In this third part of our series on Drowning in Plain Sight, we salute those ‘lifeguards’ and ‘guardian angels’ who recognize a caregiver’s silent struggle in the waters of caregiving despair.
“Drowning people cannot wave for help. Nature instinctively forces them to extend their arms laterally and press down on the water’s surface. Pressing down on the surface of the water permits drowning people to leverage their bodies so they can lift their mouths out of the water to breathe.” On Scene, The Journal of U.S. Coast Guard Search and Rescue
The engine shuddered to stop and I hunched for a moment over the steering wheel. I could see the family room light while the rest of the house was dark. That meant that Randy had been detained again, and the girls were home alone. I closed my eyes with relief that we live in such a safe place, with staff for neighbors and Randy’s office window shining its light across the parking lot. Fifteen hours ago Andrew and I had left home in the pre-dawn hours. Since then, Andrew had suffered through anesthesia, spinal tapping, recovery, chemo, and blood draws before the long drive home. The darkness magnified our exhaustion and reminded us that suppertime had come and gone.
I reached back and laid a hand on Andrew’s bony little knee and shook gently. “Wake up, little man, we’re home.” Oh, that didn’t sound very cheerful. It just sounded tired. I scraped energy from the bottom of my soul, shifted in my seat and tried again, “Let’s go in the house, Drew, we gotta get supper!”
“Not hungwy,” he grumped from the car seat.
“I know,” I sighed. Who would be hungry after all the things that had filled his body today?
I slumped up the sidewalk, towing the chemo laden little boy after me. Supper was the last thing I wanted to tackle, but I straightened my shoulders and mentally gave myself a shake. From somewhere I needed to dredge the energy to ask the girls about their day, to fix something nutritious, to read to them and tuck them into bed.
I twisted the handle and the door swung open. As I opened my mouth to call out to the girls, a wonderful aroma swept across my consciousness. Food! Someone had brought a casserole! Bless that someone!
“Hello Larissa! Hey Karina! We’re home!” I yelled.
Two sets of footsteps pounded around the corner and two happy girls bounced into us where we stood rooted in the entryway. “Mommy, Grammy brought us food! Everything! You can’t believe it!” shouted Karina while she hugged me hard.
“She said you didn’t need to think at all, just eat,” added Larissa, her arms wrapped around my neck.
I smiled with guilty remembrance. Last week, after the same kind of chemo day, Grammy had been at our house when we got home. She’d brought a casserole from a church friend and I was ever so grateful. But within a few moments, her gentle hands had pried mine from the refrigerator handle, where they had frozen in indecision. “Carol, you’ve been staring in the fridge for awhile now, what are you looking for? Can I get something for you?”
At that I had burst into tears, “I don’t know what I’m looking for, I don’t know what goes with this casserole, I don’t know what kind of vegetable to make, I don’t know what kind of anything to get. I just don’t know….”
Grammy had smiled, led me to the kitchen stool, left me there and gotten out salad dressing and salad fixings. Now why couldn’t I have thought of that?
I had explained to her the phenomenon of chemo brain, how it can affect your ability to think at the oddest moments, and how while I never received any chemo whatsoever, I still got a hefty case of chemo brain after long days of chemotherapy. She had just laughed her typical hearty laugh, hugged me, and finished fixing supper for my family.
Today, someone hadn’t just brought a casserole. Reverently I picked up a paper plate while I surveyed my kitchen counter. A complete meal, along with anything and everything needed to eat it marched down the counter. Drink, along with plastic cups, casserole, veggies, salad, rolls with bread and jam. I recognized some of the things from my refrigerator; others I had never seen before. But I didn’t have to make any decisions or fix a single item. I wouldn’t even have to wash dishes when dinner was over, as the spread included plastic ware, napkins—everything! My only decision was how much to put on my plate.
“Mommy, why are you standing there holding that plate like it’s gold?” asked Karina.
I laughed aloud, “Because it is!” I replied as I began to dish up platefuls of food for the family. “Because it is pure gold!”
Pure gold—that’s Grammy. Grammy and Papa had been waiting for me on my front sidewalk on the day of Andrew’s diagnosis, along with a group of friends. Waiting so I wouldn’t be alone. Waiting to help in whatever capacity I needed. They had helped pack up the girls, and me, and held me while I cried.
Grammy had already washed my laundry more than once, she’d done mending for us, she’d cleaned my bathroom, and she’d watched my girls when I couldn’t be there. She and Papa had shampooed our carpet when we’d had to sterilize everything in order to bring Andrew home. Every day, as I walked into work, I received Grammy’s huge bright and happy smile, and a hug. When I couldn’t be at work, she would call to see what had gone wrong, and to find out what she needed to do to help out our family. Grammy and Papa kept track of our chemo days, long after others had forgotten, and made sure to call with prayer support when they knew it was going to be a long one.
Grammy and Papa are just amazing people, their help incredible, and their support inexhaustible. These two extraordinary people started out with regular names like Darlene and John, but throughout Andrew’s illness they grew into “Grammy and Papa,” the names their ‘real’ grandchildren call them, and the role they play in our lives. But secretly, I think, their real names are “angels.”