I’ve always heard that the hardest job in the world is parenting. Mothering in particular. I’m not a mother. For many different reasons, I probably will never be a mother. But I have been a family caretaker and I believe that would be the better description of the hardest job in the world because it suits many categories: mother, father, parent, daughter, son, niece, nephew, loved one. Many of us begin certain roles never expecting them to morph into other categories. As a wife, I never expected to be a caregiver at the age I became one. At 24, the only other role I anticipated was caretaker of a child, but that wasn’t in the cards at that stage of our life together. Instead, I became a caretaker to my 36 year old husband.
A woman shared with me the story of care taking for her elderly Father yesterday. She then told me “Brenda, I don’t normally share this with everyone, but…” and I nodded. I have heard this a lot. “I cared for my own husband, so I know a bit about what you’re sharing.”
This morning I confirmed my attendance at a caregiver support group to share my journey from my book. It’s the first one I’ve had the opportunity to schedule and it’s exciting. But then my brain clams up. I guess I need to go back there. At times, going back to the time of care giving for my husband is nearly, if not more, painful than after I lost him. The watching him die part that is. That destroys you and that’s what took months of therapy to work past. Did I get enough therapy to be strong enough to share this journey out loud, beyond my written my words? Am I too far past the healing to let my mind relive those events authentically to connect with these caregivers? Can I find that genuine part of me, again, who wants to place myself back in those moments to help these caregivers in present day?
I know what it’s like to do the things required of a caretaker. To hug them, to believe in them even when the future seems too bleak. To give comfort to a pain you do not understand. To forgo your own self care so they may be more comfortable. To give up every waking moment to them so they can receive the best care possible. To learn medical terminology you never before understood. To become a walking medical record for that person. To be their advocate when the medical staff isn’t comprehending the patient’s needs. To deal with bodily functions you never thought possible. To see things you cannot unsee. To love and empathize without making them feel in adequate. I know what that’s like.
That journey asked a lot of me. It took so much from him and he wore the word “cancer” better than I imagine I could. It only seemed to devastate him at moments, yet I wonder if he too cried when I left, as I cried when I left him. The only moments of the day, when I was alone in my car or bed, I would shed the pent up frustration and worry that I couldn’t expose to him when we were together. Forever being strong because he asked that of me and strong and faith were all we had left.
Being a caretaker exposes your life down to the core parts of who you are. There is no room for fluff, for material things, for extravagance. In a way, it’s the best thing that can happen to a family because it forces upon you this need to be exactly who you are. It also brings out this strength, a strength you may never before have found. It did that for me as a caretaker, and then as a widow. I found something in myself, something that seems again hidden at times, that I didn’t know I possessed. Sometimes I wonder if I just thrive best under intense pressure because it requires of me something that daily life does not.
At the end of the day though, what is left for a caretaker, is nothing. There is no energy to do much beyond caring for the person they love and depending upon the circumstances which put them in this role, that end of the day can break you. The wall of strength comes down and you are left with the pure and overwhelming thoughts of concern that can overtake your mindset. There are few times to care for yourself. Finding time for a haircut seems impossible let alone a date with a friend. But concerned friends and family, if they are good and really care, will make you find that time even if it doesn’t exist. You need it for your sanity. The person you are caring for needs it to reflect on what is really going on with their bodies. I was fortunate enough to have a few key friends and family members who asked me to find that time because otherwise, I may have gone a little crazy.
This caregiver group is a door opened and I recall now how hard it is find the time for oneself when you are a caretaker. The fact that they meet once a month is amazing given the time commitment even that small amount of time requires from a caretaker. They are pulling themselves away from their scary situations, on the faith that nothing bad will happen while they have stepped away, to meet and support one another. With that in mind, I’ll go back to my own scary place and face those memories again for them. I can do that because I remember the impact left upon me for those who took the time to pull me away from that uncertain time in my life. The time when I thought if I left his side, he would die.
Wow Brenda…..all I can say is, “Yup!”. It is an experience that nobody gets until they have walked in those shoes. And yes, it changes a person to the core. I believe it changed me for the better and it is a journey that is forever seared in my brain and I hope that I never have to do it again. But, if a loved one is in need I would most certainly step up and do it again because there is no greater gift one can give than to be there for someone when they are at their weakest and most vulnerable.