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From My Window

The Vigil

By Jane Thibodeau Martin,

I am now at the age where I have been through quite a few of those life-changing times where a much-loved family member becomes seriously ill; a parent passes away; and friends die. Each one of those experiences changes a person, and each time a lesson can be learned, if you look for it.

I was reminded of this when a friend recently passed away at home, as she wished, after fighting "the good fight" against a terminal illness. I helped care for her during the last few weeks of life, and was witness to the amazingly creative gestures of care thoughtful people make at such times.

Of course, a phone call or card for the patient is always welcome. But sometimes people are exceptionally thoughtful, and it is inspiring to see how they leverage their knowledge of the patient to make a very personal gesture.

The friend who was ill loved to garden, but it was a bit early in the season here to have planted the window boxes she took such pride in. But a neighbor made the window boxes bloom with potted flowers from a greenhouse stacked inside the flower boxes. The view from the patient's sick bed was of bright, healthy mid-spring flowers; the blooms lasting well beyond what cut flowers would, and also providing a cheery reminder of a favorite pastime.

Neighbors arrived to walk her beloved dog, or take her outside and throw the tennis balls she was obsessed with chasing. The dog got the exercise she needed and was accustomed to, while staying close at hand to her mistress. If the ill friend was sleeping, they didn't intrude, they just came, did their good deed, and departed.

Specific foods she liked were brought, and any whim around eating or drinks immediately met. A friend who shared her passion for the TV show "Dancing With the Stars" filled her in on the competitions while sitting at her bedside, once she was too weak to watch the show herself.

One super-organized friend arranged for carloads of coworkers to visit for very short periods, a different group of people every few days. It seemed the number and variety of coworkers who made time to come and visit surprised and pleased her very much, and having a number of them at the same time made for cheerful and comfortable visits at such a difficult time. Perhaps some of them would not have been brave enough to face the potentially grim situation alone, had they not had the company of others with them. With the chatter of the group, there was no worry about wondering what words to use; or what to say. Sometimes we let the stress of worrying about what will happen keep us away entirely. Call first and then stop in; the brief visits are the best ones.

But sometimes there is another part, "part two" of this vigil. I was taught about this part by my friend, Cathy, a coworker in Marinette. It came when I was incredibly sad about the terminal illness of a coworker I had the utmost respect for. He had mentored and taught me, and I was deeply grieved when he became homebound. I visited his bedside often, bringing treats, news from the workplace, or something to read. But one day when I called before coming to visit his wife said he was too ill for visitors. I was so saddened, I sought out Cathy to talk. She gave me her normal common-sense, tough love advice. (What a great person and teacher she is.) "He is beyond your help and reach on this journey," she said. "If you want to help now, care for his caregiver."

Now, this may be obvious to those of you who are wiser or more experienced, but it was a new concept to me. If I could no longer do something for the dying man, I could support his wife, whose situation was far more stressful, painful and difficult than my own. The role of primary caregiver is exhausting. While there is nothing the caretaker would prefer to do than fulfill that role, it takes a toll on the body, the spirit, and the mind.

So I brought home-cooked meals, quick to heat up. I dropped them at the front door without knocking, and then called to leave a message that it was there. I sent "thinking of you" cards to her, not him. I offered help mowing the lawn, or running errands, or to sit and be present while she showered.

I remember how grateful I was to one of my aunts, who sent a card to me while I kept watch at the hospital in Marshfield after my husband had a brain tumor removed. Every day a handful of cards from friends and relatives arrived for him, and I was surprised one day when one of the cards was addressed to me. In the card, my aunt shared her experiences caring for my uncle before he passed away, and how much it meant to her when someone acknowledged how difficult her situation was. This gesture of kindness meant so much to her then, she chose to share it with me, and at a time when I really needed the bright spot in my day.

I think the most important thing is to be brave, and unafraid to get involved to support the caregiver. It's nice to call and say "call me if you need anything," but it is much better to make a specific offer and focus on a need they may have. "I am going to the grocery store. What can I pick up for you?" "I am going to come and mow your lawn tomorrow, will that be alright?" "I know you like to go to church on Sunday, can I come and stay while you go?" Every one of us has some talent or ability to help at such times, we need not offer a service that makes us uncomfortable; rather, serve from your strength or your talent. No gesture is a waste, and the ordinary chores of life continue despite the crisis in the household. Help with the ordinary.

Reaching out to someone in their hour of need isn't always easy, or comfortable. But it is one of the kindest things you can do, and blessed are those who care for the caregivers.

If you remember some extremely thoughtful gesture, consider sharing it with me at the e-mail below, and I will share those ideas with readers in a future column.

You can reach me for commentary, alternative viewpoints or ideas at this e-mail address: Janiethibmartin@gmail.com.


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