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The Caregiver’s Mantra: Doing the Best We Can

I’m going to bury my face in a pillow and scream if one more person tells me to be sure to take care of myself. Go for a walk, take a vacation, they advise. I know they are trying to help, but really? Telling me one more thing to do? Oh well, they are just doing the best they can.

Caregiving days are numbered, and the number is a secret. I’m not going to miss a minute, or let the number be decided by my lack of attention. I’m willingly on call 24 hours. The phone goes everywhere but in the shower, then it sits on the bathroom counter within earshot. I check wounds, change lightbulbs, evaluate skin color, and organize pills. Doing the best I can. 

My parents smile whenever they see me, but it is tentative. There is always a to-do list. They hate to burden me, but I’m the main tool in the toolbox. There are nurses, bath helpers, and Meals on Wheels to preserve their independence, but I’m the foreman. I can never let them know I am crumbling under the weight; it would crush them. 

I am buoyed by their spirit and gratitude. Who knew at age sixty I would flat out love them? At eighteen I couldn’t wait to get away. At thirty I established a minimal equation of visits and phone calls that seemed to equal a reasonable relationship across three thousand miles of buffer. Now I genuinely enjoyed their company.

But why does my mother call at midnight about bleeding when Dad started bleeding at 3 pm? Now we have to go to the ER instead of the doctor. My voice stays in the calm fake-nurse mode when I say I’ll be right there. I know they both hoped they wouldn’t have to involve me; they are doing the best they can. 

The ER nurse apologizes and says we’ll have a long wait. I’d like to protest, but she’s doing the best she can. We sit in the only available chairs next to a young mother and a wailing baby. She coos and rocks him with such tenderness; she’s doing the best she can. The tired looking older man next to her puts his arm around her shoulders and takes the baby’s hand. Probably her father, I think. He’s a master of doing the best he can. There is a good chance he is also taking care of his parents; the sandwich generation they call us.

My father says it’s nice and warm in here. There’s not much good to be said, but he finds something. I wrap some more gauze around his leg. “It is pretty comfy in here,” I agree. I’m not feeling lucky, but I remind myself to value this time with him; save it in my heart to use “later” when I need comfort. I know I’m lucky to still have both my parents at this age.

Really the luck is that this Greatest Generation faced war, economic collapse, and devastation from drought and disease with fortitude and faith — our models for doing the best we can. As we care for them and learn who they were we realize we are resilient because they pasted on smiles and were grateful for factory jobs and VA homes in 1950. They accepted their fates with grace and faced their futures with courage. They still do, even when the fate is dire, living and dying as best they can. 

Patricia Williams is the author of While They’re Still Here, her caregiving memoir.