I have known Rosemary for nearly thirty years. Her twins, Mary and Anna, and my daughter, Rachel, were born in 1988, the same year we met while waddling our pregnant bodies around the circle of our Colchester, Vermont neighborhood. My three-year-old son, Ben, rode around us on his Hot Wheel as we discussed our due dates, our swollen bodies, and our insatiable appetites. Her husband, Hugh, persuaded my husband, Tom, to begin racing bicycles. It was a couple’s match made in heaven.
Fast forward to 2002. By then, the Rawlins had moved from Vermont to Virginia, our children were no longer babies, and our husbands were in the best shapes of their lives as racers. Rosemary and I talked nearly every day, keeping the friendship alive with our worldviews, our angst about the teenage girls we were raising, and how our next visit was fast approaching. My daughter, Rachel, and I had plane tickets for our trip to Richmond over the girls’ April vacation.
One week before our journey, Rosemary called me with the news that Hugh had been struck by a car, that he was in a coma, and she had no idea if he would survive. It was a desperate and emotional call, and I had no intention of canceling my trip south because I knew she needed help. Rachel and I boarded the plane. I was a bundle of nerves wondering what I would encounter. Rachel was quiet, a rarity for a thirteen-year-old, probably aware of my unspoken fears. She was excited to see Anna and Mary, but worried about them, too.
As you all know, Hugh has recovered and to this day, welcomes us with open arms when we visit, ready for a bike ride with Tom.
In the years since the accident, I have learned some valuable lessons about watching a dear and loving friend experience a traumatic event and who ultimately became a caregiver without warning. Here are five lessons that I learned while trying to help Rosemary.
- Be there. Listen to her fears. Cry with her. Moreover, when possible, laugh with her. I remember a night two days after we arrived in Richmond. The girls were putting on a musical for us, Rosemary and I were drinking wine, and she doubted she would be able to continue writing résumés for her business. The messages on the answering machine piled up with people wondering if she was open or if she had completed their résumé. I told her, “How about your voice on the answering machine saying, ‘My husband is in a coma right now, but if you keep calling and leaving your number, I’m sure to get back to you soon.’” We had a good laugh and then she did put a more professional message on the machine to quell the calls. Sometimes a caregiver needs help simplifying her life.
- Be there. Not everyone can handle the stress of watching a friend struggle with disaster. Sometimes, medical issues are hard to deal with because we are afraid of them. And sometimes, the issues bring us face to face with something in our lives that is tough to handle. No matter the reason, never feel guilty for not wanting to dive into the life of a caregiver. You can be supportive in other ways. Does the lawn need mowing or the snow need shoveling? Are the weeds in the garden threatening to take over the yard? Are the mail and the newspapers piling up, unnoticed? Be the unseen hero. Again, taking over these chores helps to simplify a caregiver’s life.
- Be there. Food is the one thing a stressed caregiver and her family will need but will not want to think about. That’s why caregivers often resort to fast-food. Start a food chain or just be one link. If the caregiver and the family can count on your mac and cheese every Wednesday night, their world gets a little bit less stressful. A few days into my visit with Rosemary, I made a pasta dish out of whatever was in the cupboard and the refrigerator. Apparently, it was the best food Rosemary ate, because to this day, she talks about it! Sometimes, the comfort we get from food is all we need at the moment.
- Be there. If the family has children, they are under tremendous stress, too. Their worry and their feelings often aren’t addressed in the tumult of the day. During our week in Richmond, and without the knowledge of the city (and before GPS was around), I drove three teenaged girls into town on a shopping trip. We laughed at crazy clothes we tried on, and they gave me the gift of levity. It was beneficial to us all. And for a couple of hours, Rosemary could concentrate solely on Hugh.
- Be there. When the patient comes home, we often think the family is whole again and we back away from helping. We are optimistic that all is “FINE,” But as we all know, FINE has its own definition. The caregiver will be f&*%ed up, insecure, neurotic, and emotional for a long time. Keep in touch. Keep the kids busy. Mow the lawn. And just maybe, make an impromptu casserole that will someday be the best meal they ever ate.