Pastor begins the sermon with her familiar greeting: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.”
While I’ve heard this line hundreds of times without really considering it, today it makes me bawl. I suppose it’s because I want the grace and peace (excerpt from Run Walk Crawl—A Caregiver Caught Between Generations; We Are Sharing the Sun, 2020).
I wrote these words in the aftermath of my caregiving years. My father died in September 2012 and, for a few years afterward, I reflected on caring for him and others, capturing memories on paper and then putting it aside, hoping time would do its thing and allow me to forget. It didn’t.
Being a family caregiver, whether for a child, relative, spouse or elderly parent(s), can be intense, at times rewarding, but mostly a heavy responsibility to bear. I found the process of writing about it to be even heavier.
I couldn’t have written this book without strength and support from the Spirit. In Greek, the Spirit is known as Parakletos, the Comforter. Other names include “Companion” and “Helper.” Help, companionship and comfort were what I needed during my caregiving years, but I didn’t know how to ask for them.
Caregiving can be an isolating experience. Even though I was surrounded by people at all times—my own family members, siblings, home health aides, medical teams and work colleagues—I felt desperately lonely.
Often during the writing process, I doubted whether my experience was even worth sharing. I thought I was weaker or less giving than others. Compared to others’ hardships, my sandwich-generation pressures—working full time, raising my children and caring for my elderly father, who suffered from dementia and congestive heart failure—seemed insignificant.
But I kept bumping into other family caregivers in the grocery store checkout line, at school functions or in church. I found myself listening to their stories with a new compassion. Regardless of their unique situations, I heard common emotional threads, including a feeling of being overwhelmed by never-ending tasks. We’re all one, I realized.
The reality was that caregiving wore me down physically, mentally and emotionally. In that condition, I yearned for communion and connection with God and others. I wrote, initially, as a form of catharsis, to make sense of what I had been through. Later that writing became Run Walk Crawl, a book for others.
From isolation to connection
Caregiving can be an isolating experience. For those who haven’t experienced it firsthand, that may sound odd. In my case, even though I was surrounded by people at all times—my own family members, siblings, home health aides, medical teams and work colleagues—I felt desperately lonely.
My priorities were always in flux, from managing my father’s home and health-related matters to overseeing my own household and high-visibility work. Furthermore, I believed I needed to stay positive, to push through each day and be present for those who needed me.
But I worried constantly about what might come next as my dad’s illness progressed. An endless battle with incontinence robbed him of sound sleep. Caring for him meant interrupted sleep for me as well, coupled with chronic stress. Sharing his 24/7 care schedule with home health aides, I took regular shifts and commuted from my home to his in the wee hours of the night or morning.
I kept my struggles secret. In my workplace, I believed that no one would understand my personal situation. I feared being seen as an uncommitted working mother. In my stoic walk, I built a wall of prideful self-protection.
After two years of caring for my dad and juggling life’s many responsibilities, I came to church one Sunday morning in a state of exhaustion. During the sermon, I cried silently. I prayed, Please help, God, I can’t do this anymore on my own. Please help. Fishing tissues from the bottom of my pocketbook, I moved to exit the church. The sending song, “We All Are One in Mission,” drifted from our majestic, familiar tracker organ and touched my heart. The melody repeated in the back of my mind for days, a small reassurance that I wasn’t alone in my struggles.
God working in my life taught me that we connect with others not through our wins and successes but through our trials and suffering.
Over the next few days and weeks, a shift occurred. While drowning in busyness, multitasking and mourning the decline of my dad’s health and sense of identity, I drew profound consolation from Scripture. I felt compelled to hear and read the word, listen to radio ministry, attend worship and do anything that provided connection to God. I found solace. Faith and fellowship with my Lutheran church family provided a lifeline then and still keeps me afloat today.
God working in my life taught me that we connect with others not through our wins and successes but through our trials and suffering. I learned that many in my congregation have, like me, earned an invisible caregiver’s badge of love. Joe, Roger and Amy have provided selfless care to their precious wives. I admire the quiet dedication of Alyce and Chris to their mothers, who have now passed, and of Pam, Deb, Karen and Janet, who care for aging parents presently. There are many others.
We’ve shared not only good times but also hardship and pain, giving each other permission to be our authentic selves. I can look from pew to pew, see familiar faces and enjoy a sense of community, knowing some families’ backgrounds just as they know mine.
I write this piece in May. On the church calendar we’re nearing Pentecost. Second to Easter, this is my favorite time of year. In the Pentecost service I find comfort in knowing that Jesus has not abandoned us but has gone to prepare a place for us in heaven and sent the Spirit. “Come, Holy Spirit,” we recite, and my heart swells.
Today I feel grateful for my caregiving years. I receive God’s peace that surpasses all understanding. Sometimes, I even talk aloud to God during an errand to the store: “Look at those pink dogwood trees. Spectacular! Thank you, Lord for the beauty all around us.” A little farther down the street: “For heaven’s sake, please help the squirrels keep their wits about them, always changing their minds when crossing the road. What’s with that, Lord?”
Occasional silliness and a joyful spirit have replaced loneliness and separation. Grace and peace is ours through our loving Savior. Coming out of this pandemic, that is my message to all.