok, I guess it’s not that I can’t do this job. Or even that I can’t do it well. I can do it. I can even smile at his loopy comments. What really has me down, besides the weight of responsibility, is the loneliness. How fun is it to smile at his comments if I can’t share them with him?

I know this is just a day or two. I know that. But I keep thinking about my older friends who have been doing this day in and day out. That man has been their partner in life for years – decades! How impossibly hard is it to do all this work and not be able to share the burden with your spouse? For your spouse to be the burden?

We visited one of the women’s husbands in the hospital. He had been asleep for days and wouldn’t wake up. “I just want him to wake up,” she said. “It’d all be ok if he’d just wake up.”

I felt her pain but I didn’t really get it until now. Loneliness and helplessness, and the desire to have it lifted… even just briefly… by that person you love more than anyone else. That person you’ve shared so much with. That person who lights up your room. Children and parents and friends can help, but they aren’t him. Without him, you feel lost and adrift.

My husband will be back in action soon. I really feel for those women and men who have lost or are in the process of losing their life partners. What a scary journey. I know from my mother’s example that there is hope and light on the other side, but it is still a scary journey. You are in my prayers and if we know each other personally, please know you can call me. Anytime.

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5 thoughts on “Caretaker Crash Course

  1. “Loneliness and helplessness, and the desire to have it lifted…even just briefly…by that person you love more than anyone else. That person you’ve shared so much with. That person who lights up your room. Children and parents and friends can help, but they aren’t him. Without him, you feel lost and adrift.”

    Um, this. Your words absolutely crush me. This is what I felt when I lost the best relationship of my life, never to get it back, and never knowing how it all went wrong. This must be how my mother felt (and sometimes, I suspect, still does) after my Dad’s long battle ended, almost two decades ago. This is agonizing just to read; a sudden realization that one day might bring this feeling again. It is easy to say “better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all,” but that is slender comfort to the one left behind. Perhaps this glimpse into a possible future state will strengthen what sounds like an already very loving, joyful, and secure bond with your husband. May you both continue to revel in each other’s company for many decades to come.

    • I wondered how this post might affect people who had experienced profound loss. I even contemplated, just briefly, not posting it at all. But it was one of those moments that felt so… significant. We always think we won’t get old but I saw my old age with such clarity in that moment. The parallels were worth exploring.

      I’m sorry the words were agonizing and crushing. You are right that it’s easy to say “Better to have loved and lost…” but that really doesn’t lessen the horrible feeling of loss. Thank you for the well wishes. I hope that you will get another chance sometime in the future.

      • …and, to be completely honest, the crushing and agonizing feelings were a mixture of empathy for you, and for my mother (and others who have experienced this kind of horrible pain) as well as a smaller part of me feeling the loss I once experienced and the fear that I may never again have the kind of love you describe.
        Please don’t feel for one minute that you shouldn’t have posted it. Just as certain “depressing” music often soothes some of us, your post was also soothing because reading what you wrote reminds me that my pain and fears are not unique. It is comforting to know others love as deeply as I do, and therefore it is not pointless to love so unconditionally. Thank you for sharing this moment of enlightenment with your readers. Truly.

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