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A Caregiver’s Lesson
By Iris Graville
From the time we say our first words,
most of us receive instruction in manners. We’re told,
“Say please” when we ask for more milk. Or we
hear, “Tell Grandma thank you for that cookie.”
But it was my friend, David, who taught me, as an adult,
how to say, “You’re welcome.”
One day in early July, David had a
seizure, lost consciousness, and was airlifted to
Seattle from our rural island community in the Pacific
Northwest. Then came the terrifying
diagnosis—glioblastoma—an aggressive, invasive brain
cancer. David and sickness seemed inconceivable.
Despite the gray sprinkled in his blonde hair and beard,
he had the muscle tone and strength of people half his
age. At 56, he was still an avid skier and
mountain-climber. He thought nothing of paddling
his kayak a couple of hours to work on a neighboring
island, spending the day doing carpentry and painting,
then paddling home.
Not surprisingly, David, his wife
Barbara, and their two grown sons brought that same kind
of strength and endurance to the treatment plan for
David’s cancer. They moved with grace and courage
through brain surgery, chemotherapy, radiation implants,
and gamma knife surgery. They followed intensive
yoga practice, changed their diets, prayed, and sang.
And, as is typical in our community, dozens of us
prepared meals, washed laundry, and did grocery
shopping. We also dug a septic system for David
and Barbara’s straw bale house, built a peace garden,
and took shifts at David’s bedside around-the-clock so
he could remain at home when it was evident none of the
treatments could eliminate the growing cancer.
Some people stopped by regularly to sing
with David. Others stayed for several-hour
stretches during the day to be sure he was never alone
while his family took naps or walks or just got a break
from caregiving. And some spent the night, at
first when David got his days and nights confused and
was awake when his family needed to sleep, then later
when he was restless and anxious about nighttime, and
finally when he could no longer get out of bed and
needed to be turned often so his skin didn’t break down.
I was one of those friends who took some
day shifts with David, and I often felt anxious as the
time for my afternoon visits to his home grew near.
It was emotionally demanding seeing a friend just a few
years older than I decline mentally and physically.
I never knew what to expect when I arrived. Sometimes
David dozed during much of my visit and said little more
than hello and asked for something to eat or drink.
Other times, often when he had slept well the night
before, he was alert and asked about my kids. On those
days, he’d talk about rock-climbing in Mexico and skiing
at Mt. Baker.
Caring for him was hard work, too.
David’s legs and torso remained strong, but they didn’t
always move the way he wanted them to. It was a
workout for both of us to transfer him from the couch to
his wheelchair, then to the commode, and then back to
the wheelchair and couch. As David’s sense of
balance deteriorated and his left side weakened,
positioning him required constant rearranging of pillows
to overcome gravity and keep him upright so he could
eat, drink, and watch videos.