Except for a few pages aimed directly at dealing with Alzheimers disease, which does not apply to me, I gulped down Passages like a glass of lemonade on a hot summer’s day. When I got to the last chapters I realized, with a sigh of relief, I am not crazy, just burned out. I’ve been about the business of caregiving for most of my life, so you’d think I would have recognized the symptoms. The fact that I considered, even for a moment, that “burn out” was better than “crazy” is a pretty good sign that I needed the wake-up call Passages provided.
Passages also drew a picture of my caregiving style. Without knowing it, I’ve bypassed Super-hero status and moved right on to God. According to Sheehy “Playing God” is a common trait in caregivers. It is no surprise that people with a “strong sense of compassion” (267) are more likely to jump into the caregiving boxing ring. Because we are not God, by the time we get to round 5 or 6 or 7 we’ve almost succeeded in knocking ourselves to the mat where we hear our own voices counting to ten. “It may feel powerful but over time the caregiver begins to lose herself.” Beware,” warns Sheehy, “wanting to believe I am the one who can do it better. No one else is going to do it the way I do, is a trap.” (268)
“No earthling can control the trajectory of disease or elude the eventuality of death. Taking on the responsibility invites overwhelming stress and is destined to result in a residue of guilt.” (268). Or like me, a bag of resentments I carry around like Santa on Christmas Eve.
My father is nearing the three year anniversary of his cancer diagnosis. We’ve celebrated what we expected to be his last Christmas and birthday. Now it’s September and although he has declined to the point he eats a little, sleeps a lot, and has conversations with people only he can see, Dad still does not appear to be at death’s door. Passages helped made me see that I have been holding my breath for almost a year. As if on Sentry duty, I’ve been on the hyper-alert for the first signs of my father’s imminent demise. Instead of savoring the time we have left, I wake up most mornings with a jolt of adrenaline and a stomach-grabbing dread of what the day may have in store. Like many others in my situation, I am stuck in a hamster wheel of my own making feeling tired, cranky, and shell-shocked. Dare I say disappointed?
Do I want my father to pass away? No.
Do I want this daily routine to let up. Yes.
Do I want to run away and not look back? Yes.
Do I dare leave my father’s side before he’s taken his last breath? No.
Questions like these are not uncommon among caregivers. Sheehy calls this “anticipatory grief” a sense of loss that “saturates many of the days of the Long Goodbye.” (336)