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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Like Mother, Like Daughter

My mom had a tradition when my brother and I were growing up. She took us to the dentist twice a year every year even though she didn’t have a lot of money to pay for those visits. And after each of those dentist visits, she would take us to Braum’s for a scoop of ice cream. She even took us after the occasional follow-up visits for fillings. That was fun. Trying to eat ice cream with half your face numb.

This might seem like an exceptionally illogical, bad parenting move. Taking your kids for a sweet treat after getting their teeth cleaned or repaired. Just inviting more trouble in the future. We loved her for it.

I think I might have inherited whatever gene caused my mom to engage in this activity. Today, I worked with the kids on cleaning their rooms and other parts of the house. And then we went outside and cleaned out the car.

Our car is one of the most junked-out vehicles on the road. Or at least, it seems that way to me. The floorboard in the backseat is usually not visible. Once we dug out all the toys and trash and clothes and books and… a seriously desiccated pomegranate, we were left with a floorboard covered with grass and dirt and bits of trash too small to pick up. I decided we needed to give the poor car a serious cleaning.

The kids were extremely well behaved while we waited at the car wash. When our car went out to the area where they vacuum and clean the inside, I saw the guy open the car, then walk away and ask one of his buddies to come help him out. The car belonging to the lady who came in considerably later than us was ready quite awhile before ours.

Eventually, though, the car was ready. It looked great! I thought the kids deserved a reward for working so hard and being on their best behavior. So I took a play from my mom’s playbook: I took them for ice cream. But the pizza was ready to be picked up too, so we didn’t eat it there. Yes, that’s right. I allowed three children to eat ice cream in the freshly cleaned car. Because I’m just that kind of special.

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