The Caregiver

By Scott Westerman
“The strongest steel is forged in the hottest fire.”

Over the last decade, Colleen and I have been among the care givers for four loved ones we ultimately lost to cancer. A year and a half ago, I took on the caregiver role when Colleen was diagnosed.

Nobody. Nobody can truly empathize with a cancer caregiver unless they have been one. The initial terror of the diagnosis. The stoic determination with which you help your loved one cope with surgery, chemo and all the repercussions that come with it. The mortality that slaps us right in the face. The five stages of grief that we have to navigate even as we try to maintain our composure to be an effective patient advocate while continuing to wade through the complexities of a lifetime commitment. The unknown. The minutes of  ice cold fear that stand between a blood test and the results. Searching a nurses face for the microscopic signs of good news, or bad, that may hide behind a professional facade. The indescribable high that comes with another all-clear. And the nagging thoughts that never go away. Thoughts that something bad may still lurk inside your soul mate’s body.

All these things are telepathically transmitted between caregivers. It only takes a second. They instantly know a lot more about the courage and constitution of that other person, things that the rest of the world can never know.

Caregivers come to understand the circle of life better than most. Our deeper exposure to the inexact science that keeps a person alive may make us seem a little more spiritually agnostic. How could a loving god inflict such a horrible thing on such a good person? But we secretly wish that the souls of the loves we’ve lost will return to the universal energy of the cosmos, that we may someday meet again, and that all the questions our limited mental capacities can’t comprehend will be answered when it’s our turn to shuck these unreliable bodies for what we envision is a more perfect existence.

This is the basis for hope, the primal force that fuels the energy that we always seem to find to carry on, no matter how tired or weak we may feel.

If caregiving has taught us anything, it’s a deeper appreciation for living in the moment. Relationships are more important. The superficial things that used to matter don’t. Colors are richer. Experiences are more visceral.

Imaging living your life with a minimum of drama. Imagine knowing what it’s like to stare fear straight in the face, banishing it’s influence on the choices you make. And imagine realizing that the authenticity of your happiest moments are amplified by the extent you can have courage in the darkness. Truth is, you don’t need something like cancer to open your eyes. All this is accessible to you. Whoever you are, wherever you are, someone’s life is better because you have cared.

The cruel twist about being a cancer caregiver is this: It’s a gift, enlightening us to the notion that our time on earth is really about alleviating suffering, adding beauty to the tapestry of life, and fully feeling every sensation as the ultimately joyful learning experience it is.

Enjoy the week!

Special recognition to Bonnie Knutson and Kathy Diehl, two of my profiles in courage.