Thanksgiving. Each year, we all plunk ourselves down at the table, look around, and think about what we’re thankful for. As a kid, my answer was simple–I was all about the pie. In college, I loved the Wednesday night before, the automatic high school and town reunion. As an adult, I learned to be thankful for the sheer nothingness of the holiday. Just a relaxing day to hang out with family and eat some good food (ok, still the pie). Now, as a husband and father, I have begun to appreciate the true spirit of the day–family and friends being together and being thankful we are together. That’s it.
And Thanksgiving’s simplicity is perfection to me. There aren’t any gifts turning the kids into zombies, fueling a frantic search for presents. No, Santa is still in distant December and there’s no rush to do much of anything. It’s merely a day to celebrate the simple pleasures, good food, good friends and good family. Nothing more and nothing less.
This year was no different. Caring for Mom the last few years has (indirectly) shown me the importance of self reflection. I’ve learned that for me, self reflection is the key to self care. And without taking care of myself–mentally and physically–I’m no good to anyone, especially the people who need me the most, Mom, Lindsay and the kids.
Because of all this looking inward (so I can be better outward), I’ve noticed more to be thankful for this year than ever before. And last Thursday, as I looked around the table, I realized that I’m thankful for something new–I’ll call her my caregiver role model.
She takes care of her dad like I take care of my mom, but her caregiving responsibilities are more complex than mine. She meets it all head on, day in and day out, with a seemingly never ending reservoir of determination, love, patience, grace, and humility. I thought I knew what those words meant, and I suppose I did, but I have learned to appreciate them in a whole new way.
“A firm or fixed intention to achieve a desired end,” is how Merriam-Webster defines determination. Sounds simple, right? Just put your head down and do what you need to do. But it is not that simple for my caregiver role model. Not at all.
She has to help her father process the simplest of things. It’s not him, it’s his condition and he perseveres in spite of it admirably. But this means it can take excruciating amounts of time to get him to do every day tasks–sit in a chair, put his hand on his walker, walk to the door–easy things most of us never even think about. Yet she doesn’t waver. She helps him accomplish whatever it is that needs to be accomplished. It doesn’t matter how frustrated or sad or angry she is for her dad, the only thing that shows is her fixed intention to help her dad live his most fulfilled life–every day.
Love always defies definition, but my caregiver role model makes it a palpable thing.
When she’s interacting with her dad, her love for him is as tangible as anything else in the room. It comes out in the way she looks him in the eye, in her tone of voice, in her smile, and even in the way she guides his arm to grab a cup or his walker. She’s caring for her own dad, yet the way she does it makes me want to thank her. And seeing her ability to do that, the way she does, leaves me hoping my kids grow up to be that way, too.
One definition of patience is, “an ability or willingness to suppress restlessness or annoyance when confronted with a delay.” Of patience, my caregiver role model has an endless supply. It’s not out of the question for her to spend several minutes trying to get her dad to follow a basic instruction. She might be going crazy on the inside but on the outside, she’s calm. Always. Being part of the sandwich generation, there never seems to be enough time in the day. There’s a constant pinch, rushing from one thing to the next to the next. Yet her clock (on the outside anyway) is always slow. She’s willing to take the time to help him, never rushing him so she can rush off someplace else.
Grace is a lot like love, hard to define, yet easy to see. In my caregiver role model, grace takes the form of a smile, a laugh, a sense of kindness and good humor. There’s something powerful about a smile. It becomes even more powerful in the face of adversity. And when it’s combined with an easy and heartfelt laugh, even in difficult times, it puts everyone at ease. She has a way of making a person feel like they’re the most important person in the world.
Lewy Body Dementia is a terrible disease. It makes her dad’s day-to-day terribly difficult for him. Yet my caregiver role model manages to make his care appear as effortless as possible. She never loses sight of her real dad, and more importantly, she’s determined to never let him lose sight of himself either. No matter how frustrated or tired she is on the inside. Like our parents told us and we tell our kids, she treats him how she’d want to be treated. And that is not an easy thing. I know that not everyone could provide his care as she and her siblings do– so smoothly, so calmly, and with such love. And I don’t know how seeing his condition progress must feel for her or her siblings, but I know it takes an emotional toll. A toll she never lets anyone see her pay.
Through her daily illustrations of determination, love, patience, grace and humility, my caregiver role model inspires me to be better. When I feel tapped out of patience or love, her example pushes me to dig deeper. If I feel like giving up, or am frustrated with my own caregiving challenges, I think about how she would handle the situation.
This year, when I looked around the Thanksgiving table, I realized that my wife, Lindsay, had become something more; she is my caregiver role model. I get to see her good example every day, and for that, I am definitely thankful.