CAREGIVER STORIES: TASKS, TITLES, AND CHALLENGES
Sometimes family members deny their title as caregivers, saying, “Oh, I’m not a caregiver—I’m just his wife, fulfilling my vow.” This amusing, poignant story defines the many hats that caregivers wear, the breadth of the care they give, and the duties they perform so selflessly.
LeAnn Thieman, coauthor Chicken Soup for the Caregiver’s Soul
We trust that somehow, good will be the final goal of ill.
Alfred Lord Tennyson
Tasks, Titles, and Challenges
Eyes pop open as if they’re spring-loaded. Darkness still crouches behind closed blinds. I turn my head just enough to see the bedside clock. Pick any number between midnight and three AM . . . it’ll never be enough to classify as a good night’s sleep. I lie there listening with envy to my husband Kay’s deep, even breathing.
“Just turn off your mind,” he often suggests. If only it had a switch.
Turning on my side, with a clear view of the clock’s digital face, I watch the red squares and angles rearrange themselves in their painfully slow, electronic dance toward daylight. The monotony produces a hypnotic state that sets in around dawn, uncannily synchronized with my bright-eyed, well rested, disciplined husband’s awakening.
Though he can’t leap tall buildings, he can and does defy the laws of physics as he silently lifts his six-foot-five-inch, 240-pound frame off the bed so as not to disturb me. He pads barefoot to the dark closet, slipping legs into jeans and arms into sleeves with just the slightest whisper of skin against fabric. Shoes and socks in hand, he tiptoes to the family room to finish dressing and watch the news. Within minutes, he brings a glass of chocolate-flavored milk and sets it on my bedside table. The soft tink on the marble top reminds me to take my morning medications. I’m left to snooze as Kay goes to explore his day.
As painful, deforming, and debilitating rheumatoid arthritis has taken over my body, new tasks, new titles and new challenges have taken over his life. With hands the size of baseball mitts he can in one minute wield a hammer or wheelbarrow and the next carefully cradle a tender joint.
Finally I’m awake and ready for my bath. First Kay cleans an open wound on my hip with alcohol, packs it with gauze and covers it with a sheet of waterproof, adhesive film. After lowering me into the tub and adjusting the water’s temperature, he adds the perfumed bubbles and leaves me to splash about.
Kay waits in anticipation for me to finish, because his newest title is that of HEAVY EQUIPMENT OPERATOR. We recently installed a lift over the tub. He fastens a sturdy snap hook into the ceiling track. The white unit is shaped like the skull of an animal left on the prairie to die, its bones bleaching in the sun—we’ve named it Angus. Once I’m wrapped in a fabric sling with six straps looped over Angus’s “horns,” a push of a button and I’m airborne. A scene from Free Willy comes to mind.
A mound of frothy mousse in hand, my resident HAIR STYLIST coats the thinning strands. “I shampoo it clean, then you make me glop it with this stuff,” he teases.
“It needs the body. The label says it will ‘volumize’ what little hair I have left.”
Stirring about with a comb, he coaxes the short curls into submission.
As CAPTAIN OF PANTYHOSE PATROL he’s tops. I need never worry about saggy socks; he pulls them on with such gusto! Always astonished at the elasticity built into each one, he playfully sees just how high they’ll stretch. If it weren’t for that tight center seam, I’d be trussed to my neck like a sausage! He watches for rough hands and fingernails, frets over a snag, and despairs when he spots a run.
He’s equally as proficient as BOSS OF THE ZIPPER, BRA AND BUTTON BRIGADE. I risk some touchy-feely horseplay with this one, but chance it. I don’t know if he’s an all-around male lady-in-waiting?—woman’s valet?—female’s male attendant? Whatever, he’s good.
Kay has perfected his CINDERELLA role of cooking, cleaning, shopping and doing laundry. He delivers cookies and fresh bread to neighbors. That used to be my role. He shares recipes and garden produce, cooks for funerals and church suppers, and loves a table surrounded by contented, smiling guests. Occasionally, a load of laundry emerges slightly tinted. The last culprit . . . dark blue pajamas.
Eating is a necessity, cleaning is not. Spotted windowpanes reduce sun fading, I tell him. As he dusts, Kay muses that God is in the details. If that’s true, I say, tell Him while He’s in there, please vacuum the corners and clean the refrigerator!
As NURSE NIGHTINGALE through my countless surgeries, he has mastered the language of medicine. For weeks, nimble fingers manipulated IVs, aware of the difference between a triple lumen and a Groshang line. He inserted saline, antibiotics, saline then heparin in the prescribed order. The crisis passed, but the infection lingers, leaving him the task of changing my hip bandages twice a day for the last eight years.
Because I’ve frequently been assigned ancient nurses, as bony as a sparrows and nearing retirement, I welcome his size and strength.
Kay serves me day after day without complaining, always assuring me I’m beautiful and that he loves me. And yet, he has his own distressing health problems. Besides sporadic arthritis, a familial tremor in his neck and hands slowly worsen. Writing is jagged and jumbled. His teeth clink against his glass. Unruly fingers rattle silverware against china and fling veggies about.
Because these new tasks and titles and challenges have taken a toll on Kay’s life, I pray there’s a grand reward for him in heaven. I hope it’s me, healthy.
By Mary Kerr Danielson
*Excerpt taken from “Chicken Soup for the Caregiver’s Soul. Reprinted with permission.