Forty-seven years ago, he said “I do” for better or worse, richer or poorer and in sickness and in health. Maybe it’s just that generation, or maybe it was just in his character to honor the covenant of marriage no matter what. Whatever the reason, he isn’t really aware of it and never considered that he had choice. He does it out of love and lives as if it’s the most important thing he has to do in life.
Many caregivers today live that life of commitment, selflessly devoting their the time, energy, passion and souls to their loved one who cannot live without someone providing some level of care. It may be as “simple” as dispensing medication critical to keeping a loved one alive whose memory isn’t as good as it used to be. Or it may be round-the-clock caregiving like my dad’s journey. He’s the man I describe above. A husband who spends every waking minute of his day caring for his wife, my mother, whose body and mind have been ravaged my multiple sclerosis.
He wakes up and gives her pills with a small breakfast. He transfers her to her chair and takes her to the bathroom for the morning ritual of pottying, grooming and dressing. Somedays it includes putting her into her waterproof chair and wheeling her into the shower — something that is physically taxing and a little dangerous considering how slippery people can become while bathing. Can you imagine showering a full grown human who can’t stand or support his or her own body at all? It’s not easy for strong and youthful persons, let alone a man over 65 who’s roughly her same size.
Every day he takes her to lunch to get her out of the house. They have their regular circuit of restaurants and servers who know them by name. These servers also know they usually only order one meal and split it. They just don’t eat as much as they used to. He cuts it up and feeds it to her. Pats her back when she coughs a little because swallowing is getting harder to do. He holds the cup up to her so she can sip through the straw.
On several occasions, another patron has anonymously paid their ticket and I would really like to know what they are thinking. Do they feel pity or respect? Are they touched to see such a genuine expression of love in a time when people divorce each other at the drop of a hat? Are they remembering parents or grandparents who have passed on? Whatever their reason, my dad is humbled by it and a little embarassed. Silently, he feels gratitude that someone is recognizing his hard work and saying thank you for being a good husband. It’s nice because caregivers don’t hear thank you very often. In my dad’s case, my mom has difficulty communicating, so he doesn’t hear the words from her. But he knows. We all know. We see it in her eyes.
After lunch, they may run some errands. A stop at Walmart or Target is a highlight of the day and they have their favorite cashiers who visit with them briefly as they check them out. These kind women will lean over and say hello to my mom and ask her how her day is going. She smiles back and dad gets a friendly exchange of words.
While on their daily jaunts, he will have to find at least one restroom where he can take her. The availability of family style restrooms is sparse, but they know where they are. In fact, several of them in the city where they live were constructed due to his advocacy work. I’m proud to say that Publix now has a family style restroom in all their new stores because of my dad. It may not seem like a big deal until you’re an adult who needs to take an adult of the opposite sex to the bathroom. Which one do you go in? The men’s room or the women’s room? Not an easy choice for anyone remotely modest.
Late afternoon they go home and she takes a nap. He does laundry, cleans the house, does paperwork or connects with friends on email. He makes them a small supper. They settle into the bedroom for the night where they spend time watching TV or talking to friends and family on the phone. The phone calls keep them connected and keep him sane. He’ll have moved her in and out of her wheelchair multiple times in the day. On and off the commode, in and out of the van, and in and out of bed. By evening, his body is tired but his mind is sharply paying attention to every move she makes, even during the night.
This is a typical caregiver day. Notice there was nothing about what he does for himself. And I need to mention that this is an easy day. Other days include medical appointments or messy accidents that need cleaning in addition to everything else. He could use a break but he won’t leave her side. He knows her every need. What her body language is saying. What she likes to eat and when she could use a back rub. It’s true, no one knows her like he does. And no one could ever love her like he does.
It’s not the life either of them envisioned when they married. I know my mom would prefer not to have this debilitating version of M.S. I know my dad would rather have all of my mom back so they could enjoy being grandparents to the fullest.
So with November being National Caregiver Month, I honor my dad for being so much more than a caregiver for my mom — a loving and devoted husband who took his vows seriously and who everyday sets a powerful example for those who watch him. And I honor all the other caregivers who everyday live out this ultimate expression of love with sacrifice and honor. God bless them all.