I nominated my dad for Caregiver of the Year for our local Relay for Life event coming up on May 14th. He doesn't read the blog, so I know I can post this here without him seeing it. Let's hope he doesn't get a wild hare up his you-know-what and decide to visit. Anyway, here's the essay I wrote last night for his last-minute nomination. It stirred up stuff, of course, which just continued today at school. More about that later. Anyway, it's a post, finally!
I would have liked for someone else to write this essay, and it breaks my heart that that’s not how things turned out. And so, I write this not only for myself, but on behalf of my beloved stepmother, Edna. She would agree with me that my dad, Jerry, is the Caregiver of the Year. There are many reasons why I know that my dad is the Caregiver of the Year, and if he isn’t chosen by the Relay Committee, I will give him this letter so that he knows exactly how much I appreciate all that he went through and all that he did.
When Edna was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer in January of 2009, it was a terrible blow to the entire family. Some of us knew from research that the odds weren’t good, and Edna had a hard time fighting it from the get-go. Somehow, it seemed that she knew what the rest of us weren’t willing to admit—that she would lose her battle no matter how hard she fought.
Edna’s fight would last until October 18, almost exactly a year after she first started having symptoms. Throughout it all, the one person who steadfastly refused to admit there was a possibility that she would die was my dad.
A man who is squeamish enough that he can’t stand to see children’s runny noses learned and performed procedures that she couldn’t handle on her own—and he never flinched. He dealt with every possible situation with the utmost care and sensibility, in a way that not only took care of the task at hand, but with every pill, every treatment, allowed her to see exactly how much he loved her and respected her.
A man who had lived a fairly old-fashioned existence learned new things: he learned how to cook, how to run the washer and dryer, and how to load the dishwasher properly. He learned how to grocery shop, and how to buy the very few things that appealed to her non-existent appetite. He made certain that Gatorade, canned peaches, and black cherry ice cream were always on hand, and he provided and pushed those with persistence when she might have given up and grown weaker even earlier than she did.
He sacrificed many things during that year. He sacrificed things that make him happy, that keep him sane. He gave up everything that didn’t involve being with her to take care of her and spend time with her. He lost sleep while making sure she was okay in the middle of the night and drove himself to the point of exhaustion taking care of her. He spent untold nights with her during her hospitalizations, while educating himself at the same time, asking for explanations, seeking second opinions, and buffering her from unpleasant or upsetting tasks or interactions.
My father is a very proud man. He doesn’t like to ask for help, and, like many men of his generation, he doesn’t like to show or admit his weaknesses. So I know that the rare occasions when he did call for “back-up” were out of sheer necessity. As the “second string,” my sister, my husband, and I, along with our young son, spent as much time as possible with our parents, but emotional support and just being there were usually all the help that was accepted.
During the last few weeks of her life, when it had become clear that the end of her suffering was near, she wasn’t really “with us” very much. Her moments of clarity became fewer and farther between, until it was obvious that she had “a foot in each world,” as I saw it put in reading material we were given about the dying process. Dad left her side only out of necessity, talking to her, hugging and kissing her, and eventually, although I know it was the hardest thing he’s ever done, telling her it was okay to let go.
During those long, last few weeks of her life, he broke down frequently, but never within her earshot. Several times he cried to me that he didn’t know what he was going to do without her. The only response I had for him was that he was already doing it!
It had been clear to us for years that she was his rock, his best friend, the one that kept him centered and balanced, his caregiver so many times throughout the years and the minor illnesses we all encounter in our lives. As I write this, it occurs to me that the way things progressed happened in a way that allowed to him to learn to live without her a little a time; it allowed him to grow in so many ways that he isn’t even aware of.
My father misses Edna terribly, as we all do, and the grieving process has been slow. To compound the grief, “survivor’s guilt” also gets him down, in spite of the fact that he did as much as any person on Earth could have to make sure that the last year of her life was as happy as it could have been. I am nominating him for Caregiver of the Year not because I think he wants to be rewarded for his actions, but because it is the best way I know how to show him exactly how much I admire him and how grateful I am for the care he gave one of my most favorite and beloved people. The strength he showed, and continues to show in the wake of her death, is inspiring. The example he set for us, his children, and for my son, is priceless. Dad, I love you, and you are stronger than you know. You were Edna’s hero, her protector, and her best friend, and I know that wherever she is right now, she agrees.