My neighbor Kathy
cared for her parents
as they grew older.
They each died, she said,
quoting her father,
of “acute TMB”—
acute too many birthdays.
In their home, in her home,
and finally in the nursing home,
she did what she could to help.
Her caregiving had its real limits
because Kathy has degenerative joint disease.
She has had 30 surgeries through the years.
So as she cared for them as they aged,
they were caring for her,
their daughter who lived alone,
as she negotiated chronic illness.
When they couldn’t support her physically,
they were there psychologically and spiritually.
Kathy’s children grew up with her medical condition
and learned to provide care for her
in many everyday ways,
just as she cared for them
as only a mother knows how.
Today that continuum of family care
continues to unfold.
These weeks Kathy’s oldest child, Mary,
is doing heavy-duty caregiving
for her 3-year-old son, Ben,
who has undergone fairly radical surgery
for a birth defect.
He came home with five different tubes
protruding from his body.
It’s been quite a caregiver’s saga,
bordering some days on the traumatic.
So Kathy is now acting in the ways she can
as caregiver to Mary and Ben and their family,
knowing it will be a long haul.
At the same time she deals daily
with her own disabling condition,
which Mary does not forget either.

So often we make it sound
so simple, so clear-cut:
“He is the caregiver;
she is the care receiver.”
The reality is, however,
that we’re seldom just one or the other.
We move in and out of these roles,
almost in a fluid motion.
And we can be giver and receiver simultaneously,
caring for another as we’re able,
while they reach out to us
in the ways that they’re able.
This reality blurs the distinction
between who each of us is.
This blurred experience makes these relationships
all the more equal,
all the more human,
and, when we’re fortunate,
all the more lovely.
May we all know that fortune.

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