It was twelve years ago when I was working in a physical therapy clinic and met a woman named Joan. She was coming for treatment because she had received surgery to her spine for lumbar stenosis. Joan was accompanied by her daughter, Elisa, and this duo of women was extremely entertaining. We laughed so hard during our first few sessions together that after the third session, Joan’s daughter Elisa asked, “Can we be friends?”
It was an unusual question posed by one adult to another. Grown-ups speak in the world of nuance. When adults meet like-minded souls, they find ways to keep the connection going via joint activities of their children or following each other on social media. Yet Elisa, the daughter of my patient Joan, had cut right to the chase. Much like children do. She asked me directly if she could be my friend and if I could be hers.
I responded to Elisa back then by telling her, “I’m kind of short on friends right now. Yes, we can be friends.” Fast forward many years later to the present. Elisa and I are roommates and best friends. Her mother Joan died several years ago, and I have become so close to the family that I mourned her death just as much as her own daughter did. Elisa was a superb caregiver for her mother and I helped as much as I could to ease the burden for both women. It is hard to watch loved ones lose their memories, their ability to care for themselves. Yet somehow, and with unwavering bravery, Elisa watched her mother’s decline until her heart stopped beating.
It wasn’t until the year of 2020 that I needed a caregiver for myself. I was living with terrible low back pain and discovered that I required a lumbar surgery with screws and rods. I didn’t want to hear this news; but it was Elisa, my best friend, who pushed me to pursue it. This surgery was accompanied by a three-month recovery period, where the patient (me), would be unable to bend at the waist, twist the spine, or lift any object greater than 10 pounds. That sounded impossible to me. How many times does anyone bend at the waist to reach for an object during a given day? How often do we twist our spines to reach for cell phone in our purses?
Elisa dropped me off for my surgery on a frosty morning in December. I tried not to look at her as I got out of the car, for I knew how concerned she was. I was going to do this alone and I didn’t want to put my fear upon anyone else. Little did I know what I was up against. Anyone who has gone through major surgery knows just how awfully vulnerable it feels to be naked in a hospital gown, awaiting anesthesia and the deep sleep which precedes what is a violent assault to the human body.
I spent three nights in the hospital. Elisa came to visit on the second afternoon, bearing chicken shawarma from a local Middle Eastern venue. I didn’t eat the food, because my pain was rising to an astonishing degree. I saw visions of Dante’s Inferno, the fiery depths of hell, as I prayed for relief from what is commonly referred to as “post-surgical pain”. It finally stopped, this hellacious discomfort, and I was able to go home.
For several weeks thereafter, I was unable to dress, turn on the water for a shower or prepare meals for myself. Elisa was the person who adjusted the water temperature so that I wouldn’t have to bend down to get to the faucets in the bathtub. Elisa was the person who made absurd amounts of food for me to eat (though because she is Italian, and she never thought the portions and variety of the food to be absurd), she made sure that the food was always on the top shelf of the refrigerator so that I could reach it, and she placed everything that I needed during the day on a small table with wheels so that I wouldn’t bend or twist my spine.
Laverne the dog watched over me like a lioness. I was her cub, I was weak and I needed the care of a child. It was a very strange time. I have been a caregiver for my entire life. And at age 45, I needed to be cared for. It felt demoralizing. I couldn’t don pants or socks by myself, and it was a cold winter. I remember asking Elisa, the human, if she could help me change clothing before she left the house for a few hours. “Do you have time to change me?” I requested. Elisa laughed and replied, “Of course!” She then returned me to the sofa and the dog Laverne nestled her body close to me, though as never to cause pain.
Something strange occurred as time passed and Old Man Winter unfurled his steely presence in the Northeast. About one month after my surgery, my mind began to go down different paths. These were imaginary foothills, remarkable lands that I hadn’t traversed since childhood. I spent hours day dreaming, I stared at the falling snow, the grey skies shape shifted like the fingers of God in soft putty.
Elisa continued to care for me, with unerring grace and hilarity. She never missed a beat. Even when I was ornery and obnoxious, she made chicken seared in oil with garlic and hot sauce, she laundered my clothing and cleaned the house to spotlessness, and she made certain that I would not bend down to set the water temperature in the shower. (Even when I wanted to and told her that I was bending down correctly, that I am a physical therapist who knows what she is doing and that I do not need help from her anymore!).
What I realized through the time of being on the flip side of caregiving is that it is really quite illuminating. It can return the patient to feeling like a child, in all of the wonderful ways that we associate with childhood. A child does not have to plan meals, or shop for the ingredients of food. The child is simply fed lunch. Whether it is delicious or not (mine always is), the lunch is the lunch. The adult must plan accordingly to make this happen. The child simply eats the food. When the snow falls outside, the adult must shovel, buy salt for the steps and ensure that everything is in the house in case of a blizzard. The child has none of these concerns. The child sees only the magic of snowfall, the anticipation of a day off of school and the potential for igloo or snowperson building.
In some ways, it is really nice to be a child. It is even nicer to experience this as a 45-year-old adult. I was afforded this because of my caregivers. Elisa provided a safe haven for my recovery in terms of doing basic life tasks for me. The dog Laverne sensed my weakness and gave to me what makes dogs famous, their ability to look within humans and say, in no uncertain terms, “I love you. I will not allow anything to harm you. I will do anything to help you feel better.”
In all of my years of caring for others, it has taken this surgery to show me what caring for others really means. To be a caregiver means that you will buy groceries when you are tired and have worked all day, you will prepare food for someone when they are not always appreciative, you will put pants on someone when they are moaning in pain, you will shovel snow in biting cold while the person you are caring for is marveling at the wonder of snow, and you will have to plan your entire day around that person’s shower. And that is impossibly annoying!
Yet as a caregiver, you are also doing something amazing. You are allowing the person whom you are caring for to return to childhood. I am now able to dress and bathe myself, though I still don’t like grocery shopping or cooking. Elisa the human still does an excellent job taking care of the household and I can pull my weight. Laverne the dog knows that I am stronger, though she still glances at me with concern when I overdo things. I have very little pain after my surgery. What has remained is a sense of childhood wonder and excitement. Witnessing the changing of the seasons is nothing short of miraculous. A well-prepared hot meal is delightful. Spending time with animals is enchanting. As is the thrill of asking another person what Elisa asked me years ago: “Can we be friends?”