One evening 35 years ago, when I was a baby Christian, I was on my way to prayer group, supper dishes just done, bustling around my kitchen looking for Bible, coat, and shoes when the phone rang. I grabbed it distractedly, wondering where my car keys were and glancing up at the clock. It was Alvaro, the husband of my friend Marie. Marie and I had met at our daughters’ 4-H club and we’d become good friends. A beautiful, creative, and wonderful woman, she’d been waging a 3-year war with breast cancer, but she was losing. She had taken to her bed and needed someone with her round the clock. Alvaro and their teenage daughter had risen to the task, but it was difficult for them. I’d told Alvaro, a very private and reserved KU professor, to call on me if he ever needed a break. Marie was close to the end. Alvaro explained he just had to get out of the house for the evening — could I come over and sit with Marie? “Oh, Alvaro,” I said. “I am so sorry! It’s prayer group night and I’m just on my way out the door!” We quickly hung up.
Within 2 seconds I thought, “What did I just say?” and immediately called him back. “Alvaro, forgive me, I can’t believe I said that! I’ll be right over.”
I still smile when I think about what an idiot I was and how kind God was to let me see it. Marie and I spent a little more time together, and she knew I was there. Her husband and daughter had a bit of a break. How tender of God to arrange it. Above all, how brilliant God was to introduce me to caregiving.
“Care” and “giving.” Now there are 2 words I love! I’ve spent so much of my adult life caring and giving in one way or another — teaching, parenting, foster parenting, grandparenting, slogging gallons of homemade soup up one country road and down another, letting out dogs and feeding cats and horses, volunteering for Hospice, taking my mom in when her dementia made it impossible for her to live alone, coming alongside homeless families through Family Promise, and wrapping and delivering (or leaving unwrapped — as instructed) food and Christmas gifts for people who need help on the holidays. It has been the framework of my life. “How can I help?” comes naturally to me. It’s what I do. It just seems to make sense.
But I like to joke that “caregiving” is a lousy career choice — there’s no future in it! And this is quite true. The children (original, grand, or foster) grow up and move away. The old and terminally ill surely die. And it’s so relentless. Christmas always comes again in 364 days, and there will be another needy child who wants a video game or a pink bedspread. When you “caregive” full time, the shift never ends and you seldom go off duty, unless you’ve asked or hired a friend to take your place. There is no pay and no pension plan….no glamorous trade shows in Vegas… and you will never get a tantalizing brochure inviting you to a caregiver’s conference on St. Kitts. There are rewards, but nothing tangible you can post on Facebook — even IF you had the time. BUT — caregiving is the most REAL thing I have ever done. I have never regretted a moment of it.
Why do I care to give? I can’t say. I CAN say that in a world that grows more divided, cold, and lonely it seems to me it is very important work — the only work that makes sense. We are all we have. We are the ones we have been waiting for. It’s time to get on with our loving. It is time to care.
Life will give you many opportunities to be a caregiver. Recognize them, and step up when they come, for come they will. The needs may be small or large. It might be a ride to the airport or helping someone move. Maybe your spouse or partner will have an accident, or get a dreaded diagnosis. Perhaps a relative will need a place to live. A sick friend might need rides to appointments, or a meal once a week. Or a child, one you haven’t met yet, will need you somehow, and maybe even need a home. Yes — it’s inconvenient. You will feel that your life has been interrupted — may I say, what you THOUGHT was your life. But as hard or inconvenient as it may seem (and actually BE) at times, when you are able to look back, you will be so incredibly glad you cared and gave. That small light will not go out, that light that you gave life to, that light that you became for just a moment. I smile as I write this.
Several years ago husband Steve and I were driving home from a family wedding in Minneapolis. We were 8 hours into the 12 hour ride on a hot August day, somewhere in the cornfields of Iowa. The interstate had numbed our minds and ears, and the excitement of seeing so much family and experiencing so much celebration had drained us of conversation. As we pulled off the road and into a gas station, I noticed a woman standing by the edge of the parking lot holding a sign. She had her back to us. She was facing the oncoming cars exiting the lot. It alarmed me. Time was, hitchhikers were a common sight, but not so much these days — particularly a lone woman. In full “travel-mode stupor” we got to the business at hand (gas, restroom, obligatory glance at the seductive snack orgy inside), jumped in the car, and started back towards the road. We were tired. It was our last push to home. We were focused.
The woman was still there. We could see her now. She was young. She had the posture and presence of a Madonna. She had long dark blonde hair that blew across her face in the hot wind. She wore a long skirt and a shawl of some kind over her head and shoulders. Her face was serene and beautiful. She was looking down. A gas can, spout pulled out, was on the ground at her feet. Her arms gracefully held a sign over her very pregnant belly: SEEKING HUMAN KINDNESS. In the nanosecond it took us to pass her by, she looked up and made eye contact with Steve. I thought to ask him to stop, see what she needed, help her. But he was tired, hot, and ready to get home. And I was the same, truth be told. I didn’t ask him. We didn’t stop. But she traveled with us anyway all the way to Kansas. It took us two days to dare to talk about her, and speak of our shame for not stopping to help her.
Who was she? I’ve seen signs reading “Anything helps” and “Need gas money” and even (once in San Francisco) “Please give to the United Negro Pizza Fund” — I loved that one. But this was so different. Otherworldly. Was she real? Was she FOR REAL? Did anyone else see her? Did someone help her? I will never know. And I will never forget her.
Friends, it seems to me that we are ALL that woman. Some of us have signs, and some of us don’t, but we are all, every one of us, seeking human kindness. We say “modern life” is very busy, and it’s true, but busy with what? It’s awfully easy to get lost in ourselves and our agendas. We all want to “get there” – wherever we think that is. It has never been convenient to care for one another. And aren’t there social services for such things?
Rumi, a 12 century sufi mystic, wrote “Be a lamp, or a lifeboat, or a ladder. Help someone’s soul heal. Walk out of your house each day like a shepherd.” What a lovely image. What a lovely calling. What a lovely purpose. Like that lady said to the waiter in When Harry Met Sally: “I’ll have what he’s having!” To me, giving care to one another is the only thing that makes sense. It’s why we are here.
Who cares? A good question. I’ll give you (and me) time to think about that. Take care! And thanks for caring to listen.