You didn’t think it would happen. Not to you. You had it all. You had a loving and supportive family. Siblings and cousins you saw or talked to almost every day. You had friends. Friends who grew up right down the street from you, buddies who had gone through thick and thin with you.
Slowly, so slowly at first, it seemed almost as if you might be imagining it all.
First, the words of condolences.
“I am so sorry you are going through this.”
“I heard about the diagnosis. I am so sorry.”
Next, they see you out and about, but instead of the happy greeting you would normally get, they avert their eyes. You sort of stop. Unsure of how to proceed. You see them look away. You clearly make them uncomfortable now. They are hoping you don’t call out or draw attention to them. They duck, they turn away, they do anything to avoid having to face you.
It seems awkward at first. You take it personally. You feel as if you have inconvenienced them in some way, but you aren’t sure how.. After a while, it becomes such a common occurrence, you do them the courtesy of simply not even looking in their direction.
The pain is less sharp with every ripped page of a calendar month. It seems that time has a way of helping you adapt. You adapt to the loss of mobility. You adapt to losing your independence. You adapt to losing camaraderie with co-workers you used to see daily. You simply adapt to losing something, each and every day.
You think you have managed to come to terms with all the changes, but then you realize that the changes never stop.
After your body has morphed into something you no longer recognize, and you only slightly look like the person you used to be, you must now adapt to a new challenge. The friends and family you hold so dear. have all just slowly dropped out of sight. You had no idea that this is the part that would test you.
You thought dealing with the disease would be the hardest thing you would ever have to deal with, but you discovered you were wrong.
The hardest part, in fact, would be watching everyone around that you love move on with their lives, and all you can do is stare at a screen and watch it all happen.
You do everything in your power not to click on that icon, you try so hard to stay away from social media.
You don’t need to be reminded of all the Christmas parties, the weddings or the birthday celebrations that you are no longer invited to.
You don’t get to be included in the phone calls, or the invites for a drink to commiserate a friend’s breakup or loss of their favorite sport teams championship game.
The connection is gone.
Funny that you didn’t notice at first. You were so focused on the loss of your legs, you hadn’t noticed that those friends who used to talk to you every day, haven’t reached out in almost a year now. No one has stopped by to visit in so long, and you don’t even bother asking for visitors. They all promised, but its been so long, you finally quit anticipating anyone knocking on the door.
The invitations you had gotten were either to someplace that cannot accommodate your new situation, or it was a pity invitation. At least, you assume it is a pity invitation, so you politely decline. You feel you have done everyone a favor by not going.
You thought the disease would be what caused your body to stop functioning. Now, you no longer believe that. Your heart is breaking, and you begin to imagine that it is possible to die from a broken heart.
If you had only known the disease would not be the hardest part to deal with. You found out the most difficult part of each day would be to live and then die from isolation, depression and sadness. The ability to see all those people you once had a connection with, posting pictures of their lives, their loves, and their ups and downs, but you somehow, realize that you were forgotten.
You want to turn away, but you so desperately need to feel as if you are still worthy of their time or effort.
Now, you scour the internet, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter…anything that connects you in some way to the people you used to know. The anger is gone. Now, you simply want a connection with them. Even if the only link to them again is by pressing the “like” button.
Would you like to know what it means to be a caregiver?
It means always…ALWAYS putting them first.
It is the same process, every single night.
Mundane…sameness…always the same monotonous events that take place for bedtime.
- Brush his teeth, but don’t use the minty toothpaste. He doesn’t like that one.
- Wash his face, but only in certain spots. It makes him chilly to have his face damp.
- Use a q-tip and scratch the itches his fingers can no longer reach. He gets that look in his eye when you find that good spot, not unlike a dog feels when you hit the magic spot.
- Use a bit of tissue, and pick at his nose. (I used to feel squeamish getting up in each nostril, but now, my stomach doesn’t even do a little flip flop as my fingers go up and wiggle around, the tissue swiping at any loose snot balls.)
- One medicine for anxiety, one for sadness. One that is supposed to slow down his progression. We know two out of three of those meds work for certain.
- Pour a capful of white powder and swirl around until dissolved. (It helps him poop.)
- Place the pills in his mouth, his tongue is twitching again. Quickly lift the thickened water to his lips.
- Remove his lap blanket and place the hand-held urinal between his legs. Push his legs apart so that he pees in the urinal and not all over himself.
- Roll into the bedroom and start a machine. The clicking of air, pushing in and out, his cheeks puffed, as he coughs. (The cough is weaker now. Nothing much ever comes out. I can’t tell if I should be thankful for that or not.)
- He tells me he thinks he may be getting sick. His throat hurts and he feels warm. I tell him he isn’t getting sick and deep down I silently pray I am right.
- Grab the giant metal arm, attach the loops and hit the button. The arm pulls him up and out of his wheelchair. His ass scrapes along his controller, again. I seem to do that every night. He gives me a pouty face, as I apologize…again.
- My face turns red as I pull and twist the metal contraption over towards the bed.
- Grab the remote for the bed to lift the headboard up, as I simultaneously lower the metal arm down on the bed. Push with my shoulders, and pull his legs out straight, so he doesn’t cramp.
Pay attention, Theresa!
- Don’t sit him too high or too low. Keep the headboard at a little less than 90 degrees, just the way he likes it. Unhook the loops, pull the metal arm away from the bed. Tuck it back into the shower, where we can hide it and pretend for just a few hours that it is not a necessary tool for me to move him to and fro.
- Pull the straps and the sling out from under him.
- He winces.
- Place the bandaid over the bridge of his nose. It looks raw and sore again.
- The mask goes on next. Hit the ON button. It screeches to life.
- Find the remote for the headboard, which is now buried between his legs and blankets. The dog is laying by his feet. The dog isn’t much help.
- Laying him slowly back, there is one more thing. Scratches…
- Grab the baby powder by the night stand
- Dump it anywhere there is a crevice. (I’ll save you the embarrassment of describing all the places that baby powder goes.)
- Attempt to roll him onto his side. Not before he whines. He wants scratchy time to last longer. I do not
- Check for pressure sores. On the back of his legs and his buttocks.
I grunt again…I swear he is more square than he is round.
- Get his leg pillow just right between his legs. Adjust his head pillow to match. (He asks me to push him more. He isn’t on his side all the way. He will tip back over if he isn’t just so. Several more attempts. Several more grunts)
I give one more hard push…
- “OWWW, I think you did something to my back!”
I panic! My eyes scanning his body. I can’t imagine what happened. I pause looking him over, his butt cheeks out in the open, legs bent
- “I don’t think my legs work anymore!”
- Then he giggles.
- Rolling my eyes when I realize he was trying to be funny.
- “Ok, I am going to go lock up.” I say, as I pad barefoot out of the bedroom.
- “I’ll be right here!” He yells.
- “Don’t move!” I yell back.
- I shake my head with a little grin.
- It is always the same thing…every single night.
Today is the last day of November. It is also the last day to recognize caregivers. November is the designated month to celebrate the caregivers in our lives.
And much like what it can feel like to be a caregiver, the month went by with little recognition. And that is okay.
Most of us don’t do it for the praise, or the pat on the back. We certainly can’t say we do it for the money or the fame. We do this for someone we care about, someone we love.
But, for just a moment, I want to give you a peek inside the life of a caregiver.
• We get interrupted sleep, and we seldom (if ever) sleep a full 8 hours.
• We eat our meals last, or even standing up, in a rush to move onto the next check item on our to-do list
• We juggle so many things at once, we have a hard time focusing.
• We coordinate, organize or rearrange our schedule to take care of everyone else.
• Sometimes, we want to think of ourselves, but then feel guilty for it.
• We worry…all the time.
• We sometimes feel overwhelmed at the responsibility of caring for another.
• We have a rash of emotions that spread over us quickly, and yes, sometimes they might seem irrational. Don’t worry, the feelings dissipate quickly.
• Showers become the only private time we get to ourselves…
• We are the advocate, and the voice and the warrior for the person we care for.
• We have moments of selfishness, of wanting to not to have to think of, or put another person over ourselves all the time.
• We remember how much we love the person we are caring for, and somehow, all those emotions, and the weight of what we do seems less heavy for just a while.
• We often feel alone.
• We cry in the shower because the sound of the water washes our tears and drowns out our anguish.
• We smile through the irritations, or frustrations…and yes, even through the pain.
• We can’t imagine not trying so hard.
• We live with guilt over not being enough…every.single.day.
• We know that this role we play won’t last forever.
• We hate being told it’s not about us….
• We get irritated when others try to give us advice but have no real-life experience with the same situation.
• Seeing our loved one smile can make the frustrations and hardships more bearable.
• We would still make this choice, if it means just one more day with those we love.
Remember, you will either be a caregiver or need a caregiver at some point in your life.
If you know a caregiver, show some empathy and compassion. It’s a tough job.
If you need a caregiver, show some empathy and compassion, it’s a tough job!
He said, “Wow! It’s nice to meet you!”
She said, “hello….”
He said, “We have a mutual friend.”
She said, “She invited me to come listen to the music with her.”
He said, “I am glad you could make it”
She said, “Thank you. I don’t get out often.”
He said, “Can I buy you a drink?”
She said, “no thank you”
He said, “Its been months, how are you?”
She said, “The summer went by too fast”
He said, “Can I buy you a drink this time?”
She said, “Sure, I would love a water!”
He said, “It’s loud in here”.
She said, “WHAT?”
He said, “Do you like live music?”
She said, “Yes, It’s my favorite!”
He said, “You came with her again?”
She said, “I’m her designated driver.”
He said, “Here is your water.”
She said, “Would you dance with me?”
He said, “yes”
She said, “You can DANCE!”
He said, “Wow, so can you!”
He said, “Will I see you again?”
She said, “Maybe…”
He said, “I haven’t seen you in weeks, where have you been?”
She said, “My life is complicated….
He said, “What do you do?”
She said, “I go to school”
He said, “would you like to go dancing?”
She said, “ok”
He said, “Are you seeing anyone?”
She said, “No…and I want to keep it that way!”
He said, “Why?”
She said, “I am recently separated.”
He said, “I was married for a long time too”
She said, “I have children”
He said, “I bet they are great!”
She said, “You aren’t my type”
He said, “I know, but can we keep dancing?”
She said, “Yes, I would like that…”
He said, “We have been dancing every month for almost a year now!”
She said, “I just want to be friends…”
He said, “I know…”
She said, “I’m not ready for a relationship.”
He said, “I understand. I am happy just being your friend.”
She said, “Thank you for being such a great friend to me”
He said, “Who are you here with?
She said, “I am here on a date tonight”
He said, “Do you like him?
She said, “I don’t know yet”
He said, “That guy shouldn’t be flirting with your friends”
She said, “I guess he wasn’t that into me”
He said, “He’s an idiot”
She said, “Thank you”
He said, “You deserve better!”
She said, “I agree..”
He said, “I like spending time with you”
She said, “I need to take things really slow”
He said, “Of course”
She said, “I think you are looking for more than I am ready to give.”
He said, “I have all the time in the world.”
She said, “What’s wrong with your fingers?”
He said, “Nothing, I am sure it’s nothing”
She said, “I am not ready”
He said, “I’ll wait.”
She said, “Please go to the doctor.”
He said, “Go to Cabo with me!”
She said, “I am a single mother, I can’t go to Mexico!”
He said, “It would mean so much to me!”
She said, “Will you go to the doctor?”
He said, “Of course, as soon as we get back!”
She said, “Its beautiful here!”
He said, “Thank you for coming with me.”
She said, “What did the doctor say?”
He said, “He wants to run some tests…”
She said, “It is going to be alright…”
He said, “I have ALS”
She said, “I know”
He said, “I’m scared.”
She said, “Me too”
He said, “Maybe you should leave?”
She said, “I promise I will stay”
He said, “Will you spend the rest of my life with me?”
She said, “Yes”
He said, “My legs are getting weaker…”
She said, “We need to find a new home”
He said, “I want to marry you and dance with you on our wedding day.”
She said, “There isn’t much time.”
He said, “I am sorry we are rushing things.”
She said, “I am sorry that the last time we danced was on our wedding day…”
He said, “I don’t want to use the wheelchair.”
She said, “It’s there when you are ready…”
He said, “I can’t lift my arms anymore.”
She said, “It’s okay, I am right here…”
He said, “Don’t worry, we are going to be alright…”
She said, “I don’t know how to ask for help”
He said, “Neither do I”
She said, “I don’t know if I can do this alone.”
He said, “I feel like a burden.”
She said, “You are not a burden.”
He said, “Happy Anniversary!”
She said, “It’s been 3 years?”
He said, “Its going by too fast”
She said, “I feel so alone”
He said, “So do I…“
She said, “I never get to go out or do anything anymore”
He said, “Neither do I”
She said, “I didn’t think it would be this hard”
He said, “Neither did I”
She said, “I miss being held.”
He said, “I miss touching you.”
She said, “Where did everybody go?
He said, “I don’t think they can handle this.”
She said, “I am so angry.”
He said, “I know.”
She said, “I had different expectations.”
He said, “I think it’s just you and I.”
She said, “You are my person.”
He said, “Thank God I have you.”
She said, “We still have so much to be thankful for…”
I forgive you.
It has taken me five years, but I can finally say these three words and truly mean them.
I forgive you.
It has been five excruciating years. I have held on to this sadness and this rage for so long, I can’t remember what it’s like to look at you without feeling such grief. Trust me, I have tried to move on, I have tried to let go, and still, there it is.
At first, I thought it was my fault. I thought I had done something to make you go away. Maybe I said something? Maybe I didn’t say the right things? I would lay awake, wondering how I could act better, do better, or say the right thing. Maybe I was too weak, and you couldn’t watch my struggles?
When he told you he was dying, you wrapped your arms around us both. We cried. We were all scared. He was dying. You wiped your tears away and looked at us both and promised you would be there for us.
I don’t even know how it happened. It was so subtle. You were busy… Of course, you were. You had to work, or you had obligations. You always needed to be somewhere else.
At first, I made excuses for you. Because I knew there would be no way you would leave me to go through this alone. I knew you cared. You were just busy.
But with every missed phone call, every text message left unanswered, you were in fact, telling me your truth.
You couldn’t handle it.
It’s okay now. I finally understand. Every Facebook picture that showed you laughing, and smiling, each weekend out on the town. The ski trips, the vacations…I saw them all. I wanted to be happy for you. I really did. At first, I even made comments of how happy I was for you. After all, you still needed to live your life. Sometimes, I would stare at those pictures…detesting you. You were so happy, and carefree…
I stayed by his side. I took him to every doctor’s appointment. I kept notes, I kept files, and eventually, I kept sheets, organizing every medicine, every procedure and how to handle each situation, just in case you came back. I wanted to show you what I was going through. I needed you to see what WE were going through together. I needed you to see how overwhelming it was, the day-to-day routine of dying.
I began to hate you. Your text messages saying you would stop by with an old friend. I would dress him and get him ready. He would pick out that shirt that he knew I couldn’t stand, the one with the holes. But it was his favorite because YOU gave it to him. He would be so excited to see you. The excitement would slowly fade from his eyes when he realized you would be later than you said. He would wheel himself back into his bedroom, his shoulders slumped…hoping you were coming.
An hour…maybe two would go by before you would finally appear. The knock on the door, and the loud jovial booming voice, the announcement that you had arrived. Maybe you didn’t understand that we had nothing to do besides wait for you. You would bring another friend, and it was clear you had been drinking, and having fun. Making plans to continue your carousing. We were just a quick stop on your way onto your next adventure. And just like that, you would be gone again. His smile would fade, and he would turn inside himself, wondering why you wouldn’t come around. I started to despise you.
You promised I wouldn’t have to go through this alone. Where were you when he became weaker? Where were you when I had to learn about suction machines, and oxygen rates? Where were you when we discussed bolus feedings, and then gravity feedings? Where were you when he was choking? I would pound on his back and scream, as his face would turn purple. I would be shaking, wondering if the ambulance could get there in time, or if I could help him breathe in time…Where were you?
I would cry. I never did that in front of him. I saved that for the times he couldn’t see me. Standing, with the water running down my back, my hot tears matching the stream swirling through the drain. I would let myself cry, folding my arms around myself, and rock. Where were you when I need someone to wrap their arms around me and tell me I would be okay, that we would get through this? I needed someone to be there for me…
We would try not to become too hopeful if we heard about a “breakthrough” or “new therapy.” We would try…I began loathing those who found optimism in every ALS walk, or those who rallied to raise money. Why? What was the point?
I began hating Facebook. Suddenly, ALS was everywhere, and everyone knew how to cure him. Where were you when we would get article after article sent our way? Would you have demanded people stop sending snake oil cures? Would you have intervened when those well intention people mentioned traveling to Israel or South America for the latest Stem Cell Therapy? Would you have rolled your eyes with me, as we read yet another well-meaning person’s attempt to convince us he had Lymes? Disease, or it was simply a misdiagnosis? Maybe others wanted to find some sliver of hope as well? I had lost mine long ago…
Five years has come and gone. Your visits were short, and few, maybe a handful of times. It must have been so uncomfortable for you to see him like that. To see the tubes, and the skin hanging where muscles used to be. To not be able to hear his voice anymore. I know it bothered you when he lost his voice. I could see it on your face. You kept trying to talk to him, but he could only grunt…and when his lips couldn’t contain the spit he could no longer swallow, it fell slowly from the edge of his mouth, onto the towel I always had placed under his chin. I saw it then. The look of panic in your eyes.
Did you finally see us? The exhaustion on both of our faces? Did you feel regret for not coming by more often, or did you just want to run away again, to escape looking at someone you claimed to love, to get away as fast as possible? I wanted to run away too. Did I ever tell you that? I was scared, and I was so alone, and I had no one.
He had me though…
Because I promised him I would never leave him.
And I kept that promise…
At the funeral, when you tried to hug me, and I walked right past, I am sure it must have stung a little. I don’t think at the time I could have mustered up a fake smile. I have built my wall. I no longer need you. I handled everything, alone. I wonder if you regret that?
But I kept my promise..
Everyone told me. You know how small towns are. They all had to make sure I understood what you were going through. They told me how distraught you were that he was dying. You were so sad, it was tearing you up from the inside. They would shake their heads in pity, obviously so worried about how you would handle it.
But I have lived with a grief unlike anything you will ever understand. I hope you never understand it. I have also gained so much from this experience. You left, you chose to walk away when it became too difficult for you. But I chose him… I still choose him, even knowing everything I know now. I still choose being right there by his side. I made a promise and I kept it. And for that, I have no regrets. I can now walk away, with my head held high, knowing I loved him and cared for him the best that I could. I am tired. I want to close my eyes and find peace, and I cannot carry the burden of his disappointment in those who let him down. I do not want to feel grief or sadness anymore. Not towards you, or him, or anyone else.
I forgive you…