Yvonne has made a comeback. A month ago, she was the image of death, loosing weight at the rate of a pound a day. Today, after her fourth round of chemo, she’s up to 128 pounds (from a low of 120 pounds three weeks ago), and is beginning to look and act more like her old self. I have had to bare most of the burden of caring for her during her ordeal of chemotherapy (with a lot of help from my daughter, who we couldn’t have made it this far without). I’ve heard that a pernicious disease can exact a greater toll on the caregiver than it does on the patient. That hasn’t exactly been the case with me so far, but it has been stressful enough for me to know first hand that whoever said that was right. The first casualty as a result of my seemingly endless orderly duties has been my workout schedule. Only now do I realize how vital my workouts are to my health and wellbeing. I’ve missed three workouts in the last two weeks and already I can feel my stamina and resiliency fading. I rarely get colds, but I had a sore throat a couple of days ago that so far, I’ve been able to fight off from becoming a full-blown upper respiratory infection. I have nights of insomnia due to the frequent trips I have to make to the bathroom some nights. Apparently, when I don’t workup a full blown sweat for at least an hour a day, all that water wants to be discharged every hour on the hour after my first three hours of sound sleep. My sleep is also interrupted by the sound of Yvonne’s weeping at some disheartening or fearful thoughts she is having, or her moaning from some kind or another form of discomfort she is experiencing. The cumulative effect of these relatively minor annoyances, along with the seemingly endless requests of the patient, is a kind of gradual drain of your energy and spirit.
I don’t believe this drain of energy and spirit is directly related to your efforts to comfort the patient. When caring for someone you love that has a potentially fatal disease, every day you can comfort them, even in the smallest of ways, feels like a tremendous blessing and fills you with absolute joy. So I don’t think it’s the care itself that drags you down. Instead, it think it’s the fact that seeing the person you love more than life itself suffer in ways that exceed your own greatest fears when it comes to suffering, is putting you strangely, and powerfully in touch with your fear of your own mortality. Your empathy, which is constructive for you and the patient, quickly degenerates into sympathy, which causes you to join in with your love one in her suffering. This is a real and potentially fatal danger to the caregiver. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve heard of one person of a couple whom have spent decades together dies after a long illness, and their partner then dies a short time later. I have no idea what to do to remedy the situation. I don’t know if it’s the right thing to do, but at times, if find myself fantasizing about having a good life without my love. I feel horribly guilty after I do it, but in the moment I’m doing it, it takes my mind off the thought that was dragging me down.
When the real possibility of death looms large over you or someone you love, you find out new things about yourself; things that are so alien to the person you thought your were, as to make you think you’ve turned into a different person. All of a sudden, things that were merely abstract concepts to you the day before you discovered the potentially fatal disease was now a part of your reality, become indispensible to your ability to cope with the situation. Certainly, things like healthcare, but also, things like childcare, and art education, and environmental health, all of a sudden have important roles for all of humanity. Things that once seemed optional now seem indispensible to your having some semblance of a joyful life. You will be amazed at the things people grab onto in an effort to help themselves come to grip with the inevitable date we all have with eternity. You start to notice that the very people who claim to be so religious and who claim to have so much faith in their belief in their religion’s version of the paradise that awaits them after death, are the ones who cling the most desperately to life. It seems to me that religion, in all of its forms and manifestations, is man’s way of coping with the mystery of death.
In spite of our claims to the contrary, only a small number of us are true believers. A true believer can’t wait to die, and never resists death through any kind of medical intervention. The Taliban and Islamic State are true believers. I now believe that when the world reaches a critical mass of 30% of all the people of the world becoming true believers in their religion, we’re all going to die because a true believer has no real tolerance for any differing belief. It may turn out that religion is nature’s way of eliminating intelligent creatures that refuse to apply their intelligence to protecting the very environment they need to survive.
I’ll tell you this. When things get the way they are for me now, I pray like a madman. I pray before I go to bed at night, all through the day and the first thing in the morning. I pray the way my religion has taught me to pray. I may not believe all the dogma called for by my religion, but I pray anyway. I believe when prayer is honest and sincere, it connects you with whatever the reality of eternity is, regardless of your religion. No religion knows what the eternal reality is, so the actual reality hears the prayers of all religions, aside from and in spite of their dogma and precepts. Men, for the purpose of controlling other men, invented the laws and rules of all religions. I find no comfort in following them to the letter, except to the extent that they up life the spirits of all humankind regardless of race, creed or religion. I think it is impossible for the human mind to even imagine what eternity is all about. The idea that man – with all his physical and emotional limitations – is capable of understanding eternity is the logical equivalent of an ant being capable to understand complex algebraic equations. I prefer to believe that when I pray, I am getting in touch with my destiny and my destiny in turn is sending me back peaceful thoughts that enable me to cope with it. Anyway, that’s my mechanism of coping with death.