Caring for the One You Love is the Gift of a Lifetime
One of the biggest fears that has dominated my life for many years is that I would be a burden on my loved ones when I got too old to take care of myself. When I was young I imagined myself going out in a blaze of glory, dying young fighting the good fight for family, God, and country. I imagined my surviving family would cherish my memory and my family wouldn’t have to worry about taking care of an old man.
I have been sharing my experiences giving care to my wife, Carlin, since her unexpected slip on a sidewalk and subsequent fall leading to partial hip-replacement surgery. In Part 1 I described the initial stages of the partial hip-replacement surgery and the small stroke that occurred during surgery that caused some memory and speech problems. In Part 2, I talked about the intimacy and exhaustion that comes with 24/7 home health care. Being a Caregiver was a new role for me and in Part 3, I described the deepening of our love that has occurs once I wholeheartedly embraced the calling. In Part 4 I described what I learned about getting out of my fix-it mentality and learning to listen more deeply. Here I want to talk about the great gifts we receive when we embrace caregiving.
When my own parents got older, I realized that I didn’t want to lose them and did my best to do some caretaking as they continued to age. But both my parents grew up with an even stronger desire not to be a burden, remained independent for much of their lives, and died following a relative short period where they needed caretaking. It wasn’t until Carlin’s mother got cancer and we brought her to live with us during the last months of her life that I found out about the beauty of being with a loved one until the very end of their life on earth.
Although I don’t consider myself “religious,” I was raised in the Jewish tradition. I do feel a very spiritual connection with life and believe that there is a spirit that survives energetically after our physical body has completed this life’s journey. I was surprised and moved to tears during the last days leading up to Carlin’s-mother’s passing. As I held her hand, there were no words that passed between us, but I felt overwhelmed with love, compassion, and care. As I looked into her eyes, it was like looking in the eyes of God. At the time, and even now, I wasn’t even sure what those words meant. Clearly, I was experiencing something in a realm beyond words.
In this time of caregiving for Carlin, I am once again experiencing the beauty, joy, and unspeakable love that passes between us and connects us both with the mystery we call God. Whatever your spiritual or religious beliefs, we all will have opportunities to become caregivers at some point in our lives.
Men are often taught to care at a distance. Early on, we are taught that being a real man involves being a successful breadwinner. The old rules told us that our work was out in the world and women’s work was at home with the children and later taking care of aging parents and often aging spouses.
I first learned a more hands-on type of caregiving when our first son, Jemal, was born on November 21, 1969. Back then fathers were not allowed in the delivery room at Kaiser hospital where I was able to be with my wife up until the last stage of the birth process. “Your job is finished now, Mr. Diamond”, the nurse told me. “You can leave now. We’ll find you in the waiting room and let you know as soon as your baby is born.”
I knew the rules and at that time of my life I was inclined to follow them. I kissed my wife and squeezed her hand as she was wheeled out the door and down the hallway to the right, while I went to the left to wait, feeling glad that I had completed my caregiving and could await the birth of the new member of our family. But something wouldn’t allow me to go through the waiting room doors. I felt a call from my unborn child saying, “I don’t want a waiting-room father. Your place is her with us.” I was startled by the words I heard in my mind, but I didn’t hesitate a moment.
I turned around and walked back the way I had come. I found the delivery room and pushed my way through the doors and took my place at the head of the table. There was no question of leaving if asked. I knew where I belonged regardless of what the rules were. Shortly thereafter our son, Jemal, was born.
As I held this tiny being in my arms for the first time, I made a promise to him that I would be a different kind of father than my father was able to be for me and to do everything I could to care for him and to care for the world he would grow up in. Two years later we adopted a 2 ½ month old African American daughter we named Angela.
Being a distant dad was never an option for me. I quickly learned the joys and challenges of being a hands-on father. I took time off from work when Jemal was born and took a stint of full-time caretaking when he was an infant and my wife wanted to take a break and visit a friend. I was terrified at first to have my wife away and have Jemal to myself thinking that mothers had some inherent knowledge about baby care that fathers lacked.
I still believe that is true, but fathers can learn and sometimes being thrown into the deep end of the caregiving pool requires that we learn fast. That was true again when Angela needed an operation when she was a year old and both my wife and I had to become full-time caretakers for her during the first two years of her life.
Caregiving is not easy. It requires us to become warriors for life. In my book, The Warrior’s Journey Home: Healing Men, Healing the Planet, I shared what I learned from meditation master Chögyam Trungpa. In his book, Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, Trungpa says,
“Warriorship here does not refer to making war on others. Aggression is the source of our problems, not the solution. Here the word ‘warrior’ is taken from the Tibetan pawo, which literally mans ‘one who is brave.’ Warriorship in this context is the tradition of human bravery.”
“The key to warriorship and the first principle of Shambhala vision is not being afraid of who you are.”
Taking care of my children was my introduction to getting to know myself as never before and to a kind of warriorship I never knew existed. Taking care of aging parents was another lesson in warriorship, as is taking care of my wife as she approaches her 85th birthday and me my 80th. But we are being called to an even greater calling of caretaking—caring for Earth that is the parent of us all.
In the last chapter of The Warrior’s Journey Home, I quoted my colleague psychologist and philosopher, Sam Keen, who offered a clear statement of the challenge humanity is facing.
“The radical vision of the future rests on the belief that the logic that determines either our survival or our destruction is simple:
- The new human vocation is to heal the earth.
- We can only heal what we love.
- We can only love what we know.
- We can only know what we touch.”
I have been writing about this kind of caregiving in two articles on the transformations we are facing in our world today. Trungpa reminds us that the
“Shambhala vision teaches that, in the face of the world’s great problems, we can be heroic and kind at the same time. Shambhala vision is the opposite of selfishness. When we are afraid of ourselves and afraid of the seeming threat the world presents, then we become extremely selfish. We want to build our own little nests, our own cocoons, so that we can live by ourselves in a secure way.”
Trungpa goes on to say,
“But we can be much braver than that. We must try to think beyond our homes, beyond the fire burning in the fireplace, beyond sending our children to school or getting to work in the morning. We must try to think how we can help this world. If we don’t help, nobody will. It is our turn to help the world. At the same time, helping others does not mean abandoning our individual lives…In fact, you can start with yourself. The important point is to realize that you are never off duty. You can never just relax, because the whole world needs your help.”
Men have been engaged in violent conflicts for too long now. As Trungpa reminds us,
“Aggression is the source of our problems, not the solution.”
Men are being called to a new kind of caregiving, a new kind of warriorship, at home and in the world. Our time is now and we are needed as never before.
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