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A Caregiver’s Lesson
By Iris Graville

(Page 1 of 2)

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.

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