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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A Tale of Two Tuesdays

My husband was out of town last week. Being a single mom of three kids is no easy task, even if you do have friends and family to help you out. Let me tell you how last Tuesday went.

I got up before 6:00, feeling the pressure to get all four of us out the door on time so that no one would be late to school. I dropped Jane off about 7:20 and Daryl shortly there after. As Hal and I climbed out of the truck at his school, I realized that in the chaos of leaving the house, I had not verified that he had his backpack. He did not.

I didn’t have time to drive home so I warned him to be careful and not have an accident or spill food or fall in mud because he didn’t have a change of clothes. Then I drove to work, parked, and thought about the day ahead of me. That’s when I remembered I had a presentation to make at 10:15. I glanced down at my usual attire of jeans and tennis shoes and knew it wouldn’t do.

As I pulled out of the parking lot to make the 15 minute drive home, I thought, “Well, at least I can get Hal’s backpack.” Which I did. Although I left my cell phone sitting on the shelf where I had set it while changing my pants. And then I drove right past the preschool with the backpack.

Work greeted me with a voicemail from a coworker informing me that the presentations had moved up. They were starting at 8:30. We could be on as early as 8:50 and they wanted the slides delivered by 8:00. It was 8:28 when I got the message. With a sigh, I put my yogurt back in the fridge, grabbed my presentation, and rushed off. The morning had not gone well.

My sister-in-law picked up the older two from school. I got Hal and met them at home. We had about 10 minutes before we had to head to the elementary school for Open House. At one point, I found myself standing outside the library with a third grader who desperately wanted to buy a book from the book fair, a preschooler who was trying to run off, and a tween telling me that her volleyball coach said she had to have her knee pads at practice, which she had left at home.

I was texting the coach, explaining that she would be very late if we had to go back for the knee pads, when the phone rang. I answered it and found myself talking to the lovely woman that watches Hal while we practice bells. She was trying to coordinate an alternate plan for the next night when another call came in. It was my sister-in-law, who had arrived at the school and wanted to know where I was. I rushed directions without saying hello, told the church lady I’d call her later, sent Daryl into the book fair, told Jane to grab Hal, finished the text, and then tried to take a deep breath as I grew a few more grey hairs.

I would later leave the school to drop Jane off at volleyball practice without saying goodbye to my sister-in-law who was still looking for me. So then we met at my house, where I brought home Sonic hamburgers for dinner. When we finished eating, I had to load the boys up so we could pick Jane up from practice. By the time we got back home, it was past bedtime, no one had practiced their violas or taken showers, and I was exhausted.

Let’s just say that Tuesday was representative of the week as a whole.

This Tuesday, I woke up sometime after 6:00 and rolled over to cuddle with my husband through a couple rounds of snooze on the alarm clock. I padded around in my pajamas and played with the kids as they got ready for school. Sometime after they left with dad, I got in the shower. A lazy and relaxed start to the day.

After work, I met Jane and my husband at the school for TAG Open House. I stayed to look around with Jane while Daddy picked up Hal from the preschool and then Daryl from an after-school activity. Then I dropped Jane off at volleyball and, again, picked up Sonic for dinner. (Their hamburgers are half-priced on Tuesdays. We cook veggies at home for the sides.)

We ate and took care of a few things before my husband headed into town to get Jane. I tried to get the boys to take care of their chores. When my husband got home, I gave Hal a bath while he conducted Daryl’s viola practice. Everyone was tucked into bed sometime fairly close to their bedtime. I don’t feel exhausted.

The difference between the two days is remarkable. The evenings were about the same in complexity yet I grew no new grey hairs tonight. There is nothing, in my mind, dishonorable about being a single parent. But this right here was a vivid illustration on the value of a two-parent household. Being able to share the load again has me skipping with joy. Welcome home, honey! I am so glad you are here.