Swirls of spontaneous art form on the bark of this crape myrtle tree that I planted when my son was small. I remember when I used to tuck him into bed at night, and we would look out his window at the delicate lavender carpet of flowers. He is all grown up and moved away now, and the tree and flowers reach way over the roof of the house, having somehow miraculously snatched nutrients from the soil and air and converted them into more tree. The boy, of course was busily converting food into more boy, and that is just the way of things, but if you think about it, it is quite remarkable.
For some reason this makes me feel melancholy, how living things grow and age and pass. It highlights my own temporary nature and regrettably yours too. Even if we will live to a hundred years old, we are more than half done, and we are not so bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as we once were.
The results of living are etched into our once fresh faces and woven into the silver strands in our hair. When I look at you, though, these marks of age look like spontaneous art swirls, as lovely as the ones on the tree.
Treat yourself with tenderness and grace, dear one. Make sure you get enough good food to eat, instead of skipping meals as if you were unimportant. Bring a sweater with you if it is cold out.
When you are gone, there will never be another you. You are precious, the only one of your kind. That is true of everyone, but everyone is not beautiful in the way that you are. Take care of yourself, ok?
The view from this bluff above the creek bed looks down on a most unusual sight. The sheer creek bank contains a large patch of red clay. Normally our soil is a sandy consistency and chocolate brown color. The dirt in the fields and flower beds is brown, and the dirt all along the edge of the creek bank is brown, except right here.
The old well log from our water well not a quarter mile from this spot details the composition of each layer of the subsurface down to 538 feet. Not one layer shows red clay. It is peculiar how this deposit shows up right at the bend in the creek and nowhere else on the property that we know of.
I don’t have a good enough grasp of the geologic processes to explain how depositional layers can contain patches of substances not found nearby, but I looked at a soil map for our state.
What I noticed is that different soil types occur in swaths, like a patchwork quilt over the earth’s surface. Our geologic formation, the Edwards Plateau, is close to some areas with red clay soils.
Somehow the soil migrated, possibly carried by the water in the creek bed, since it is deposited at a bend in the bank. I now have this startling red clay area, a spot of yang in the yin of the cool brown of the remainder of the creek bed.
The surprise of this little bit of one thing in the middle of the other thing reminds me how organic things are not uniform. They do not consist all of one thing and nothing else.
We may be mostly nice, but sometimes spiteful. We may usually like to relax, but sometimes work really hard. Our life may be mostly joyful, with some deep sorrow right there where the path turns. The lack of uniformity in our character, in our environment, and in our experiences adds interest and variety. It makes hard times more bearable.
Today may be a hard day. You might have a scary confrontation with your mortality or may mourn the diminishment of your youth and beauty. Amid those hard things, may you find a surprising splotch of joy, like the hand of someone who loves you holding yours through the hard parts.
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.
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.
The fountain by the stone cottage at the Bossy Spa froze into two solid blocks of ice, covered with ice crystals, with icicles dripping down from the top. The frozen fountain is as beautiful as when it is flowing. I suspect Glenda, the goddess in charge of minor miracles for caregivers, is responsible for the dusting of ice crystals over the sheet of ice. That is just her style, making things more beautiful than necessary. For several days temperatures have stayed below freezing.
When the dogs get back from their walks they run over to the fountain for a drink. When they encounter the icy surface they lick it like small children with popsicles.
Ginger does well in the cold. She has long fur and a thick undercoat (that sheds the equivalent of a small chihuahua every week), so she easily overheats and can withstand very cold weather. Annie is less cold tolerant. Her coat is sleek with a light waxy coating and no undercoat. In addition to pit bull, she probably has some kind of water dog breed in her heritage. On cold morning walks Annie runs in big circles, so she is always moving to keep warm.
The dogs and we refuse to be cooped up in the cold. We bundle up and go out even in the sleet, and then come back and dry off in front of the fire. We really enjoy being outside, and coming in out of the cold feels good too.
In Texas if you are going to let the weather trap you indoors, you won’t go out all blistering hot summer, and once you learn to deal with that, the Texas version of winter is a snap.
Find a way to get out in nature today, even if it is cold. Even a short foray out your back door into the yard will invigorate you. When you come back inside, have a warm drink.
I recently learned something a little scary. About 40% of caregivers die before their patient does. Caregiving takes a toll on you. Even if your only goal is to be there for your loved one, you still must make yourself as a priority.
When I ask you to do these little things for yourself, please do them. I want to ask you to do big things to make your life less stressful, but I know you cannot fit them in. So mindfully do this small thing. Go outside, whatever the weather, for at least ten minutes. Breathe. Have a warm drink when you come back in. That’s it.
These little things make a difference. When you intentionally choose to do something for yourself, even a ten-minute something, you are saying that your patient is not the only one who matters. You matter too.
Mushrooms are coming up! Isn’t this one adorable? There is a huge web of mycelium in our part of the world, which spreads destructive fungi, like the oak wilt that is taking down our live oaks, and helpful fungi, like the cute mushroom you see here. I suppose all fungi are both helpful and destructive in their own ways, since they all recycle dead things back into the soil, and we need that.
A fun fact about mushrooms is that now that scientists have mapped the genomes of so many species of plants and animals they have confirmed that mushrooms are their own special kingdom, neither plant nor animal, but something else. That something else is genetically closer to animals than plants.
The question can now be definitively answered: Are you more like a tree or a mushroom? You are more like a mushroom. Come to think of it, I can see the similarity. Sometimes when it looks like there is not much there the night before, you spring up and voila! You are there the next morning, complete with the people equivalent of a cap and stem and gills, as if you had been standing there all along.
Caring for a terminally ill person is a mushroom-y sort of life. At some level you are keeping the person alive, but at another level you are gently helping them return to the earth. They may not like it. You may not like it. It’s just what is happening.
You did not ask for this; you just sprung up and suddenly there was work to be done. You love a person who is closing out his life, something he too did not choose. You are the person standing beside him as he slowly returns to the earth.
There is no best way to usher a person from this life to the next. You can take him on a lovely hike in the morning, prepare his favorite sandwich for a picnic lunch, and arrange beautiful flowers in a vase on the dinner table, but even with your best efforts, he is going to have a rough go of it. That is the conundrum for his soul to work through, and you cannot help with that.
How you will care for yourself while caring for him is the challenge for you. You will only be able to do this work if your body and soul are nourished and tenderly cared for. Caring for yourself is as big a priority as caring for him.
Maybe it is annoying that I keep harping on this. I am willing to be annoying if only you will take care of yourself the way you would want me to if I were in your shoes.