Who cares for the caregiver?

“Til death do us part,” are the words often proclaimed by newlyweds as they prepare to enter the world of married life. No one wants to think about the reality of that statement, but it’s inevitable. At some point, we will be separated from our loved ones with one final breath. In spousal relationships, one of you will become a caregiver to the other, which will surely change your relationship dynamic.

It’s amazing how one word can change your life. Last October, the word “cancer” shook up the relationship my wife and I had enjoyed for years when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. From both mine and her perspectives, I battled the storm well at the time. After the surgery and radiation treatments was a different story; the rain crashed down on me.

It wasn’t as though I didn’t try; I hired a coach, felt in touch with my feelings, journaled and exercised daily, ate well, and took care of myself. You can’t keep life from happening, though. My other relationships suffered as I lost tolerance for drama and menial concerns. Compared with cancer, any minor discomfort struck me as petty self-indulgent behavior.

My toleration for those living in the future, or even in the past, went away. Cancer shows up with an HD reality.  It takes you by the throat and says, “Shut up and listen to me, mf’er.”

I took those thoughts and locked them within my mind. I did not project them onto my friends, family, and business associates because I was afraid of burdening them with my own fears. I listened to their normal concerns, but my mind was elsewhere, thinking about my potentially dying wife.

In spite of this, I had to remain positive and affirm that she was doing well.  I had to try to pretend that I cared about some issues that were important to others.  With my clients, because I am required to remain detached, it was easy to focus on their needs and be present to them.  Unfortunately, in many other conversations, I used that ability to feel untouched by others.

But I still heard them. I shut off my capacity for feeling, but I could not flip the switch on my sense of hearing. Two months ago, I got a major ear infection.  I struggled to understand the deeper meaning behind my left ear infection.  Is it the feminine side of me that I do not want to listen to, since caregiving is more feminine in nature? Is it my wife that I do not want to listen to?  Women in general?  Phone conversations since I used my left ear?

The answer, two months after the fact was a resounding, “yes, all of the above.” I found the answer to this question in baseball.  I do not want to sound like a line from “Field of Dreams,” but even in bad times, my father and I had baseball.  Yes, we had lots of bad times, but I will never forget my first baseball game in 1958 at Yankee Stadium.  The field for me was a cathedral, in the era of black and white TV, I’d never seen grass so green.  And players like Mickey Mantle and Al Kaline still seem larger than life to me.

Last week at the beach, the Pirates were on TV each day playing the Nationals. Growing up in a fifties New York home with a grandmother who rooted for ‘dem Bums, a father who was a Giants fan, and other grandparents who rooted for the Yankees, coming home to watch 42 had special significance. Watching the Pirates take four of five this week from the Cardinals was not only exciting, but also a lesson. The timeless nature of the game, the rules, the strategy, the elegance, the pureness, and the maleness allowed me to realize that even in the second half of life, sometimes men just need to be men, or childlike boys. It is hardball after all, not softball.

For men, especially those thrust into the role of caregiver, and made to feel vulnerable about the prospect of losing a wife, it is time to get over the disposable conditioning of our youth that tells us to ignore our own needs and fix it for everyone else.  We are conditioned to think of women and children first, to jump on a hand grenade for our buddies.  We are taught to make sacrifices for others. We can’t forget about ourselves, though. Besides, how can we make others happy, if we aren’t happy ourselves?  We need to make sure that we take time for the activities that bring smiles to our faces.

I am not sure what forms those will take for me, but I fully intend to enjoy this year’s baseball playoffs and this year’s football season.  Who knows, I might spend my fall days wandering the woods, photographing the kaleidoscope of leaves that fall in my path. And I intend to do as I have already begin doing; scheduling time for me to work ON my business and not just IN it, and to read novels that bring me joy.

Caregivers have to care for themselves as well as others.  And if we do not, we are going to get sick ourselves.  Deepak Chopra teaches that life is a sexually transmitted disease that is always fatal.  There is no escaping that.  We need to remain true to our own nature and find the beauty in each and every day.  It is not how or when we die; it is how we live.  Part of the wisdom that came out of Star Trek was that you need to have a little bit of fun every day.

If I had taken a day a week or a few hours a day, and took care of myself while I was taking care of my wife, I would have been better off.  Or instead of rushing to “save her” after she was done with treatment and immersing myself in growing my practice, I should have created “me” time. I’m convinced that if I had, I would not have gotten sick. The one voice I was not listening to was my own mind, screaming, “Hey! Don’t forget about me!”  Ultimately, we must be a caregiver to ourselves, too, if we want to be a caregiver to our loved ones.