I had just arrived at my parents’ home for an afternoon of caregiving. Dad was in the garage, and when my car pulled in, he walked up the driveway to greet me. I’m not sure what it was – the big, smiling welcome on his face, the hunch of his shoulders, the sag of his pants, the enthusiasm in his watery, old eyes – but my heart lept into my chest and my throat tightened. I felt I was witnessing, in that flash, the transient nature of life, and its vital yet dwindling presence in this beautiful man, this very moment, this time-honoured soul. My heart went bloom.
Experts say that when you care for something, whether it’s a withering plant or a baby bird who fell out of its nest, you task your brain to bond with it in a nurturing role. Your heart opens wide (metaphorically) which allows the expression of love and other positive emotions to cascade from you to the subject of your attention. As the subject thrives, the bond becomes secure within a feedback loop of successful fulfillment. You are able to be of service; a life benefits.
Caregiving gives you so many opportunities to look into someone’s eyes and witness the person within. It gives you valuable time to sit with them and drink in their presence. As you listen, you can practise the beauty of being in the moment. When I’m talking with Mom, I study the fine lines around her eyes, the testament of laughter and worrying mapped out in her features. Her blue eyes are startling in their bed of fragile skin and folds of old, her lips softened and blurred. As she brushes her hair out of her eyes, I’m reminded of how she brushed the hair of her four daughters, tirelessly, for so many years and through so many iterations of pony-tails and braids.
Caregiving for those who are losing their memories is a treasure trove of memories in the making. It’s important to capture them and hold them close. People with dementia are constantly changing, and time passes quickly in terms of what is being sacrificed to the past. You need to adjust with them, and honour each stage as it announces itself. You need to say “Oh, OK, that’s the way it’s going to be now.” And you want to be open to appreciating each transition, without the burden of belabouring what’s lost or gone.
One late afternoon, after Mom had a particularly difficult day, I was getting ready to leave, exhausted. Mom started to cry, and I stopped in the act of putting my boots on, wondering if I should stay a few more hours. Dad had been watching from a distance all day, pacing around and doing some worrying of his own.
All of a sudden, Dad was at Mom’s side and pulling her into his embrace. He held her tight and his body started shaking with sobs. “I love you so much,” he said, crying openly. My Mom, still crying, put her small arms around his broad back and leaned into his embrace. “I love you too,” she said. They clung to each other, lost in time and space.
Instinctively, I held back, not wanting to interfere. I sat in wonder at this marriage of 62 years, this man and woman who have been through so much and who now find themselves unable to help each other, reliant on family and caregivers to get them through their days. It was a moment of heartbreak and privilege. A glimpse into a story still very much in the making.
There is so much love in the simple act of caregiving. There is so much love in people, buried or simmering or spilling out all over the place. There is love everywhere, it seems, and being open to both the pain and joy of it makes life – and caregiving – a better time for everyone.
“Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds
of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.”