Editorial

Blessed Are The Caregivers

For they themselves shall be blessed with care.

Theirs was “teamwork” in a less than obvious sense.

About the farm – specifically hogs – she had never been particularly fond. He wasn’t driven by dreams of great barns or greater wealth. For years, he used the same nails and 2x12s for farrowing hogs, kept all that swine farrow-to-finish (no one does that these days). He farmed in a fashion that made his operation strictly one-man. If she helped him while haying, she might have been aboard the tractor; but his good wife kept chickens and eggs and stayed far away from chores not her own. Here’s the way they worked their form of teamwork: she didn’t like farming much, so he fashioned an operation that would keep her indoors and happy.

In the old days, threshing required enough work for the rest of the year, or so she used to say. It required, what? – a half-dozen hard-working men who had no excuse not to eat Mom and Dad out of house and home. Six men times four meals – breakfast, dinner, lunch, supper, all fully-dressed food spectacles. Not just cookies either, mind you. Even mid-afternoon lunch had three courses, all of which had to be hauled out to the field, where dust-besotted farm hands polished off everything she could lug out and then some. At night, she’d bake pies for the next day. Years later, she’d unrepentantly entertain the awful memories that annually accompanied a hot summer threshing crew.

For the rest of the year, her world was inside the house; his was the barn – and outbuildings, and the 100 acres he farmed. Each worked pretty much alone, Mom in the kitchen and the basement upholstery shop; Dad outside. He used to say if was 20-below, he could count on sows farrowing.

Hog farmer housewife
When Mom got the nerve disease that eventually kept her in bed, Dad’s full-time job became caregiving. He got down from his John Deere and became chief cook and bottle-washer, mopped floors, changed sheets, and, when he could, filled a half-dozen quart jars with cucumber salad and tangy applesauce. That he missed livestock and early spring plowing goes without saying, but he never said a word. Even though he’d spent all his days and nights outside or in his machine shed, the transition to a skinny retirement home kitchen seemed a natural. At 80, he was more devoted to his wife than young lovers can even imagine. He’d become a blessed hog farmer housewife. A caregiver. “Compassion brings us to a stop, and for a moment we rise above ourselves,” I read somewhere. Had he been a man of many words, he would likely have told himself that at least he knew the unvarnished truth of that line.

But there came an end. The most difficult moments of my life with my father-in-law occurred one morning in that retirement home apartment, when it had become all too apparent that Dad could no longer be Mom’s caregiver because he needed care himself. He’d been doing things he shouldn’t have, working himself into darkness and exhaustion, lifting and lightening her load in ways that were so totally selfless that he’d become not only ineffective but a clear and present danger even to himself.

I don’t know if he understood that. Whether or not he did, he had to be told.

 

Solitary mission
A social worker lined up what turned out to be the only intervention in which I’ve ever played a role. Dad didn’t know what was coming that morning; he seemed surprised how it was that his daughter and son-in-law sat there beside a social worker, our chairs deliberately set across from him like a jury might have been.

If I could remember the words my wife used that morning, I wouldn’t repeat them because they weren’t meant for a story, only for a time and place that’s behind but not forgotten. What exactly happened at that moment was something I remember only in the cloud of sadness that engulfs the memory.

We were determined to tell him the truth: he could no longer do his job.

I dare say most people, not by choice, will someday find themselves in the illogical position of having to parent a parent, of arguing what’s best when what’s best seems so unquestionably wrong to someone you’ve always listened to. There Dad sat, the colour washed from his face, stunned into silence. Even if somewhere in the recent past he’d courted the idea that his care for his wife was becoming more than he could handle, he probably hadn’t allowed that fleeting idea to gain a foothold in his conscientiousness. To be told, then and there by his children and this outsider, a woman he barely knew, that the work he’d been doing for the last several years had been terminated, and some unknown hospice worker would be coming into his place to accomplish everything he’d been doing, had to have been shattering. Taking care of the woman he loved had become his solitary mission and his very identity. What would he do? Who would he be?

Unstinting devotion
Understandably, he fought it; but he was outnumbered and outflanked. His smile braced; his eyes narrowed. He stared at us one at a time but didn’t see any of us, then brandished silence as a weapon. That morning, he faced three of us, whose job it was to tell him his attentive, loving caregiving simply could not go on.

An old Lakota friend once told me that when the buffalo were gone, her people’s warriors lost purpose, suddenly had no mission and thus no identity. That’s what faced Dad that morning, after years of caregiving. 

I hesitate to say it, but we were ourselves caregivers that morning, whether he understood that, or we so thought of ourselves.

Dad outlived Mom significantly, died only recently. In the many years I knew him, a man who reached 100 years old, I don’t believe I ever saw him as defaced as he was that morning. What ended at that moment was his devoted attention to some of the most difficult tasks of his caregiving, but what he would come to realize later was that while he could no longer be caregiver, he certainly need not stop giving care. 

I wonder if we couldn’t just slip another declaration into the Beatitudes, one so pointedly for our time: “Blessed are the caregivers, for they themselves shall be blessed with care.”

Go ahead. Slip that into the other eight in Matthew 5. Who could argue? Who would?

  • James is a retired Professor of English and the author of more than 40 books, most recently Looking for Dawn (2018).

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