Sunday, June 29, 2010, at age 89, my mother-in-law moved in with my husband and I, at our invitation. Monday, Dec. 2, 2019, at age 99, God called her to the home she longed for. In the intervening 9 years, 5 months, and 3 days, I learned what it is to be a caregiver. I also learned that these same lessons apply to wherever God calls me to serve.
Coping with Challenges
My mother-in-law was sweet, cooperative and caring. Overall, she was healthy, both physically and mentally, for her age. Most caregivers face much greater challenges. Even so, caregiving was hard, very hard. It’s a downward curve, an unpredictable but inevitable loss of abilities. It’s a 24/7/365 job, even for those who are also otherwise employed. Managing medical visits, treatments, medication and insurance took an inordinate amount of time. Routines that were comforting to her were mind-numbing to me. Even the things she could do for herself were a balancing act as we had to decide if and when to intervene for her own safety. And even sweet, cooperative women are stubborn and foolish at times. We also dealt with her own fears and anxieties of losing the independence she valued.
I learned that, when I have to, I can do more than I think I can. I also learned that ssometimes God calls us to serve in places where we don’t have the obvious gifts. I’m not a natural caregiver. But I saw him bless the gifts he has given me – organizational skills, a logical approach to problems, natural patience and persistence – when I used them where he’s called me.
I learned that it is often God’s “little” gifts that help me through a tough day: a few minutes of unexpected quiet, the view of a bird or a tree outside the window; the sunshine on the wall; a favorite song.
I learned to remind myself of the deeper vision of who she is – not just a needy, elderly woman, but also the woman who raised my husband, a woman who helped countless others throughout her life, a woman who I would spend eternity with.
I learned to accept help when it is offered, and to ask for help when needed. That was a big lesson!
Serving is relational
I learned that in serving, relationships matter. “Love your neighbor” is how Jesus summed up the Christian life of serving. We often equate serving with tasks, but it’s really and always about people.
Relational depth matters, too. I can help someone in need by dropping off a meal. Or, I can go deeper, bringing coffee or a snack, sharing my time and attention, on a regular basis during a difficult time. Deeper yet is caregiving. The deeper we go into relational serving, the harder it is for us; yet the more impactful and life-changing it is, for both sides. Relationships are messy and difficult; relationships are also what we all need. A lack of reliable, supportive, and healthy relationships are the cause of many of society’s problems today; healthy, supportive and reliable relationships are also a key part of the solution.
“It’s like being in prison.” That’s how a friend described in-home caregiving, and she’s right. My husband and I half-joked that we lived in a nursing home with one resident and two staff. I often felt socially isolated, envious that I was unable to do all that my friends could. But the one we cared for was in a deeper, darker prison, the prison of a failing body and failing mind.
Even as we felt isolated, we also recognized and appreciated the supportive community around us. Great organizations provided support and services; my employers offered flexibility and accommodation; our church family was loving and helpful. Three friends from church – they truly were angels! – each came over about once a month to spend time with Mom so my husband and I could enjoy a meal out and much-needed uninterrupted conversation time.
God has a heart for “widows and orphans,” a term inclusive of all who cannot provide for their own needs. God calls his people to provide this care. God puts his people into a community, called the church, because it is through community that care is best provided.
The Eternal Perspective
Caregiving is difficult and scary because it has no end date. My husband and I realized she could possibly outlive us both. “A day at a time” was our focus; we didn’t know what future weeks, months, years and more years would bring.
Now, although this season of caregiving has ended, we realize our season of serving hasn’t. “Love your neighbor” is still our Lord’s command. We see many people around us in prison – prisons of cancer or addiction, violence or poverty, mental illness or disability, homelessness or fear. These people need things — food, medical care, money, and so on – but even more so, they need and desire people who support them in loving relationships.
Relationships are messy. Relationships are hard. But God values relationships. As Father, Son and Spirit, he is in relationships within himself. The entire Bible is the story of his heart’s desire to draw every individual into relationship with him. To make that possible, to deal with all the brokenness and fear and self-centeredness in every one of us, he did the messy and hard work of becoming human, walking among us for 33 years, and going all the way to the cross. His resurrection is our resurrection, too, to a life free of prisons and chains, pain and suffering, exhaustion and isolation.
My mother-in-law enjoys all that now. My husband and I look forward to it. But God’s grace is available now. That grace, an inexhaustible flood of it, sustains us when serving is hard. His grace is full of forgiveness for the times we fail to serve as we know we should. His grace means God is always open to our unceasing cries for help. His grace helps us see the help and resources he places around us. His grace reminds us that our struggles, even those that last decades, are short-term. One day we’ll leave all this behind for something better, richer, deeper.
Because God gave Adam work to do in the Garden of Eden before sin entered the world, I wonder if we’ll be doing some type of work or serving in heaven. I envision it as something similar to the Great Dance described by a character at the end of Perelandra , a book of fiction by C.S. Lewis. It’s an ecstatic dance of innumerable interconnected entities, each appearing both as the master-figure of the whole and simultaneously subordinate to all the others, a dance of immense complexity that when viewed as a whole fades to utter simplicity. Perhaps, as we serve, we are taking our first steps in that dance now.
And perhaps, if serving is life-long and beyond, the education is, too.