Archive for the ‘Caregiving & Spirituality’ Category

Both

November 30, 2007

The tireless caregiver,
that’s what Martha was.
She was always working,
always moving.
Her hands and feet,
let alone her mind,
seldom slowed.
Mary, her sister, took a different approach.
She sat with her body stilled,
her mind quieted.
She listened with her whole being.
As we might expect, Martha got perturbed—
“Mary ought to be lending a hand!”
First Martha stewed about it,
then she spewed.
Her sister kept concentrating on what
the man before both of them
wanted to share.

This story is a classic,
recorded first in the Gospel of Luke.
The man in the story is Jesus.
As the tale has come to us,
he has a few words to say to Martha.
In a very understanding manner,
he tells her she comes across
as awfully anxious, awfully burdened,
with all her scurrying about.
She’s both distracted and distracting.
Her sister, on the other hand,
is single-mindedly quiet,
concentrating, absorbing,
working to understand.
Mary has chosen to do a very good work,
different as it is.

Technically, this is not a caregiver story.
While a kind of care was being shown that day,
that wasn’t the real issue
behind this human event.
The issue was how these two people—
sisters in flesh, sisters in spirit—
related to the man in their midst.
One bustled around,
trying to make everything just right,
all the while grousing inwardly
about all the work she “had” to do.
The other settled herself,
all eyes and ears,
all heart and soul,
and became both present and attuned.
One displayed a kind of caring.
The other breathed a kind of caring.

Why do I retell this story today?
Not because it is a religious one,
but because it is a human one,
a universal one.
I believe there is a Martha and a Mary
inside virtually all caregivers.
The Martha in us is primed for action,
ready to roll up the sleeves
and start swinging those arms.
If we’re vulnerably honest,
our Martha is also usually invested
in making sure we’re seen in this way.
So a little huffing and puffing
and a random louder-than-normal sigh
can help bring our point home.
The Mary in us somehow knows
that truly effective caring can happen
when we’re doing seemingly nothing,
or at least very little.
We’re sitting, taking in, communing.
We’re not trying to demonstrate caring;
we’re simply inhaling it and exhaling it
so it begins to fill the space we’re in.

I believe that within all of us as caregivers
there is a valid place for our Martha—
our aware and discerning Martha,
as well as a place for our Mary—
our purposeful and committed Mary.
As thoughtful caregivers,
we’re not one or the other—
we’re both.
Moreover, our partners in care know that too,
and are grateful for it.

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Good Life

November 28, 2007

Novelist Helen Schulman’s father
required significant caregiving
for the ten years
before he died.
He had many acute illnesses,
ending up nearly paralyzed.
It was very hard on everyone involved.
In the first chapter of a new anthology,
An Uncertain Inheritance:
Writers on Caring for Family,
Ms. Schulman tells of her brother asking,
as he ended a visit to their father,
“What can I do for you, Dad?”
The old man, a former physician,
bedfast and terribly uncomfortable, said,
“Have a good life.”

What a remarkable response!
What can I do for you, Dad?
How can I help you, Mom?
What will assist, my Dear One so ill?
And the words come back to us,
“This is what will help me:
please have a good life.”
That’s not what we expect to hear,
yet it’s such a freeing reply.
“It will do me good to know
that you’re making sure your life
is going just as well as it can.”
I believe that, deep inside,
that’s what almost all care receivers want—
they want their caregivers to live fully,
to know happiness,
to experience fulfillment.
The earmarks of such a life
will be different for each of us.
Within our routines as caregivers,
and especially beyond those roles,
we have questions to ask ourselves
as we take seriously the other’s desire—
and our own desire—
that we have a good life.
What does bring us genuine happiness,
and what are the ways we can encourage that,
here and now?
What does give our days meaning,
and how can we make sure
we savor that meaning, and preserve it?
Where, and how,
do we experience beauty in our days,
and can we find it more consistently,
if not more often?
How do we fulfill that God-given potential
that is uniquely ours and no one else’s?
Truly, how do we live a good life
while honoring all those around us,
especially the one in our care?
I believe it is our responsibility
as thoughtful caregivers
to live our way lovingly
into all those answers.

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Carried

November 16, 2007

Bernie was in chemotherapy
for her breast cancer.
Our lives were laden
with anxiety and fear.
As her caregiver,
I often felt lonely.
Our children were away at school.
Friends were supportive, but in the end
this was our journey to make, not theirs.
Also, my young business was struggling,
compounding my disquiet.
I remember that spring evening well.
My wife was lying in our bed,
ill from that day’s treatment.
I could not leave her,
nor did I want to leave her,
but I was tired of being stuck inside.
So I opened wide the windows
to hear Bernie if she called
and stepped into our backyard.
I stood there alone, feeling sad—
sad for Bernie and for our lives,
sad also about needing to be a caregiver.
In honesty, I was feeling something in addition—
I was pitying myself.
I don’t like to admit that, but it’s true.
Head down, shoulders slumped,
I stood in our lawn
and felt sorry for myself.
Then two things happened.
I slowly lifted my head
and before me was the sky—
an amazing quilt of cottony clouds,
radiant with reds and pinks and blues.
In the next instant
a quotation I had recently memorized
came at me and pierced me at my core.
Sometimes I go about pitying myself
and all the time my soul is being carried
on great winds across the sky.

It’s from the Ojibway Indians,
known to us also as the Chippewas.
In the evening stillness
I was stabbed with that spiritual truth
in a way I have not forgotten.
True, life was not going as I wished,
but had I been left entirely alone,
entirely on my own?
No, I had not.
True, I held fears and anxieties,
but were those all I held?
No, for I still carried fervent hopes,
and equally fervent dreams.
I still carried love
and I felt carried by love.
In that deepening dusk
I could not see what lay ahead
but was such mystery so bad, so wrong?
For could it not also touch a larger mystery,
including the largest Mystery of all?
And while I was busy pitying myself,
was I not being held by something
much larger than myself,
whether or not I had accepted that
moments before,
whether or not I had the words
to describe it at all?
I spent many evenings that spring and summer
photographing the swirling clouds
from our backyard.
I still remember the message those vibrant skies
sent me again and again
as I lived my way into my new work
as Bernie’s caregiver.
I hope you are finding your messages too,
helping you know that your soul is always,
always being carried on great winds
across the even greater sky.

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Equal

November 14, 2007

I read an interview
with Lonnie Ali,
wife of Muhammed Ali.
He has Parkinson’s disease.
She referred to herself
not as his caregiver
but as his care partner.
I believe the language we use—
as a culture, as families, as individuals—
indicates the values we hold
and the principles that guide our lives.
So I lingered on her deliberate description
of who she is in her role.
As I have written elsewhere,
if we see ourselves principally as caregivers,
then someone else must necessarily be
on the other end of all that giving.
That’s how the term care receiver
came into being.
While it’s possible to maintain true equality
between self-named givers
and commonly-referred-to receivers,
I believe it is difficult to do so.
Those who are always on the receiving end of things
usually come to feel that they’re
not as strong, not as important,
not as valid.
So I like this idea of care partnering.
I like what it signifies:
we share in something;
we participate together;
we’re equals.
Indeed, that is our clear reality.
We were equally given birth
and we are equally moving to our deaths.
We are equally individual,
equally deserving of attention,
equally due common respect.
Any feelings we have are equal.
So are any yearnings, any dreams, any hopes.
We’re equally prone to mistakes,
equally capable of regrets,
equally called to forgiveness,
equally qualified to be forgiven.
Our pasts are equally a part of us.
Our futures on earth are equally unknowable.
We are absolutely equally human.
We are made up of equal sparks of the divine.
So Lonnie is right—
at the ground of our common experience
we are nothing less than even partners
from beginning to end.

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Trust

August 24, 2007

Kathy is a teacher.
Her husband Rich
has his MBA,
but he no longer works.
Twenty years ago
he was in an accident
and suffered a traumatic head injury,
followed by several brain surgeries.
His physical and mental capacities
have become noticeably compromised.
Recently Kathy told me about a memorable experience
related to being Rich’s caregiver
that influenced how she gives care today.
One night he did not return from the restaurant
where he had gone alone to eat.
As he drove home,
he became disoriented and got lost.
Worse, he was caught in a terrible storm
with strong winds and heavy rain.
He called Kathy on his cell phone,
saying he didn’t know where he was
and didn’t know what to do.
As he was talking,
his cell phone battery went dead.
Concerned and frightened,
Kathy drove around in the dark looking for him,
but it proved useless and she returned home.
As she sat alone, crying,
wondering what she could do,
she ended up on her knees, praying.
In essence her prayer went,
“God, I’ve done all I can.
You’re going to have to take care
of the rest.”
Her prayer said, she suddenly grew calmer.
She got up and prepared for bed.
Minutes later Rich called.
He had found his way to a bar,
someone told him where he was,
and Kathy was able to meet him there
and take him home.
She had told me this story in response
to my asking about the lessons
her caregiving had been teaching her.
She said,
“I learned that night that
I have to place some of this responsibility
in God’s hands.
I do what I can,
and the best I can.
But I cannot do all.
I have to entrust the rest.”

Kathy is right.
We caregivers cannot handle absolutely everything
for the one in our care.
Sometimes we must sleep.
Sometimes we must be away.
Sometimes we reach the limits of our knowledge,
or our ability, or our ingenuity.
When we’ve done our level best,
and all that can reasonably be asked,
then ours is to do that next thing:
to allow some of the responsibility
to fall somewhere else,
trusting in the eventual outcome.
That Trust will hold.

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