This week I became a nurse. No, I didn’t complete a degreed or certificated program, I simply assumed the duties of being my wife’s post-surgical caregiver.
She had very serious knee surgery, which will require her to place no weight at all on her right leg for at least a month and a half. This first week she’s required an escort and assistance for virtually everything. And I’ve offered this service gladly, and lovingly . . . even when it’s interrupted my sleep apnea crippled rest.
Obviously, over three and a half decades of marriage, she has needed modest nursing in the past. But this is more serious. It is sustained. She has seen me through a number of serious illnesses and surgeries, but then she (like so many other women I’ve been privileged to know) is a natural nurse and caregiver.
C.S. Lewis was a man not vastly different from me. He was not terribly comfortable when placed in such a role . . . yet he too discovered great meaning in caring for the needs of his wife during her illness. His precious Joy was dying, so the intensity of his labors, and their corresponding emotional investment dwarf my own. And yet the “framework” of our circumstances bears a marked similarity.
In his wonderful book Lenten Lands, Lewis’ son Douglas Gresham relates how Lewis and his brother Warnie provided exceptional care to his mother during her illness. He writes:
[Lewis] spent most of each day with [Joy] at the hospital, but they both agreed Mother should be brought home to The Kilns to die—in Jack’s home—her husband’s home—with him at her side. The “common room” was converted to a hospital ward, complete with a system of bells by which Mother would summon a nurse, or later Jack, if she needed help, as she often did.
I’ll make a confession. Although most men can adequately perform familial nursing duties when there is no alternative caregiver, most of us are quite content to step aside and let our wives or sisters attend to whatever nursing procedures are called for. Actually, I was quite gifted at removing slivers, but when it comes to bodily discharges, I’m no sexist to admit I and most of my gender display a serious weakness.
And yet, even in these cases, when changing the soiled diaper of an infant (or someone old enough to feel shame for having such needs) . . . even such unpleasant acts are possible for us to do for those we love. So the key to being able to care for others is not to pinch our nose and do it as quickly as humanly possible. The key, instead, is to learn to love those placed in our care.
In our grandparents day, it wasn’t uncommon for an elderly great-grandparent to reside with the family of one of their children. My father, for example, grew up with his blind grandfather as a member of their household. Similarly, my mother enjoyed the daily presence of her grandmother in her own home throughout her life. Not only was it expected that children would “take in” their elderly parents, it was natural. After all, they were family.
But, how does one transfer this familial affection to the stranger? After all, as Jesus said, “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same” (John 6).
Mother Teresa and the many thousands of saints throughout history who have cared for the leper, the outcasts, and the dying know this truth. They do everything as though they were caring for the Lord himself, just as he asked his disciples to do. Medicines are not their only balms—nor their most important. Their compassionate touch and tender encouragements are often far more healing.
When I compare myself to these caregivers, I realize just how inadequate a nurse I am. As a pastor, a core aspect of my vocation has been to bind the injuries of the sheep entrusted to my care. But I do this in a “spiritual” manner, and it has been rare to ever help one of them replace a bloodied bandage. Spiritual, emotional and social wounds are those that most pastors feel comfortable treating. Providing for the “baser” physical needs of the diseased is quite another matter.
And this brings us to the end of today’s reflection. When next I write, I’ll carry this final thought a bit farther forward.