The Caregiver’s Paradox, Or, Treasures of the Incomplete
We are living in an unfinished space here in Alabama, and that comes with challenges. We entered a season of renovation when we arrived in July, and we’ve accomplished a great deal in just a few weeks. (And by ‘we’, I mean my husband, who has done the lion’s share of the work.)
We tore out the entire kitchen, and we’re finishing a new one now. Extensive plumbing and electrical work has been required. Any cooking beyond the toaster-oven variety has been impossible, which means we’ve been eating lots of apples and salads. Plus, we’ve opened our topsy-turvy home (and our hearts) to a kitten, who perceives the unfinished space as her personal playground.
Living in our ‘incomplete’ house means a constant acceptance of things as they are, not things as they will be or as we wish they were. And in this season, the lessons I learned as a caregiver at L’Arche DC* have stood me in good stead. Assistants at L’Arche learn pretty quickly that the work of giving care is never done.
At some point, all caregivers face an inability to ‘complete’ the task of caring for another person. This is a difficult truth, one that routine checklists and Medicaid regulations would have us forget. When we as assistants would mark down our checklists, it was tempting to believe that we had ‘finished’ what needed to be done. In one sense, yes; in another sense, maybe not.
At L’Arche, I came to see that you could sign every paper and miss the spirit of real caregiving completely. You could do everything you were required to do and miss the most important part of being there. The balancing act of L’Arche was (and is) doing all the mandated things while retaining the sense that relationships — in all their incomplete, frustrating, incomparable beauty — are what matter most.
I admit it: I love finishing things. I love to check off boxes, initial documents, and complete every item on my to-do list. If I had my way, I’d have no lag time or learning curve; I’d wave a magic wand that would allow me to have a finished kitchen, drive stick-shift perfectly, and write the next bestseller.
But caring for people at L’Arche showed me the fallacy of these ‘arrival fantasies’. Helping people brush their teeth every day, driving them along the same route to work … these ordinary tasks of everyday life have treasures contained within. (True, it takes time and patience to uncover them, but what real treasure doesn’t require determination to acquire?)
Too often, our thinking is that when we finish everything on our lists, when everything’s done, then we’ll be happy. Then we’ll take the time to look around and appreciate it all. But today, sitting in my unfinished living room, typing these imperfect words, I find, paradoxically, a feeling of completion. I am doing what I was made to do, however imperfectly, and it is enough.
Inevitably, I’ll lose sight of that sufficiency. Invariably, I’ll get down on myself for not being ‘more productive’ or ‘farther along’ in my work and life. But then I’ll remember a man who showed me that some tasks — the tasks of true connection — should stand ‘unfinished’.
My friend Gene passed away a year ago this August, and, like many others whose lives he touched, I’m still not done caring for him. Whenever I tell his stories or recall his presence, I am doing the work of honoring, of remembering. This work of love is never finished, because love is never over.
And in that ever-incomplete work, I am made whole.
What (or who) helps you to focus on what matters most?
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*L’Arche is a faith-based, worldwide non-profit organization that creates homes where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together. I spent 5 years serving the DC community in various caregiving roles.
About Caroline McGraw
I'm a would-be childhood paleontologist turned full-time writer, digging for treasure in people and uncovering sacred stories in ordinary days. I grew up in New Jersey (think peaceful suburb, not Newark), graduated from Vassar with honors, then served as a live-in caregiver and program director at L'Arche Washington DC. Nowadays, my husband renovates our historic 1901 home in northwestern Alabama, while I try (& fail) to keep our cat Bootsie from developing an epic tuna fish addiction. It's a beautiful life. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.