or… What I Learned Last Week Through Trial and Error
I spent a chunk of last week caring for my dear friend Barbara after she had surgery. I have never had surgery and really had no idea what to expect. I just knew that this is one of my best friends and I wanted to be there for her and so I volunteered to be her main person for the first few days. What I know in hindsight is that this is no small task nor should it be taken lightly. And…it’s not for everyone. So I’ve compiled a list of what I learned in the hope that it will help others – both caregivers and people about to have surgery – so that they can make the best decisions about who is in their space at this tender time.
1-Play to Your Strengths
For example if you don’t have the best bedside manner but you make a really mean chicken soup, volunteer to make meals, but don’t sign up to be the hand holder for your friend or family member when she’s getting prepped for surgery. If you decide to take on the “job” of caregiver, go for it wholeheartedly and no holds barred. Be on board. If rubbing somebody’s feet makes you squeamish, find someone who is great at giving massage to come sit with the patient while you have a little break.
2 – Take Your Job Seriously
Remember that you are the gatekeeper and that your job, to the best of your ability, is to filter all the personalities, energies and information that the patient is being bombarded with. You are an advocate for the patient. You’re another set of eyes and ears, don’t be afraid to take notes or even record the doctor when they are speaking. In my experience, nobody minded when I asked for clarification on certain things or had questions about the aftercare instructions. In general, I felt that the hospital preferred that I was there as a go-between for Barbara.
3 – Be Gentle with the Patient!
Even if you’ve never had surgery before, it’s important to note that the days leading up to surgery, immediately after the operation, and the days shortly after the procedure can be a very tender and vulnerable time for the patient and her family. My friend Barbara kept saying that the veils were thin. I think she was referring to the fact that all of her defenses were stripped away and this can be a time where fear and powerlessness are magnified. Be especially gentle and kind with your loved one. This is definitely where a nurturing and gentle caregiver will be preferred over somebody with very little bedside manner. Let that person run errands for you or help in other ways.
4 – Have Food in the House
Do have lots of yummy and nourishing snacks available in the house for the patient after surgery. Don’t assume that the patient only wants to eat soup or bland foods. In fact, I knew Barbara was feeling better on day two when she started fantasizing about lasagna!
5 – Rest
Encourage the patient to have many breaks and to rest quietly. It can get a little overwhelming with friends and family calling, texting, and stopping by. No matter how wonderful it is to be reminded how loved she is, my little Energizer Bunny needed quiet time so that she could recharge. One of my best memories was playing my Dragon Drum for Barbara while she napped. Also in this category, do encourage the patient to take her 3 AM pain pill and go right back to sleep. You do not want her to get chatty, nip that right in the bud. You need your sleep too!
6 – Show Some Emotion
Let yourself have feelings. Your friend will appreciate someone else expressing themselves; it’s not just the patient who is feeling an overwhelming amount of emotion. Once all the forms were signed and Barbara came out of the bathroom in her cloth gown and paper cap, s*** got real and I couldn’t help myself, the tears just flowed. Barbara held my hand and it was a very loving moment. Also, don’t be afraid to share a laugh – always good medicine (where appropriate, see below.)
A lot of these will seem like a giant “Duh!” to most of you but I assure you these were either learned the hard way or witnessed.
1 – Don’t Forget to Eat
Don’t eat the patient’s yummy nourishing snacks! And don’t underestimate how hungry you as the caregiver might get. It’s important to think ahead if you can and if you have that luxury, stock the refrigerator for you as well. When well-meaning friends text and ask what they can bring you can also say that the patient is very hungry and wants chocolate and almonds (even if they’re really for you!)
2 – Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive to Surgery
Do not, repeat do not, let the patient drive herself to the hospital on surgery day with you in the passenger seat. The patient has a lot on her mind and will be distracted. When she tries to back up into a very tiny space it will not go well. Avoid this scenario by insisting upon driving.
3. Laughter is Good Medicine Except When Patient is Nervous/Crabby
Don’t make too many jokes right before surgery. Usually the patient will not appreciate you making references to your giant pimple on your face and asking the surgeon if they have any medical recommendations for you. Once again, the patient will not think this is funny. Neither will the doctor.
4. Let It Roll
Don’t take anything the patient says prior, during, or after surgery personally. A lot of emotions can come up. It’s best to encourage the patient not to make any long-lasting, life-changing decisions in this general window of time. The patient’s mood could be perceived as erratic – something seemingly harmless like a little elderly man pushing a motorcycle up a hill could drive the patient into a murderous rant. Best to just soothingly reassure the patient that you hate that motorcyclist too…there, there. The patient will have almost zero recollection of what they said or asked for. For example when your friend/patient asks you to mince garlic in her lemon water she might actually mean ginger and will look at you like you have sprouted a second head when you ask her if she really wants you to put garlic in her tea. (Actually, as I write this, it occurs to me that this section could be written for perimenopause too…aaack.)
5. Don’t Be A Jerk
In her tender time post-surgery, do not give the patient any books regarding her medical condition or tell her stories about people who have died from the same medical condition. Right? Also in this category, do not judge any type of procedure or follow-up care the patient decides upon afterwards. This may take an attitude of trust on your part, but I assure you most people think long and hard and confer with their doctors and their loved ones before they decide on any follow-up treatments and it is OUR job as a supportive community to love our friends and family members through all of their decisions without judgment or opinion unless asked. And even then, people, use your heads. Remember…this is a tender time. Tread lightly! No bombarding the patient with statistics and medical data.
6. Don’t Forget What a Sacred Window of Time you are Sharing Together
Take as much opportunity as you possibly can in the surprisingly busy days post surgery to reassure your loved one what an absolute gift it is, and continues to be, to spend time with them. To hold their hand, to do their laundry, to steam there garlic tea, to warm up their soup, to stroke their hair, to give them a kiss, to cry with them, to laugh with them, to drive them around, and to just be in their presence. It is a rare gift to share so intimately with another and I am grateful to have had this bonding time with my sweet friend of 26 years.
Huge thank you to my family and friends for supporting me in making this trip happen, kids got shuffled, pet/house sitter bent backwards, drum carrier got fedexed so I could bring it with me on the plane, friends held space for me and said healing prayers for Barbara. I know it’s cliche but it truly takes a village.
This story is about love, all the good ones are. And forgiveness. Before there was that, an incredible amount of wrong-doing happened, because it seems we always hurt the ones we love most, don’t we? As I type on this wintry night in Colorado, the coyotes howl right outside my back door, the sky darkest ink on this new moon. The last few months have been a blur – a kaleidoscope of beautiful experiences colliding into one another and creating a smear of bright colors. I haven’t had the time to stop and fully reflect on each moment and give them the time they deserve. Each experience is worthy of its own chapter, so perhaps this post is just an outline for future writings, each experience building upon the next and setting the stage. Here goes the continuous stream of miracles:
December 11th, my 50th birthday. Friends gathered and a book was presented to me, with photos and writings from loved ones. My god-daughter fanning me in the native american tradition with a hawk’s wing, her beautiful mother holding the smoldering cedar. That night, on that birthday, for whatever reason, I was able to receive all the love directed my way and feel full.
Early January, Varanasi, India – under a full moon, on a sandbar in the Ganges, sitting with friends and strangers around a fire, I chant prayers for others, for my family, for myself, and make offerings with sweets, flowers and incense. Of all my experiences in India, this remains one of the most generous and beautiful ones and I come back to it in my mind again and again. I am not always given the gift of knowing how special something is in the moment, and this was one of those moments, one to remember and re-tell.
Mid January, Rishikesh, India I dipped in the frigid waters of Mata Ganga (Mother Ganges) with my 80 year old mother. The night before I had led our group through a Kundalini yoga kriya called the Hour of Your Death and the next morning I led us in a rebirthing. Smiles were wide, hearts were light and my mother and I embraced in the yoga room as everyone danced to Here Comes The Sun by George Harrison. My birth had not been an easy one 50 years prior and this day felt like a do-over for both of us. We all took our newly born selves down to the water for a dip. There was a chilly fog that made things look even more mystical than they already felt. I felt like daughter and mother all in one, watching over my mother gripping the chain in the rushing water. We submerged, coming up baptized.
Early February, Boulder, Colorado. My daughter came home for the first time in 10 months. The breath I had been holding all this time, slowly exhaled as I felt her presence once again in my house, heard her voice, followed her trail of clothes. She was home for a family occasion, the Bar Mitzvah of my son, her brother. Family and friends came to witness this rite of passage. My children’s father and I, divorced now for 11 years, put aside old quarrels and came together, united in our love for our children. My husband (of almost 10 years) and I shyly presented ourselves at a family dinner where I would see friends and relatives that I hadn’t seen or spoken to since the divorce. Both grandfathers have died in the past 11 years and they were honored and spoken of. Both grandmothers are alive and well and graced us with their presence. In front of the congregation and our community, I released my baby and blessed him into manhood. Symbolic of course, but powerfully potent like all ritual can be. I felt it. He did too.
Last weekend, family therapy at my daughter’s school. My ex-husband, my husband, my daughter and son and me. We all showed up with vulnerability and an unflinching commitment to do our work. There were moments of despair, pain, tears and also such compassion and tenderness. The weekend was deep and hard. The weekend was light and full of love. Forgiveness was the oil that kept us all on track, even if sometimes we looked like the most sorry-assed jalopy on the lot. On the last night, before I had to leave, I held my daughter for over an hour, stroking her hair and singing to her. Rearranging my DNA. Deeply comforting. Another rebirth. Our own ceremony.
Years ago, I read a story about Thich Nhat Hanh riding in a small boat. He was a passenger along with a man who had raped a young girl. Thay was on this boat with the rapist and, by some cruel twist of fate, the young girl as well. He shared that he was actively practicing compassion for everyone in the boat. He couldn’t feel love for only the girl – one is not more deserving of love than another. In the story, he wrote, that he could see himself in the rapist. That he was both the rapist and the girl. At the time, it was a struggle for me to understand what he was saying. How could Thay identify with the rapist? What did that mean exactly? I was confused, but the story has stayed with me all these years.
“If you can’t see God in all, you can’t see God at all.” -Yogi Bhajan
I have been at a complete loss for words after hearing about a black man (any man, any human) getting choked to death by a white police officer. I can’t watch the video. It makes me sick. I want to distance myself from the man who killed Eric Garner. My heart breaks that I live in a world where humans kill each other. There is a part of me that is ready to leave this planet. Beam me up. My bags are packed. What the hell are we doing? I want to point the finger. Blame others. I feel powerless and angry. I am tired. I don’t want to offer a hand, or a compassionate heart.
I want to open my throat and, with a lioness roar, make a sound so loud that all guns shatter into a million pieces. I want my tears to replenish the oceans and rivers so there is no more drought. I want to wrap my arms around the earth in a healing embrace. I want to personally apologize to each animal and plant that we are driving to extinction. I want to lay my head down and go to sleep so I don’t have to hear about fracking and GMOs and human violence.
But instead, I look within and I know something about myself. I am the police officer, so angry, in need of control, that I kill. I am the human enjoying my white privilege in the United States. I am the wounded soul that hurts others out of fear. I need to recognize that in myself, so that I can heal it and seek to empathize with others, and be a better ally. My silence comes from shame or confusion or sorrow, or all three. Our silence doesn’t help the situation, it enables it to perpetuate.
I don’t know what (if anything) is going to turn us around as a human race. But my heart tells me this: Love is the answer. At Stevie Wonder’s concert last week he asked all of us to keep trying to love one another. A black man who is blind, Stevie keeps spreading his message of love and unity. He says this of love: “If it’s magic, why can’t we make it everlasting? There’s enough for everyone.”
When one suffers we all suffer. We are ALL connected. We can only evolve as much as the very last person in the evolutionary line.
“This world was made for all men. All people, all babies, all children, all colors, all races, this world, my world, your world, our world, this world was made for all men” -Stevie Wonder
It never fails to amaze me – the redemptive quality of families – of forgiveness, love, laughter – the messiness and imperfection, the prayers for patience and tolerance, the unexpected kindnesses, the tears as we go around the table saying what we’re thankful for. I started the day out with a “raisin” heart – all small and shriveled, feeling protective and prickly and ended the day with a large, spongy heart = like those little pills you drop into water and they expand 10 xs their size into a giant snowman or pine tree. That’s me.
Things that touched me yesterday: my mom home with the flu, alone. Making the best of her day, knowing someone would deliver some delicious food to her later in the evening. FaceTiming with my daughter and son and their father and laughing over the airwaves with them. Spending the day at the beach with my husband, playing volleyball in the sunshine. Sitting with my step-daughter at the dinner table and feeling how thankful I am for her in my life. Ruby, my heart companion of a dog, almost drifting off to sea, as a wave came in – she doesn’t float! Grateful that the wave subsided and she ran to shore (I would have saved her.)
Dear family & friends texting, messaging me, facebooking me, from all over the world = global village. People posting on Facebook and inviting others to their table, recognizing that people can feel alone and sad on holidays. Another friend, alone on Thanksgiving and feeling the freedom of that! Skating at Rockefeller center, watching the parade and enjoying New York’s first snow fall of the season. Light and dark. Vulnerable and tenacious. Hearts beating. Breath catching. Eyes watering. Lips curling. I felt it all yesterday. It was beautiful. Thank you.
If you only say one prayer in a day, make it “Thank You.” -Rumi
On Sunday, as I was going through security at DIA, I saw a TSA agent help an elderly man who was struggling with his backpack. It was a busy morning and people were rushing to empty their bins and put their shoes back on, and the man was trying to quickly exit the security area but his backpack strap was tangled and he couldn’t get his arm through. The TSA agent reached over and lifted up the pack so that there was more room to maneuver and the man was able to put his pack on. Tears stung my eyes at this simple act of kindness between strangers.
Last week I sat vigil with a man who was dying. I do this as often as I can, but what was different about this time was that he was conscious. Not just awake but aware. This was a first for me. It’s one thing to walk in as a complete stranger and sit with a person who is dying when they’re unconscious, but to walk in to somebody’s room when they’re alive and present seems presumptious at best and intrusive at worst. In that moment I had to push ego aside (“Will I be good enough?”, “What do I have to offer?”, “Who am I to be here?”) and say a prayer to be of service. To say he was gracious would be an understatment. Welcoming me into his journey, his transition, with a smile and a whispered “hello”, it was his kindness that allowed me to access my highest self and connect on a soul level for a brief period. We prayed together, I stroked his magnificent head and laid my hand on his heart. To love freely, without any thought of past or future, is to truly be present and timeless. The gift was all mine.
I looked up the definition of compassion and learned that it translates as “suffering together.” And it’s not just about suffering – when we feel compassion, our heart rate slows down, we secrete the “bonding hormone” oxytocin, and regions of the brain linked to empathy, caregiving, and feelings of pleasure light up, which often results in our wanting to approach and care for other people. Compassion generates more compassion. Beautiful.
Yesterday I shared a burden with a friend and she cried for me as I could not. I was numb and all cried out. Even though my heart was heavy, seeing the kindness, the compassion, in her eyes, gave me a sense of peace and I felt lighter, less alone.
“Whether one believes in a religion or not, and whether one believes in rebirth or not, there isn’t anyone who doesn’t appreciate kindness and compassion. ”