by Shelly Beach
When I was 13, my 90-year-old grandmother moved into our home. Grandma Burke was from the Old Country and left her family to move to “Visconsin” from Sweden at the age of 15. At the ripe age of 90, she became my roommate. Grandma did not share my affinity for the Beatles or bell-bottoms, and I did not share her affinity for warm prune juice or smacking her gums when she removed her teeth. My life was marked by the mortal fear that she would hightail it off to glory some night, and I would open my eyes in the morning and find myself staring at a corpse.
One morning in the pre-dawn darkness, I lay in my bed with my eyes squeezed shut against the taunting specter of death in the twin bed across the room just inches from my own. In the darkness, I reached for my glasses at their familiar spot on the bedside stand, but to my surprise, I found my hand unexpectedly plunging into a mason jar of icy water. As I panicked, my fingers clamped down, and I quite unexpectedly latched on to Grandma’s teeth and pulled them, dripping, from the mouth of the jar.
Something inside me must have snapped as I hurled Grandma’s dentures across the room with the force of an Olympic shotputter. My screams would have killed a less sturdy 90-year-old, but Grandma Burke was a Swede who had raised 10 children during the Depression on salt pork and lutefisk.
Many of us come to caregiving in a similar fashion, with our eyes clenched shut against the specter of death that hovers just beyond our vision as we grope in the darkness for something, anything, that will help us find our way on our journey. Then comes the moment when our hand plunges into the mason jar, and we realize we’ve grasped something we hadn’t quite expected, something we may have never before had to face at close range. In that moment we may ask ourselves, What have I gotten into? What am I doing here, anyway? In the early days of my caregiving journey, I wasn’t really sure.
My caregiving journey
My husband, Dan, and I were both raised in households where grandparents were part of the family structure. We always believed it would be our responsibility to care for our parents someday, possibly in our home. But we had never expected those responsibilities to begin when our kids were still young enough to enjoy eating Play-Doh—just 4 and 6.
Dan’s father, Norman, came to live with us for the first time in 1983 because of severe malnutrition due to food allergies. His condition was so dire that he had lost his ability to recognize us or to speak. He lived with us for four months while we sought medical treatment and nourished him back to health. Six years after his first recovery he returned, with only 117 pounds clinging to his six-foot-two-inch frame. Once again malnutrition was the cause. This time he lived with us for six months while he regained physical and mental strength and we found an allergist whose treatment allowed him to eat normally for the remainder of his life.
Then in 2000, when Norman’s friends called again and told us of his depression and anxiety, we knew that short-term interventions were no longer an option. Norman would live with us for four-and-a-half years. During that time, he suffered from a number of physical and mental illnesses, including obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and Parkinson’s disease. He went through periods of care in hospitals and rehab centers, always returning to our home when he was well enough. During those same years, my mother, who lives with my father back in Michigan, slipped into the abyss of Alzheimer’s, and my dad began to manifest strange cardiac and neurological symptoms.
My life became a surreal choreography of medical emergency flights, doctors’ appointments, hospitalizations, and rehabilitations. For years it seemed I was either racing to someone’s side for an emergency room crisis or heading off for my own. By the time Dad Beach had lived with us a few years, most of the doctors I met thought I was a doctor myself. I knew I was certainly willing to sign up for a medical convention somewhere in the Caribbean.
The conflict of expectations and realities
Then in 2004, God suddenly flung open doors that allowed us to move back to Michigan to be near my parents. I found my dream job at a Christian university, but it didn’t take long for reality to slap me in the rear. It seemed like all the doctors we had found had conspired to work out of offices on the opposite side of the city. My parents lived almost an hour from our new home, and I could explode a blood pressure cuff just talking about their medical needs.
Every day I drove to work I could think of five reasons to be at home caring for Norman and 10 more to be in Muskegon caring for Mom and Dad. It seemed that no matter where I was or what I was doing, I felt guilty. My migraines were becoming more frequent and more intense, and I had put my neurologist on speed-dial. There were days I looked at the drippy mess of my life and wanted to fling the problems and frustrations across the room like Grandma’s teeth, crawl back into my bed, and pull up the covers.
Then one afternoon the picture changed. Norman took a fall while Dan was helping him in the bathroom. Before a week had passed, he took another tumble, this time while we were at work. That was the day we knew the inevitable had arrived—we couldn’t keep Norman safe in our home any longer. The Parkinson’s had progressed too far. We grieved a loss the day we moved Norman into the Michigan Home for Veterans, less than 10 miles from our house, where he lived for 11 months before Jesus called him home to really rest.
The day after Norman moved, Dan and I prepared his room for my parents. Soon after that, I quit my job at the university and began freelancing so I could have more flexibility to help share my parents’ care with my brother, Paul, and his wife, Sheryl. Right now in the morning hours, my folks are stirring in the room next to me, and that means that for today, at least, I’m blessed to care for them in my home.
Power in an open hand
Caregiving is difficult—for us, for our families, for our loved ones. It is messy work. We must expect tension and turmoil, but in that tension and turmoil, we can expect redemption, reconciliation, and affirmation. Caregiving is not a means to a promised end, but because the process reflects the character of Christ Himself, we can be assured it will transform us. And if we approach caregiving as a journey into our own souls, asking God to reveal Himself to us, we will be rewarded by an avalanche of grace. Philippians 4:19 promises us that “My God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”
Caregiving teaches us to see what is precious and valuable in life. It teaches us what it means to live out commitment and honor. It gives us the opportunity to love someone better who we may have struggled to love in the past. It gives us the opportunity to demonstrate that God is sufficient and that He is a God who redeems.
Caregiving is the hardest work we will ever do because it demands that we love as Christ loved, sacrificing our time, our jobs, our commitments, our friendships, and our health, while standing against the tide of culture. We will be asked to lay down expectations of fairness and to expect stress in our family relationships. We will be asked to crawl onto the altar, knowing God’s desire is to hone us and mold us into the character of His Son. We must be willing to search our hearts and focus the light of the Word upon our self-talk, our motives, and our actions. Caregiving is a journey into the character of Christ.
The call to the journey
The quality of our caregiving is not measured by geography—whether it is given in our home, from a distance, or in a nursing home. It is measured by how we reflect the character of Christ. Caregiving will not look the same for every person or every family. It has as many shapes and forms as there are needs. True strength in caregiving lies in the paradox that our weaknesses are made strong through the sufficiency of God.
The call to caregiving is the call to dip your hand in the mason jar—to abandon yourself to spiritual awakening through the power of redeeming grace. It is a call to suffer, to sacrifice, and to serve. It is a call to abandonment and tears, to hardships and difficulties.
It is a glorious call to be conformed to the image of Christ and to join the God of the universe in ministering grace and mercy to one of His image bearers. It is a call to become a splash of magnificent magenta or burst of brilliant orange on God’s eternal canvas.
And what could possibly be more exciting than that?