In another lifetime, I was sitting on a bench with my buddy, Doug, in a small town in France trying to recover from jetlag and watching several concurrent games of boules played by (mostly) men of all ages in the village square. It was serious business. When a guy in the group closest to us was lining up his next toss, a neighborhood mutt without any sense of propriety trotted across the clay and deposited a steaming load directly in the bowler’s trajectory. The player straightened up, whistled loudly, and out of nowhere zipped in a young man riding what was essentially a vacuum cleaner the size of a golf cart, who swiftly sucked up the offending pile and vanished, presumably waiting for the next summons. Play resumed without comment; life goes on. Doug and I looked at each other: “Did you see that? Who would want that job?”
Well, I’m not sure anyone really wants that job. It’s just a job. On the plus side: you get to ride around on a cool little cart in Provence during the summer, making sure others can pursue their activities without interference. On the minus side: you end up every day with a hopper full of dog shit.
Actually, caregiving can be a lot like that job—even worse if you don’t find a place to dump the hopper full of dog shit. For a position no one really wants to find themselves in, the primary caregiver role was one I had to fight for. Several years earlier, I had a blue period, like Picasso, though not as long or productive as his. Then I had a black period. Then I had a black-and-blue period. I’m not entirely convinced I was clinically depressed since it was largely work-related, but it doesn’t make much difference. Ultimately, well before Diana’s diagnosis, I traded the anti-depressant for a granddaughter and wrote myself back to life through poetry that has since been confiscated and kept under guard in a Nevada salt mine.
At the time, Diana found this profound change in my outlook perplexing. So did I. If I were questioned under a bare bulb with my feet in water and wires alligator clipped to sensitive places, I’d eventually say I discovered during that time that: 1) I’m not at my most creative during periods of high stress; 2) I don’t enjoy not controlling my own fate; and 3) I’m generally uncomfortable with uncertainty.
In addition, I don’t hide emotions well. Due to our differing childhood circumstances, Diana developed the strength and skills to deal with trauma that I never had to, so she was considerably more stoic, at least outwardly, during the first weeks of diagnosis. I actually felt borderline dehydrated most of that time, but only when the two of us were alone together. The rest of the time I would just curl up and bury my face in a pile of dirty clothes on our closet floor, since lack of privacy was the flip side of being continually supported by friends and family.
I’m not sure Diana thought I was up to the task of taking care of her; it probably looked more like she’d have to take care of me. I wondered about that myself, to a certain extent. There were plenty of people willing to do the job of primary caregiver. That was one of the factors that led me to step up to it, frankly. I had been hip-checked off the bed in mid-contraction during the birth of our second child because someone in the room thought they were a better coach. I was too stunned at the time to react, so I let it happen. This was a quarter century ago. I hadn’t thought about it since, but it popped into my head when I began to receive so many gracious and generous offers from family and friends to do anything and everything we could ask or need.
But this role was mine. I didn’t claim it so much as I reclaimed it. I became proprietary about it. I appreciated all the help—and it does indeed require a lot of help. But the depression I’d felt a couple of years ago had left me with the feeling that I had some making up to do, and now it looked very much like I might not have enough time to do it.
That said, the caregiving job started getting easier as soon as the final diagnosis was reached. As much as anticipation can be better than the thing itself, it can also be worse. At least we now knew what we were dealing with, and that made all kinds of choices easier. For instance, the question of how much do we need for retirement seemed to dominate every dinner discussion with friends in the months leading up to the diagnosis. Retirement? What retirement? Retirement had dropped off the radar altogether. So what is the solution to any nagging problem? Easy: Get a bigger one. Here’s one place where size does indeed matter.