Monday, February 1, 2010

Caregiving—On the Edge of Myself

On the brink of forty, I've had a career spanning over twenty years. Whatever the job title—Retail Clerk, Waitress, Filing Clerk, Executive Assistant, Director's Assistant—I've found I excel at being a team player and doing things well for others. Be it hosting a catered lunch, creating a marketing spreadsheet or HR presentation, or rearranging a travel itinerary, I enjoy using my skills to meet others' needs, to simplify their lives, or to make them look their best.

These same skills come in handy in the home, too. Now, as a caregiver for my aging parents, I make out the weekly grocery list, confirm doctors' appointments, and—along with other, daily concerns—make sure the laundry and dishes are done. Like many stay-at-home moms and single dads, I'm chauffeur, “go-fer” and chef, as well as pharmacist, nurse and housekeeper. It's a long list, proving that caregivers are very good at doing things well for others; still, it's made me question something.

Are those who make a life caring for others equally adept at doing good things for themselves? On the face of it, this may sound selfish. But, when I barely have the energy to do the basics for my parents, how can I meet my own needs—spiritual, physical, emotional? And if my own needs go unmet, how long will it be before I can no longer help others? There have been days when I've skipped a shower to get more sleep. Or, when the seventh load of dirty laundry or dishes has me staring at the soap suds. Or, when my dad's repeated query (duly answered, yet again) has me biting my tongue.

Sadly, this is often true even when I've spent time contemplating God's word or after several moments in prayer. Despite my best intentions, I find myself on the edge of my nerves and the brink of my spiritual reserves. I struggle to simplify my life, making room for what's truly important—loving others and myself. In this light, two passages of Scripture come to mind: “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (Proverbs 4:23). And, “Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good” (Romans 12:9). These excerpts, and two movies.


Hancock (2008)
“There are heroes. There are superheroes. And then there's ... Hancock.”

I recorded this film because, after being “on call” 24/7, I wanted to be entertained. Nothing more, nothing less. After the first fifteen minutes, I wanted to delete it. After all, John Hancock (Will Smith) has neglected to guard his heart. He's a miserable moral example; a lonely, crude drunk who lacks social skills; a walking, and flying, PR nightmare who personifies collateral damage. But, he's also a fallible being in need of a friend. Whether or not consultant Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman) can enhance this superhero's image, can Ray be his friend? This is the question that kept me from turning off the DVR.

And, in the last fifteen minutes of this film, I found that director Peter Berg had created much more than an irreverent action flick. (I even watched those final fifteen minutes again.) Ray takes on Hancock as a PR project—albeit an altruistic one; after all, those with super-powers are meant to “save the world.” But, as Ray opens his life to this poor excuse for a superhero, he discovers secrets and truths that threaten to unravel him. Still, despite his confusion, Ray doesn't let go—either of his belief that life is good, or his own sense of right and wrong. Ray, glimpsing behind Hancock's bravado, is unfailingly loyal.

In a strange way, his wife, Mary (Charlize Theron), exhibits this same loyalty. And yet, to be true to herself and to her husband, she has to do the opposite of Ray; she must let go. For Mary has hidden things about herself; as Ray exhorts, “That's something you might want to bring up on the first date, Mary. I don't like to travel, I'm allergic to cats....” One could say, Mary has guarded her heart to the neglect of the truth. It's not easy to admit that someone I care about is bad for me (or vice versa)—attracting me to my own destruction. Further, how often do I willingly recognize when someone I love repels what I would choose?

Last Chance Harvey (2008)
“It's about first loves, last chances and everything in between.”

I put this film in my Netflix queue to see two actors in top form—and this not in spite of their age and experience, but because of it. I couldn't get enough, watching it multiple times. I'm always a sucker for story, and these artists from different sides of the Atlantic consistently bring deep honesty and genuineness to their characters. For Kate Walker (Emma Thompson), as for me, her friends are her lifejacket and her sounding-board; they advise her and know her well. Further, like me, the desires of Harvey Shine (Dustin Hoffman) to both be creative and make a living are in constant tension.

Director Joel Hopkins makes it clear that American jingle-writer Harvey is no stranger to feeling bad about his disharmonious life. Harvey confesses to Kate that his daughter, Susan (Liane Balaban)—whose wedding he is in London to attend—is embarrassed by him. And he admits to his ex-wife (Kathy Baker) that she can make him feel poorly about himself quicker than anyone else. But, will Harvey allow Kate into his off-key world of job loss, step-families, and social awkwardness—at least, for more than one day? Will he let Kate ask questions and challenge him to make good choices?

And, for her part, will Heathrow Airport survey-worker Kate let Harvey listen to her ponderings and invest his time in her? After all, one day is simple—even exhilarating: the view from Waterloo Bridge, a piano serenade, a wedding dance at Somerset House, a conversation to the rising sun; a long-term romance is more complicated. Will she let Harvey see all of who she is—harried daughter and caregiver, stiff-upper-lip Londoner, committed Paddington writer's group member—and bring out her best? As Kate relates: “I think I'm more comfortable with being disappointed.” Still, can't old regrets pave the way to new beginnings?

As I strive to simplify, one step at a time, I'll hold onto good things: sugar-free chai, writing more, stressing less, breathing deeply. Of course, chocolate biscotti. I'll cling to time away from caregiving—to catch HGTV on the DVR that was my mom's Christmas gift, or to visit my friend at Frankie's Coffee House. I'll learn to guard my heart by surrounding myself with people who're creative, expressive and kind. And letting go of those who cause me to feel bad about life or my part in it. I want to be someone who invests in relationships—with God, friends, parents and family, peers.

Simply ... I'll trust (more and more) that with God as my Source, I can bring out the best in others—and in myself. And that movies will continue to show me how.

1 comment:

  1. Really great article and Tara has a gift of finding personal, life lessons, even in the tacky moments of Hollywood. I imagine this will speak loudly to all caregivers, and in some aspects we are all called to be this.

    Now I think I want to go watch "Last Chance Harvey"

    Tracey Lawrence