Most cell phones provide a warning when the battery is getting low. Some even have the option of going into a power-saving mode. Once the phone is connected to a charger, it indicates the current percentage of power left in the battery. Some chargers show how long it will take until the battery is completely recharged. Wouldn’t it be nice if our bodies did that?
But don’t they? When we are caring for others, we may ignore the warnings and go into a power-saving mode so that we can keep working even when we find ourselves tired or stressed. We work a little less, limit communication, or just plain hide from others. But at some point, we have to completely recharge. I just spoke to someone today who told me how tired he was, and with a yawn said maybe he’d go play golf. I suggested going home and resting completely so that he would be ready for the next day’s challenges.
Sometimes, we just have to stop and recharge. Research always tells us how important it is to rest, rehydrate and recharge. We know that an uncharged phone won’t do us any good if we want to call or text. But do we remember that an uncharged body, mind, soul, or spirit will do us little good either if we want to be fully present to help others? Take a moment to consider how to recharge, and decide on the amount of time you need to be at your best again – before that low battery light comes on.
It dawned on me after the first entry on this topic that we cannot smile outwardly when there is no joy inside us. Smiles cannot be forced, though many try to do so. Genuine smiles, however, just bubble up with little or no effort.
As my son and I were posing for pictures a few weeks ago, he made a goofy sound in my ear which he knew I would react to. My daughter-in-law snapped the picture with both of us genuinely laughing before we did the “posed” smile. It has become one of my favorite pictures of us together. I remember a friend telling me once that he’d asked a young lady why she wasn’t smiling and she told him she was smiling inside. He responded that she should telegraph the message to her face. Well, love in the heart is easily telegraphed to the face.
People who know me well can always get me laughing when we recall events in our history that are comical or worth remembering. The long journey we walk as caregivers sometimes squashes the pleasant memories we have with our loved ones, thus making it more difficult to smile. Yet, when we think back, we can find something worth smiling about. It doesn’t change the situation, but it changes us. And isn’t that what smiling is all about? It is choosing to reside for a moment in what is pleasant and what is good. Smile.
The decision to wear or not wear a mask during this pandemic has become a painful point of controversy. The main challenge for me, however, is feeling that others may not know that I am smiling at them.
This always reminds me of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s 1896 poem, “We Wear the Mask.” It was later adapted by Maya Angelou into a spoken-word poem extending Dunbar’s expression of the pain hidden by people of color in order to survive. The face masks we wear now, though unrelated to racism, still present the challenge of seeing the full face of another person behind a covering that leaves only the eyes exposed.
However, a related lesson learned from one of my students has remained close to my heart for decades. It was near the end of the school year when my relationship with the students was established to the point that we could joke with one another periodically. He wanted my attention, but I was trying to convince him that I didn’t like him, so he should leave me alone. He said, “Oh, Ms. Perry, we know you love us. We can see it in your eyes!”
And it is behind the masks that hide the pain we feel from time to time as caregivers, that our eyes will also let our loved ones know how we truly feel about them. Hopefully, they will see our smiling eyes.
We encounter them everywhere, and maybe we just don’t notice them. We may have even said they are just doing their jobs. Service workers received a lot more attention than they usually do at the height of the pandemic; but there are service workers everywhere, not just in the medical field. Yet, we sometimes may fail to notice others who are really helping us.
The unidentified caregivers I especially make a habit to notice are the cashiers. Lord knows they have to deal with an interesting assortment of consumers in the checkout line with a spectrum of behaviors and attitudes. The expectation on the part of the consumer is that the cashier will be courteous and patient. (Not to mention, quick.) And that’s usually what we encounter; but truthfully, sometimes it doesn’t happen that way.
What I have found though, is that if I take the time to notice a cashier’s nametag, I can call them by name when I say hello and ask how their day is going. I also use their name again when I say thanks as I leave. This usually changes the attitude of even those who are not in the best of moods or who just had a doozy of a customer before me. I’ve even asked those with hidden or missing nametags what their name is to make sure I use their names and smile before I leave. The cashiers are truly caring for us. If you don’t believe so, see how long it takes you to find some of the barcodes on your purchases the next time you use the self-service checkouts. In the meantime, make an effort to recognize any other unidentified caregivers who cross your path, and remember to be gracious to them.
The storm came up suddenly as I sped down the highway, and soon the sky let loose sheets of torrential rain. There was no way to pull over, so I slowed down and put on the hazard lights like most other drivers. I found myself behind semi-trucks that added to the limited visibility because of the large amounts of water coming off their tires. I had no choice but to pass them. But just as I got alongside one of the trucks, the rain increased; and I was in a total white-out.
Does life ever seem like that to you? My mother would sometimes say, “If it ain’t one thing, it’s another.” But life happens, and it doesn’t pick just one person to dump on. When you are in one of life’s storms, it may seem as if the problems will never end. You may even doubt your ability to make it through.
But during my rainstorm experience, my husband spoke quietly from the passenger seat, “You’re doing fine. Keep your eye on the yellow line.” I listened to his repeated words of encouragement and kept inching forward. At some point, the storm passed, and I breathed a sigh of relief. When you find yourself in a tough place, look around for your cheerleader. They may be closer to you than you think, and they are saying quietly, “You’re doing fine; keep going.”
It doesn’t seem as though we have to be told to do good. But we do have to be told to not get tired of doing good. What starts out as a good idea needs our perseverance to become productive. We learn that from our intended exercise programs or promises to stay in touch.
I learned it again this year from the demise of what should have been a very productive garden. Somewhere along the line, I forgot to water it consistently or to chop away the weeds. Then when I saw holes in the leaves of the green vegetables, I gave up. Now, in what should be harvest season, there are only a few tomatoes or eggplants and maybe one squash to put on the table. Row after row of potential vegetables never made it through the summer’s heat and the lack of rain.
Had I shown more perseverance, the story could have been different. I see other gardens in the area that are full and flourishing. Someone took the time to consistently drag out the hose to water the plants and took time to chop away the weeds. So, if you are doing something well as a caregiver, stick with it. Don’t become discouraged. In time, you will reap a harvest for the good you have done.
Seriously, can good really come out of tragedy? Am I really supposed to look at a serious problem and find some ray of sunshine? The answer to both questions is actually, yes. Trouble is, the vision you need to see the good is called hindsight. It’s not easy to see anything good at the time when you are watching a loved one suffer – or even suffering yourself. Others may guilt you into thinking you ought to be looking on the bright side. But when you are going through illness, caregiving, sorrow, or pain, the bright side may be slow in coming. Don’t beat yourself up about feeling periodic grief or anger. It’s a natural part of life.
I am always impressed with how Jesus handled his grieving friends after His death. He walked with them on the Road to Emmaus and listened to their anger, grief, and bewilderment. He did not tell them to suck it up and get on with life. He allowed them the space to grieve. Then He opened their eyes so they could see who He was, and their joy was restored.
Time will one day show us life’s beauty again. That crack in the sidewalk does sometimes allow a flower to come peeking through, but it is not an immediate process. Neither is your journey through difficult times. As our family now faces grief and sorrow, I am encouraged to know that in time, we too will see some good in the experience. A flower will eventually appear from a seed planted by sorrow. Watch for it.
Parents proudly record a child’s height as growth takes place. Children themselves become excited about how much taller they are from one year to the next. But what about our mental, spiritual, or emotional health as adults? How have we changed from year to year? How do we know? Where or how have we recorded our growth?
Today I scanned one of my older journals and marveled at what has changed in my life in the last decade and what is nearly the same. Problems I thought would never go away actually did. Positive things that seemed to always be a part of my life have remained. But there were also some painful things I experienced and had to work my way through.
I have found that it helps to create a record of what you experience, especially as a caregiver. It doesn’t matter if you record your thoughts electronically or on paper. Just take a few minutes whenever you can to note how you are processing your experience. Include both the joys and the challenges. And every now and then, go back and review what you’ve written or recorded. Check to see how much you’ve grown over time, and smile as you reminisce.
My best friend and colleague sat in my office and gave me an animated review of her morning presentation. But I was distracted by her top which looked like it was on backward. When I asked her if it was; she pulled down the neckline and looked inside. Shrugging her shoulders, she said, “Oh well, I guess it is.” It didn’t bother her at all because she was not one to be caught up in her appearance.
At that time in my life, I would have been distraught about what others could be saying if I had walked around all morning with something out of place. However, the years have taught me to be less focused on outward appearances and to be more accepting of who I am inwardly, in my soul. And because the soul has to do with the mind, emotions, will, character, etc., our soul is what is important to God.
When the Psalmist says that he lifts up his soul to God, he is saying that he strips away all the outward pretense. He becomes honest about who he really is or about what he is feeling at the moment. When we are caregivers, there is the pressure to present a perfect persona to others. We may want to give the appearance that everything is in place. But in those days when you are hurrying so much that something doesn’t get done, or you put the kid’s t-shirt on backward, just know that if your soul is well, so are you.
Thanks to the contacts app on my phone, I know very few phone numbers. But not everyone enjoys the convenience of a contact list with the caller’s photo attached. My husband remembers everyone’s phone number, so he answers calls based on number recognition. Granted, that doesn’t always work, but he refuses to use an app to identify callers. No matter how crazy I think it is, that is his choice.
And everyone has their way of doing things, no matter what the age. It is more prevalent in the elderly because time has turned lifetime practices into rock-solid habits. As a caregiver, we may struggle with trying to get a loved one to do something we think could be done better another way. Yet, if their system is not harmful, we would be better off letting them follow Frank Sinatra’s mantra, “I did it my way.” An Alzheimer’s patient, for example, may only want to do what is familiar, regardless of something new we may want to introduce to them. But for them especially, familiarity is crucial. Loved ones with other illnesses may live by patterns and habits that sustain them.
Energy spent trying to make others follow our way of thinking – usually so that life will be easier for us, actually causes us more frustration. So, I try to smile when my husband picks up his ringing phone, looks at the number, and wonders out loud, “Who is this?” Yes, life could be easier for him with a contact app. But life would also be easier for me if I didn’t let his system bother me. It’s his phone anyway, so I accept that he is just singing along with Sinatra.