Some people are naturally good caretakers. I am not one of those people. My husband Paul … now he’s someone you’d pick to be in your lifeboat after a shipwreck. Caring for others comes naturally to Paul. When we were dating, right before he proposed to me as a matter-of-fact, he was my sole caretaker during a nasty bout of pneumonia. He took me to all my doctor appointments, made me homemade chicken noodle soup and literally, was at my beckon call. In all times of sickness, sadness or otherwise down and out periods in my life, Paul has always gone above and beyond in caring for me.
Now I, on the other hand, cannot readily confess that I have reciprocated the same attentiveness to Paul. Mothering, thank GOD, is something that comes a bit more naturally! It’s caring for big people that I find unnatural … and sometimes unsettling. I can’t really pinpoint my discomfort other than to say, that the thought of caring for an adult creates an overall sense of uneasiness within me. Am I doing this right? What if I screw up? Or, worst of all, the admission of: I wish I were doing something else. Part of these lamentations stem from the caretaking responsibilities I had as a child for my Mom, which although were not many compared to some, were enough to leave an impressionable distaste in my memory.
When I reunited with pen and paper (or fingers to keyboard), one of the first stories I wrote, was a story about feeding my mom brownies when she was in the height of ALS. Titled “Brownie,” the story was what I would call an honest piece of writing—but also an angry appraisal of caregiving. I now identify that I was angry for being angry at being angry about feeding my mom brownies, when really, I’d rather be doing whatever it was I thought I’d rather be doing at the time. It has taken me many years to forgive myself for all those brownies. But I have.
I was reminded of “Brownie” when Paul was in the hospital after a motorcycle accident. The night before he was scheduled for elbow surgery, he asked if I would feed him some chocolate ice cream. Willingly I obliged; and as I put each spoon full to his mouth, a familiar feeling crept over me. It was a feeling reminiscent of a time when I brought a spoon full of chocolate goodness to the lips of my Mom-- but the feeling wasn’t anger this time. It was fear. I remembered feeling utterly vulnerable as a kid, sitting there in a room, just Mom and I-- a brownie and a spoon. “You can do this”—the thought that willed my sometimes hesitant arm to lift the spoon.
There I was again, but this time, sitting in a hospital room, just me and Paul-- a chocolate ice cream container and a spoon. And again, I thought, “You can do this!” adding without realizing, “this is not the same situation.” Without much further contemplation, I fed him the rest of the ice cream. The next day, (post surgery) Paul wanted coffee. Again, I obliged and held a cup with a straw to his mouth. I quickly realized that my mind had wandered somewhere into “brownies past” again. The result: hot coffee dribbled out of the straw, down Paul’s chin. “You can do this!” … but somewhere between the ice cream, brownies and a few 24 hours in the hospital, I could feel my resolve begin to dissipate.
Paul home from the hospital three days later, I continued to site myself on poor caregiving incidents. I caught myself sighing at one of Paul’s simple requests. I openly threw a tantrum after hours of enduring our three girls having tantrums of their own. Worst of all, I started to feel angry for being angry that I’d rather be doing whatever it was I’d rather be doing at the time. “You can do this!” had completely degenerated into, “You suck at this!”
Perhaps my biggest flaw was that before the hospital release papers were even signed, I had already set my expectations to a degree fit for complete and utter failure. I was going to surpass June Cleaver in all her mothering, caregiving, house cleaning and cooking abilities. Right—because I am so like June Cleaver, who I might add, is just as fictitious (and not nearly as cool) as Superwoman. I suppose it’s kind of like expecting a child or teenager to be happy about feeding her adult mother brownies, with the absence of fear, frustration or embarrassment.
I don’t believe in blaming my behavior or shortcomings on situations that have occurred in my past. I do however; believe in using events from my past as information to help me grow in my present. It has not served me well to cast aside the memories of brownie feedings, or to discount my feelings tied to them. If I can accept my feelings and limitations tied to caregiving, I can replace “You can do this” with “I am doing this … the best I know how.” I don’t have to be June Cleaver and I don’t have to love doing something I don’t love to do. I only have to remember that just because I have forgiven myself for an event in the past, doesn't make me immune to feelings surrounding the incident. I have been given the tools to effectively field my feelings ... I just have to remember to apply them.
Lord knows I have a l-o-n-g way to go in taking care of big people. Poor Paul--the guy probably missed a few meals and baths here and there during my motorcycle accident caregiving days… but we made it through. I made it through.