By Dr. Jim Cook
Editor’s note: The following story is from Jim, whose wife Jean was the primary caregiver for their teenage son during their son’s cancer journey.
Don’t overlook the major caregiver. He or she needs some uplifting too!
The most difficult time for my wife (Jean) and me was dealing with the two-and-a-half-year losing battle with cancer waged by our nineteen -year-old son, Paul. Within days of the diagnosis, his left leg was amputated two-thirds above the knee, and after metastasis he endured a series of six lung surgeries.
My response was to personally appropriate the stories of Jesus’ encounters with heartbroken parents: Mark 5:23 became, “My son is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on him, so that he may be made well, and live.” Matthew 20:30-33 was reduced to, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David! Have mercy on us, Lord, Son of David! Lord, let our son be healed.”
As mother and homemaker, Jean was Paul’s primary caregiver. From the beginning, Paul knew that Jean would willingly have taken his cancer into her body. Through every medical checkup at the Mayo Clinic, through every negative test result, every major surgery in Rochester to remove the cancer from his lungs, Jean waited and worried and walked with him. Devastated within, she exuded strength without for his sake.
When Paul married, he and his wife Ruth settled into an apartment across town, and Jean’s emotional stress moved to a new level. Instead of offering some relief and peace, daily physical separation brought the fresh anxiety of wondering hour by hour exactly how he was feeling. Finally, when the spread of the malignancy from the lungs to the rib cage made further surgeries useless, Paul chose to return to his first home to die.
Institutional care was avoided by the installation of oxygen tanks and a hospital bed on our front porch. A hospice nurse taught Ruth and Jean how to administer morphine injections. During those final three months, haunted by morphine and oxygen, Jean never used her bed. Not surprisingly, it was in those months that migratory rheumatoid arthritis permanently invaded Jean’s exhausted body.
Wisdom for the Caregiver (from Jim and Jean)
- Letters, calls, meals and prayers continually supported us. One word spoken by a neighbor who had lost a son said so much: “I am so sorry.” (Jim)
- We believed that God was present with us, but how God was present was expressed in a letter from a friend who had lost a son in a motorcycle accident: “God incarnates his love in the people who surround us – family, friends, doctors, nurses, and strangers.” Some of these people offered prayers that I couldn’t even form. When my son said to me, “I need your strength, not your tears,” those prayers gave me all the strength, all the love, and all the care I needed to care for Paul. Those prayers gave him the courage to die. (Jean)
- In general, caring people who asked us about our son’s condition and how we were doing constantly surround us. We thus learned the reality and blessing of the “communion of saints.” Specifically, our eldest son took a week of his vacation and joined his brother and us in Rochester, Minnesota, to walk with us all through the biopsy, the amputation of a leg, and the coronary crisis that followed unexpectedly. That was an incredible gift to the sufferer and his parents! (Jim)
- Among all those who offered us pastoral care, the most unacceptable word came from a ministerial student who said “I know how you feel.” The most honest and helpful thing was said by a pastor friend in Rochester who had children: “I can’t imagine how you must feel!” (Jean)
- Care to those who are in grief over the sufferer means always asking about the crisis, not avoiding it. That crisis is the most important thing in their lives. Normally, they will want to talk about it, perhaps cry about it. Offering care can mean offering them an opportunity to do both in the presence of someone who loves them. (Jim)
- Each person has a special gift, a cup of cold water, which he or she can give to the one who suffers. Some have the gift to listen or to speak just the right word. Others have the gift of just being there so that the sufferers do not go through their agony alone. My cup of cold water, my gift, was baking Paul’s favorite cookies and learning to give him morphine injections. That is who I am. I think you do what you are. (Jean)
For additional caregiving advice, refer to the following category on this website: “Caregiving Basics.”
The above advice is from The Compassionate Congregation, pages 65-70.