Like a lot of children, I grew up with an alcoholic parent. I was the youngest child of my father’s second marriage. My dad was decades older than my mom. In my father’s maturity, my mother found a sense of safety and stability. In my mother’s youth, my father found a fresh start and a lighter heart. What they saw in each other was genuine. And like many couples, what they saw, revealed, and became to each other changed over the course of their marriage.
There is a thin, pliable membrane that runs between life and death. It is both fierce and fragile. When we are healthy, most of us don’t ever think of that delicate proximity. We are too busy living to consider dying, except, perhaps, in the abstract and generally in regards to someone else’s life, not our own.
Caregiving is an ongoing endurance triathlon: swimming in dark, choppy waters, cycling a twisted, rutted road that ends in a cliff hanger, and running in every direction simultaneously. In the beginning, adrenaline and a sense of intensely focused purpose will get you a long way. But as you settle into the nearly completely unpredictable new normal of your life, you may find your energy, patience, resilience and sense of humor more difficult to rally. You may feel exhausted, sad, scared and alone.
My mother, Imogene, is learning how to flex old muscles and live in a new world.
“Look at me!” she shouts this morning, executing a single perfect bicep curl with a 2-pound, fuchsia-pink dumbbell.
I’m standing in the doorway of the physical therapy room of the nursing home where my mother is showing off for her therapist. He’s handsome and sweet and worth the effort. The broad smile that fills his face when any of his patients accomplish even the smallest tasks works its magic. They keep trying and they recover, sometimes inch by inch, the lost ground that brought them here.
Chances are, if you are deeply connected to the people in your life, you may find yourself in the role of a caregiver someday. It’s part of the “all-in, for better or worse” deal that we choose to make with our partners, kids, parents, siblings and friends. It can be the deep end of a seemingly endless, dark sea of physical, emotional and, often, financial support for someone whose future is uncertain. Recognize that caregiving can be one of the sweetest, most meaningful experiences of your life, or leave you gutted and bone dry. In reality, if you take that role on, it will likely do both, sometimes in the same hour.