When you look at a weather map, meteorologists draw lines they call “fronts” that are boundaries between two masses of air at different temperatures. Fronts look like distinct lines on a weather map, and sometimes in the big Texas sky we can actually see them pass through.
The colder air usually collects under clear skies, while warmer air gathers under cloudy skies. When a cold front moves through, the front appears to push the clouds out of the way bringing cold air behind the front. I believe this sky picture shows a warm front (though I would welcome a correction from a meteorologist), coming over our front pasture. A warm front in winter works like nature pulling a blanket of clouds over you to tuck you into bed.
Boundaries like fronts are so curious. You might think two air masses would just mix together and settle in at the weighted average temperature of the two original masses. I have a lot of other ideas about what air should be doing, but air is not paying attention to my ideas. It has its own behaviors, and those include forming boundaries between one air mass and another.
In our relationships we might merge together as just one thing. The word “couple” captures that idea, two people who are now one entity. But even in couples a boundary remains between us. Some things only one person experiences. The other person can be having a different experience of the same set of events.
In your caregiving situation you may be a couple, but you are having quite different experiences. Your partner must come to terms with having a condition that erodes his capacity, renders him dependent, and eventually causes his death. That is pretty tough stuff. You must cope with his neediness, his confusion, your exhaustion, and your sorrow in losing him. That is no picnic either.
You might think the compassionate carer would do what she can to remove the boundary and to experience all she can with her partner, but there is no dissolving the boundary. He is the patient and you are the caregiver.
Despite your love for one another the boundary between you is now a protection for you both. Maintaining your separateness helps you not dissolve with sorrow every moment, so you can cope with all the demands of giving care. Your separateness helps you come to terms with the loss you experience daily, and will know more fully when he is gone.
The boundary between you isn’t better or worse than not having one. It is just how it is. If you were the best person in the world, it would still be that way.
This winter day, I wish I could tuck you into bed, and pull a warm blanket up over you. Since we are not together, make sure you tuck yourself lovingly into bed tonight.
There is a breathtaking stretch of road running along a creek valley near the Bossy Spa. I was enjoying the drive when Mark noticed something out of the corner of his eye that seemed not right. I was surprised when he stopped the truck and backed up. Against the bright green backdrop of grass was a fluffy white animal that registered as too big.
A white llama was grazing like an oversized sheep. He was right by the road and looked at me with wary curiosity when I hopped out with a camera.
Ranchers sometimes add a llama to a herd of sheep because in the absence of other llamas, they bond to the herd and will protect the sheep from predators. There are few natural predators of llamas in our part of the world. Llamas are gentle, but big, and nothing wants to tangle with them.
This llama has a job to do, and it is a job he didn’t choose. He is a caregiver for the sheep. Fortunately he is part of a team. The sheep look after themselves to some extent. There is undoubtedly a shepherd in the mix somewhere. And from time to time the sheep are probably seen by a vet.
Still the llama has a daily job and he is never off duty. This llama is not just looking after the sheep, he is taking care of himself, grazing on the tasty grass and enjoying the sunshine. Look how fluffy and clean his fur is! He even takes time for recreation, getting to know someone new who approaches with a camera.
Even though you have not figured out how to digest grass, I know for a fact you are smarter than a llama. Today let your team do their part. If you have a medical question, ask the doctor and go along instead of doing your own research. Do what you need to do to protect the person in your charge, but also take time to eat tasty food, bask in the sun, fluff your hair, and examine something curious.
If you do these things, I cannot promise you will be as beautiful as this llama, but you are not bad to begin with, so I like your chances.
Now that it’s winter the creek is full. Upstream is so full that water is spilling over the driveway, making a small waterfall into the pool below. The water splashing into the creek makes a wonderful sound and likely also aerates the water for the fish.
This is obviously no Niagara Falls, but when I hear the water splashing it makes me feel like all is right with the world. Nature runs in cycles of scarcity and abundance, and a waterfall suggests there will be enough water for the fish and other creatures. We will make it through the next hot summer. The sycamore seed balls that I threw in the creek yesterday might sprout, and someday sycamores might grace the creek banks.
Our climate here is hot and dry much of the year. Abundant water doesn’t promise abundant times, but it is a fundamental element of hope for a rich carpet of wildflowers in the spring.
Hope is the thing that pulls us through hard times when we might otherwise despair. Caring for a loved one with a terminal illness is one of the hardest human experiences. Without hope for your patient to recover, you might have a hard time not succumbing to despair.
Life can rob you of hope for your loved one, and living on false hope is generally unhelpful if at any level you know the hope is false. I can hope my leaky faucet will repair itself, but I know that is not realistic. Pasting a happy face on a dismal situation does nobody any good. Sometimes you just need to call the plumber.
If hope is to pull you from despair, it must hold the possibility of some real good. If the big hope of a cure for your loved one is not realistic, choose a smaller hope. You might hope to laugh with him today. You might hope to have a break from her today. You might hope the pink rose bush will bloom in time for a bouquet for your niece’s wedding. You might hope to see a bright red cardinal this afternoon.
If you have a realistic hope of some small, beautiful thing will you share it? Your small hope may spark the hope in the heart of someone you don’t even know. Together we might pull through these cold winter days to a flowering spring.
As I finished writing this, a pair of red cardinals landed in the pecan tree by the porch. Perhaps Glenda, the goddess in charge of minor miracles for caregivers, has awakened from her nap.
My phone rang one morning. A neighbor’s ewe had given birth to twin lambs during the night. Did I want to see the twins? Word has gotten out in the neighborhood that I want to take pictures of animals so now I get calls like this. Of course I wanted to see them.
These babies are less than twelve hours old. Their legs are spindly, yet they are walking and running to keep up with mom. Some breeds of sheep have sparse coats at birth that take a week or so to come in, a risky trait for a January baby. These little ones have a thick coat already, and a good thing, since it has gotten cold.
The twins were very brave and came up the investigate me. Maybe they have not yet learned to be scared. They have learned to stick with mom, though, and with one another.
Few things are more adorable than little lambs, and I thought you would enjoy seeing them. They are the best kind of cute baby. You can look and ooh and aah, but somebody else is their caregiver. Their mom is nursing them, and there is nothing you can do to help with that. Huzzah!
Sometimes ewes who are first-time mothers walk away from their babies. Then the shepherd puts them in a small pen together for a few days until mom gets the hang of motherhood. This mom is experienced. She has been a caregiver before, so she knows what to do.
You might take note of some of the ways she handles her role. They live outside, so she doesn’t have to do much cleaning. She feeds them whatever she has on hand. She is attentive in protecting them from danger, but she lets them explore and experiment.
Of course caregiving little lambs is in many ways a totally different experience from the kind of caregiving you are doing. Not the least difference is that the lambs are getting more capable by the day.
In the case of caring for someone who is terminally ill, your patient going steadily downhill, which makes for one of the most difficult aspects of taking care. It seems unthinkable with all you are doing, that your patient should be doing anything other than getting better. What more could you possibly do?
You could focus on more details of care and be sure your patient’s fingernails are buffed to a high shine at all times. You could shampoo your patient twice daily. You could exfoliate his knuckles, and add lots more little things like this to your list until you fill up every moment of your day ensuring that your patient is clean and groomed and presentable. But even with an endless task list, your patient’s prognosis is the same.
I remind you of this not to discourage you, but to point out that since you cannot control outcomes for your patient, you must focus on outcomes for yourself. You cannot help the trajectory he is on, but you can make a difference in your own trajectory. Even as your patient goes over the edge, you do not have to go over the edge yourself, but you will follow right on over if you do not make a conscious choice to do otherwise.
It is not mean to think this way. It is not selfish. It is sensible and reasonable and good to think about how you will care for yourself while you are caring for your loved one.
Our neighbors to the south are currently in possession of 22 hens and one slightly overwhelmed rooster. Suffice it to say they have an abundance of eggs, which they generously share. These are a couple of their beautiful girls. The warm brown ones are Rhode Island reds. I don’t remember the other kinds, but I love the pattern on the feathers of the black and white one.
The chickens live in a large open-air coop with a half dozen cozy little nesting boxes. They lay white and brown and green eggs, depending on their kind. When I went into the coop to take pictures, they were curious and welcoming and unafraid.
They eat grain and all manner of kitchen scraps, composting them instantly into a rich fertilizer for the garden, which last summer produced the world’s most prolific okra. Perhaps these ladies are the reason why. It is so sensible to convert this season’s leftover vegetable scraps into next season’s fresh vegetables, and chickens do the processing to make that all possible.
Chickens help you deal with the garbage, especially the stuff that smells bad if you let it sit. They work rather like a friend who is a good listener. Life has a way of handing out some yucky stuff along with the good stuff, and you can get submerged under the difficulties if you don’t have a friend who will listen.
The compassionate listening of a friend is how we process our unattractive scraps into usable food for the soul. Funny too how it is listening that does the work, not advice giving. We actually don’t need someone to tell us what to do, and our ideas of what other people should do are often not useful to them. Empathic listening, though, is relationship gold.
When you have a friend who is a good listener, who lets you be where you are instead of telling you who or how you should be, you have found something really precious. Next time you are with friends acknowledge a good listener if you have one.
If you have a friend who loves to give advice, tell her you would love her to listen and support you without advice giving. See if she’ll give it a try. An ordinary relationship can grow into something more nurturing and helpful, but it might take a nudge from you.
Make sure you have a way to process any emotional garbage in your life. A friend who is a good listener is as good as a couple dozen chickens for getting the job done.
Up the road from the Bossy Spa is largely ranch land. Ranchers cultivate some of their land, ploughing and sowing seeds and harvesting, but they leave some of the land untouched with natural thicket and forest and scrub, providing nutrients for the soil and habitat for beneficial plants and creatures.
Along the side of the road by one rancher’s thicket is an old sign, tilting from years of neglect. The sign holds a clear and prophetic message: No dumping. Violators will be prosecuted. No landowner wants his pristine land covered with other people’s garbage.
There are some parts of yourself that you grow and cultivate, like things you learned through education or when honing your skills for your profession. Maybe you are intensely curious about weaving and you invested a lot of time learning about this. You also have parts of yourself that you leave natural. You might have a latent talent for playing the cello, but you haven’t even picked one up, so your natural ability is undeveloped.
It is easy to ignore those natural areas inside yourself. You are not really sure what is in there, and you are accustomed to relying on the skills you have developed, but these wild, uncultivated parts of yourself are important. They hold the promise for who you might become.
We can easily get trapped in the “end of history myth,” the false belief that we have been on a journey through our lives and have learned things along the way. That journey has brought us to the present moment and here we are with all we have learned, now complete.
You are not complete. You are still evolving and growing and learning. As you develop you will come to believe that some of the ideas that you hold now are false, and you will replace those with new ideas. Only the most doggedly closed-minded person avoids this experience, and you are not that rigid, closed person.
Those wild lands inside you will be the source of your new ideas, beliefs that will sustain you through what is to come. As such your natural, uncultivated self must be defended and protected.
The sign is just right. No dumpling. This means nobody’s garbage gets dumped on you. This does not mean the Universe will stand between you and the dumpers. If you post the sign, you enforce it to defend yourself. People can find somewhere else to dump their emotional garbage, their drama, their problems. NOT ON YOU.
Violators will be prosecuted. That means you will take action if somebody dumps on you. You will use some of the precious energy you have, even though you may be depleted from caregiving, and you will take action to be sure that dumping doesn’t happen again.
You have enough to do already, taking care of your job and your family and your community, in addition to caring for your loved one who is not well. Have you been looking for a sign to tell you how to manage all this? Here it is.
Harassment doesn’t only happen in human interactions. This is a picture of a harassed turtle. On one of my first photo safaris with a phone capable of going under water I saw this turtle, about a foot in diameter, swimming along the edge of the creek.
Unfamiliar with the camera workings I tried all sorts of ways of capturing a photo of him. Each time I slapped the phone on the surface of the water to take another shot, the turtle looked up in exasperation. Eventually he felt sufficiently harassed that he went to the creek bottom and pulled his head and legs into the shell. That gave me plenty of time to get the light and the rest of the shot right, though you don’t get to see him swimming, which was pretty nice.
Still, he’s a lovely fellow, all bluish green, and I like how he handled my harassment. He gave me the message, “Hey, you are annoying me,” and put up a boundary to make himself a lot less interesting to annoy. This simple approach wouldn’t do any good in a situation where there were bombs exploding or anything dramatic like that, but it is a fantastic way of handling daily stresses.
Being turtle-like is all about finding quick relief. As its simplest it is a place to go inside yourself for calm. A caregiver has got to cultivate this ability because there is so much in your day that can assault your equilibrium. An external ritual may help you find that calm place inside, perhaps a ritual of doing ten deep yoga breaths or push ups.
Is there something turtle-like that you can add to your bag of tricks for dealing with daily stress? One caregiver takes a book into the bathroom for ten minutes in the evening. This is a habitual turtle, who makes a point of spending time in his shell every single evening.
What other turtle-y things can you do when someone is slapping the water above your head? Recite a poem to yourself. Sing a verse of a silly song or a sad one. Massage the acupressure points in your hand. The point is to keep the stressful moment in front of you right now from upsetting your inner peace.
You’ll want to choose a few tricks that suit your temperament. Then practice using them. Discard what doesn’t work and try something else. Over time you will develop a small repertoire of ways to hold onto your inner calm. Good decision making flows from the ability to maintain your equilibrium, and a caregiver needs this more than anyone.
Life will undoubtedly serve up an opportunity for you to practice this sometime today. What small ritual will you use to help you remain connected to the steady center of yourself?
If you look closely in the center of the picture you will see a chocolate brown sow. You may think I must have tremendous vision or expertise in the sexing of pigs in order to confidently identify her as a sow. but actually I know that this pig is a sow because I saw her with piglets a few days ago. Seeing a feral sow with piglets was so exciting that my heart was racing and I couldn’t get a picture off quick enough before she hustled them back in to the brush.
I have been stalking her. Every time we drive by the gulch where we first saw her I roll the window down with my camera poised and ready. Then, voila! There she was! She heard me coming and took off, but not before I got the picture.
Photographing a pig in the wild is rather like stalking sasquatch. You never know if you are going to see one and when you do the pictures are blurry or inconclusive, but I promise you this is an actual pig, and not a farmed or penned one, but one living life on her own terms.
Feral hogs are getting a bad name in our state for being so smart and so successful at reproducing. They are getting a reputation as a nuisance. I admire them, though. Their ancestors were captive, but smart enough to escape, and now they are finding a way to live without human caregivers. You don’t find feral sheep because they aren’t able to live on their own, at least in our environment.
Taking care of your chronically sick loved one is draining compared to other forms of caregiving like keeping sheep and raising children, and I suspect that is because it is so relentless. Your person is sick 24 hours a day 7 days a week, which means his need for care is constant. That is not the same experience as looking after a loved one with the flu, where you spend a lot of energy and attention, but you know he will be better in a few weeks, and he will take care of you if you get the flu.
Your patient is always sick, and it is always you, taking care. That, dear one, is very hard to do, and impossible to do with impeccable grace.
I hope you will be inspired by the gleeful feral hog, who has broken out of captivity and is raising piglets in the wild. Break out of captivity today, and do something that matters only to you.