Friday, September 25, 2015

A Legacy of Caretakers

While this isn’t true of everyone in my family, we do have a history of being a people who know how to take care of one another.

I distinctly remember when we brought my maternal grandmother into our home to live when she needed continual care. Grandma lived with us for probably a year. She was bedfast, on oxygen, and needed constant care, so we welcomed her into our tiny house and my mother cared for her every need until she died peacefully in the back bedroom of our home. I was just seven years old, but the sacrifice my parents made for her care made a deep impression on me.

My other grandmother lived in the same community and we saw her often. She never needed the kind of continual care that Grandma did, but I do remember how my dad dropped in every day to check on her. He was a devoted son and she knew she could depend on him.

When my mother was in her 60s, her older sister required some extra care and there was no one else to manage it. My parents arranged for Aunt Velma to have a daytime caregiver, but they checked on her every day for years. They helped manage her care and her personal business until she died.

My mother began having some significant physical problems in her late 70s. Although my dad was still working part-time, he eventually quit his job to be home with her because her doctor appointments and the demands of keeping a household going required more of his time. She gradually deteriorated to the point where she could not care for herself, and was unable to do the many things she had done all of her life.

Mama was always very involved when my sister and I were growing up, volunteering to be room mother, band booster, PTA officer, Girl Scout leader, Sunday School teacher, or whatever job needed to be done. She was an excellent cook and a great housekeeper. But she also loved doing creative things, and kept busy with sewing and craft projects. Yet after seventy-something years of service to others, Mama had come to the point that she could hardly do basic things for herself. 

Although my dad was several years her senior, he was a natural caregiver. His father had been ill when he was just a boy, so he learned how to care for people who couldn’t care for themselves, and with practiced ease he stepped into that role of making life more comfortable for his bride. Daddy devoted himself to her care, which not only meant doing things for her comfort but also managing the everyday cooking, cleaning, and shopping. I never heard him utter a word of complaint, and he always seemed to find joy in doing those things for the woman he loved. 

All these memories flooded my mind last week when I learned that the wife of a cousin had died. When you hear their history, it bears a close resemblance to stories I already know from my own DNA, tales that are clinging to my own branch of the family tree.

Harvey’s beautiful wife, Helen, started down the Alzheimer’s road twelve years ago, and as is often the case, it was a slow, gradually descending path. I know it must have been heartbreaking for the entire family. Despite the pain of watching Helen deteriorate, my cousin Harvey became singularly devoted to his wife . . . not just devoted to Helen’s care, but to HELEN!

He took her out to eat; he took her on trips to the Oregon coast. He staged family gatherings for her birthday and other occasions. He took pictures of his beloved wife and posted them on Facebook with captions like “my beautiful bride”. He pointed out things that would give her pleasure, such as the beauty of a sunset or a bird fluttering outside her window.

Harvey was under no illusion about the way the disease was taking her away from him. There was no denial of reality. He simply chose to make every day a happy one for her; he determined that she would have a safe, peaceful place, surrounded by happy things, with a minimum of stress and fear. It was surely a costly choice for him, but it was indeed his choice. And now that she has gone to be with her Lord (after walking beside Harvey on earth for sixty years!), she is healed of the ravages of Alzheimer’s, healed of body and mind. And she will now know, in a way she did not comprehend over the past few years, what a sacrifice of love Harvey made for her. Harvey is a prime example of how our family cares for one another.

A dear friend of mine shared with me recently that she is teetering on the edge of a decision to assume a major portion of the care for her aging mother. But unlike Harvey’s decision to care for Helen, this one carries an even heavier burden . . . for this friend expressed that her mother has not been particularly kind or loving to her all her life. As she related her plans to me, my friend described how the words of Scripture call her to this sacrifice: “I am to honor my father and mother, and to give Mom good care in her later years is not only the humane thing to do, but the Christian thing. I would want to show kindness and wish good care for anyone else in her situation who needed it; why not for my own mother?” And that, too, is a legacy of faithful caregiving.

Many of us are either currently facing this decision, or will be soon. May God grant us all the grace and mercy to live out the Jesus principles of caring for one another with love—not simply because it’s our duty, but because it’s the right thing to do, the loving thing.