by Ginnie Horst Burkholder
“Good woman,” he said during one of his more articulate days last summer. The inflection was assertive and commanding, but in good humor. It was a Saturday, and he was ready for an outing. His words meant, “Hurry up and get your butt out here.” He may not be able to say exactly what he once would have, but our forty-two year history, in this case coupled with the timing, made it easy for me to translate. So it didn’t matter.
This winter I read an historical account of the Battle of the Bulge to Nelson. I was the kid in grade school who hated history and the one in college who got a D in History of Civilization. I didn’t want to memorize dates and read about dead people. In later years, I was the mom who hauled her kids to peace demonstrations. Reading about offensives, bazooka teams, foxholes, and generals never appealed to me. But now, since Nelson likes history and I’m the reader, I decided it didn’t matter.
We do not have a garage door opener. Whenever we are about to leave the house, Nelson pulls up the garage door, and I get into the car while he waits outside for me to back out. Then he pulls the door down before climbing into the car. This particular time he stood in the middle of the open door, directly behind the car, and waited for me to back out. When I didn’t proceed, he became impatient. “Let’s go!”
“I can’t. You want me to run over you?” He looked at me blankly and grumbled without moving. I wanted it not to matter, but exasperation edged into my voice. “You have to get out of my way!”
Once he was in the car, I waited for him to fasten his seat belt. His mistake had been exposed, and now he was determined to prove that he could do this task himself. I cut the car engine and waited, entertaining myself with thoughts of my impatience while practicing, “It doesn’t matter.”
But he was struggling. “You want me to do it?” I finally asked hopefully.
“Yah.” His voice carried a muted anger and an infrequent acknowledgement that his mind had betrayed him.
I slipped the belt in place and had a brief sense of his loss at being stripped of so many coping skills. “You’re a good man, Charlie Brown,” I said trying to make it not matter for both of us.
“Yah,” he said, “and let that be a lesson to you.”
“Let that be a lesson to me?” I retorted, poking fun at his response. I laughed because his annoyance at me regarding the garage door incident wasn’t about me and didn’t really matter. His eyes crinkled into his own laugh. I was glad.
Managing his every mindless move, I get lots of practice telling myself it doesn’t matter. He may lock the door when we are only stepping out to the yard. Or he may fail to lock it when we are leaving for the day. I find recyclables in the trash, and trash in the recyclables. Anything that is round, from the sink to the toilet, is an invitation for foil candy wrappers that don’t want to flush. Lights may be turned off when I’m in the room, or left on in seldom-used rooms. He may push in my chair when I get up from the table, while his special, larger teacher chair on wheels stands away from the table blocking the path in our adequate but not spacious kitchen. Or he may clear away the breakfast I am not finished eating while his own empty dish is left on the table. Practice...practice…practice….
Recently I had a restless night and got up for a few minutes hoping to work it off. I’m not a morning person so the less I have to do first thing, the better. I always set out the breakfast pills and dishes the night before. Then in the morning, I thaw some frozen berries in the microwave to eat with my soymilk and cereal. Since I was up anyway this night, I decided I could put the berries out and let them thaw in my bowl for a couple of hours. Wouldn’t that be nice? I would get up, and there would be one less step separating me from my favorite part of breakfast: my berries.
But his mindlessness doesn’t discern subtleties. I got up the next morning later than he did, early riser that he is. I was still groggy from lack of sleep when I came face-to-face with the kitchen in disarray. He had opened and mangled a cereal box that collapsed in my hand when I picked it up. Cereal was spilled here and there, and his place setting was empty. Then my gaze settled on my bowl. My chair was pulled out. My bowl was full of his cereal. My berries were covered with his cow’s milk. Suddenly, it mattered.
Because we caregivers give and give and learn to survive by saying it doesn’t matter. We live with the mantra of “it doesn’t matter.” But we’re human. We get slammed with moments of realization that we can’t count on anything from this person – the person we once thought was going to be able to floss his own teeth, dress himself, and, oh, yes, be our companion, helper, and support. Then suddenly, we have had to buy a new toothbrush one too many times because ours wasn’t hidden quite well enough. Or we are fighting our own tiredness or illness, and one more need, demand, or incapability breaks us.
Then when it does matter, when the loss, the loneliness, and the ludicrous send our equilibrium careening into impatience and exasperation, we have to remember to give ourselves the same monumental grace that we have been dishing out. That is when it matters very much that we remember this: we matter too.
© 2009 Ginnie Horst Burkholder
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