Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Comments Welcome: A Caregiver’s Journal (No. 3)

Pebbles in the Stream

“I need to tell you that you are a good son, and a good person.”

L, in her kindness, may need to write the words—but how badly I need to hear them! The email is a glass of clean water I keep sipping in a dry, polluted zone.

It’s not exactly that I doubt it. I know that only a good son, a good person, would do what I am doing. Or, if referral is the best recommendation, put it this way: I am the sort of son, the sort of person, I would want as my caregiver.

Only—why is it so hard sometimes to feel good? To believe it all the way inside? The answers to that might be as deep and manifold as a life, but here are a few I know.

First is that a day of caregiving is made up of a thousand moments—it is a dense fabric of exchanges lasting from a second to a quarter hour—any hundred of which may be coloured by irritation, resentment, boredom...all the hues of bad feeling. So it comes to seem a hybrid, qualified thing. A quilt which, even if the overall design is good, has too many missed stitches and dull or plain ugly squares, to earn that open-vowelled epithet: good. (I tutor a boy who prints the word as four perfect circles, then adds the up-tail and down-tail at either end, leaving out the g’s curl so as not to jar the symmetry.)

No real relation is so simple as good. Good may suit a given moment, a cursory look. For anything sustained or scrutinized, it is too fondly round.

That is part of it.

But also—often I am just too plain exhausted to feel that I am doing good. Satisfaction with exertion requires a pause, a moment, after the breath is caught, to appreciate the effort expended. First, though, the head must be kept down, tucked inward over the heart to regain the spent strength. Until that happens—and there are days when no pause lets it happen at all—exhaustion takes all the space it needs, which is often all the space there is, leaving no room for anything else.

Exhausted, I am not good, no more than I am bad; I am not even I, quite, since I requires some corner of consciousness not given over to doing.

And—there is more. There is always more when you parse a common word.

It is hard to feel good about any efforts that are part of something producing so much suffering and destruction. I imagine a doctor treating wounds behind the front lines in a war. Can he feel good about the stumps he cauterizes, cleans and dresses—actions without which lost limbs would have been a lost life? (And the soldier screaming Let me die! I don’t want to live without legs!—that, too, forbids good, shoves it out of the room as an obscenity.) The most the frontline medic may feel is that he, or his actions, though they occur in a zone of deep wrong, belong to a stream that comes from, or goes to, a place of good.

At a given moment, he may be flailing, cursing the debris-choked water, fighting its turbid shifting currents, choking, even drowning—but he is in the right stream.

How can you pin a gold star on flailing in the right stream?

Because sometimes you just have to. Sometimes nothing helps but the simplest, most unmistakable murmurs of our earliest rewards.

Good person. Good son.

Good. The first, best prize. The relic in the deepest cave of self, wrested in how many pitched battles from the dragon hoard of bad.


The round bright pebbles, bathed by a crystal stream.

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