Friday, September 11, 2009

My Caretaker, My Partner

I've lived with cancer for over seven years. My partner (The German) has been through all of the ups and downs that several of the caregivers mentioned in this Feministe thread. I was blessed to have someone who was willing to devote every waking moment to making sure that I was as comfortable as possible, given the circumstances. I never went to a doctor's appointment or radiation treatment where he wasn't right there with me or right on the other side of the door, waiting to help me back into my clothes and get me safely back home.

When I was hospitalized, he spent every night with me, watching over me, making sure that pillows stayed at the right angle and keeping track of who came and went and what they did to me. He arranged for our daughter to be brought to the hospital, so that I could see her. He gave me a sponge bath. He combed my hair and brushed my teeth and applied my lip-gloss for me, because I wanted to look like the mom that she was used to seeing. Other people might have told me that I shouldn't worry about my hair or make-up at a time like that, but my partner knew me. He understood what those things represented to me, so he did it, even though I know that he couldn't care less about make-up and hairstyles.

He cared about me. No, those aren't the right words. He adored me. He adored me before the cancer and our love has only increased over the years. I don't think that anyone on Earth could have a more devoted partner than the one that I have here. I have never asked him to do something that I needed and had him refuse my request. Never. No matter how much care I needed, he provided it without complaint.

That sounds lovely, doesn't it? However, even our devotion to and love for each other wasn't enough to protect us from certain realities. As can be expected, my body has been permanently altered by the rounds of surgery and treatment it has sustained over the years. From the beginning of my cancer journey, we knew that surviving cancer didn't mean I'd ever be able to use my body in the same ways that I was accustomed to. The part we didn't immediately understand was how it would affect his body.

The German is a strapping, 6'4" tall Louisiana man. When I was diagnosed, we were both in our early twenties. We both worked to pay our bills and take care of our daughter. When I became unable to work, the full financial burden fell on him. Any moment when he wasn't caring for me was spent at work, keeping a roof over our heads. This wasn't just a situation that lasted for a few months; this was our reality for several years.

After a short time, it became clear that it was taking a huge toll on his body. He wouldn't go to bed; he'd simply pass out from exhaustion from time to time. His diet consisted of whatever he had the energy to scarf down in between caring for me. Picking me up and carrying me from one part of our flat to another might be considered physical exertion, but it didn't compare to the amount of exercise we got when we used to go rollerblading and walking several times a week.

Things are a little better now. I can walk most of the time, so he doesn't have to carry me as much. I've (mostly) regained the use of my left arm. These things allow me to be a lot more independent, even though I still have the cancer in my chest. I love being able to use the toilet or take a shower without needing assistance before, during, and afterward.

However, my partner has maintained many of the habits that he developed when I was incapacitated. He still cooks all of our meals and does all of the driving. I've tried to get him to venture out a bit and make some new friends, but I've been utterly unsuccessful. After years of being at home, taking care of the finances, the cleaning, the cooking, and the majority of the parenting, I'm not sure he'd know how to develop new relationships. This makes me extremely sad, because he deserves to have a life that doesn't constantly revolve around the needs of someone else. He's a great guy and everyone in my family and all of my friends who know him seem to think so, too. He has a wicked sense of humor and he's the smartest guy I've ever befriended or dated (When his IQ was tested, he scored in the Very Superior range).

When I got diagnosed, we talked a lot about how our relationship might change. There were significant periods of time where we couldn't have sex. Even though there were things that we could physically do together, he wasn't comfortable with initiating sex because he couldn't stand the idea that anything he did might add to my physical pain and he had strong feelings about the ethics of doing this, knowing that I was heavily narcotized all of the time. Even though I was sure I could help him get over that first concern, I don't think I could ever ask him to do something that violated his principles.

In the past year, I've made a couple of friends who live in the city. One of them has lupus, too, so it's been really awesome having her near enough for me to visit a couple of times. Her partner is as sweet as can be, so it's kind of like a package deal and what's not to love about that?! My partner has chauffeured me to their house and many other places that I wanted to go. He drives our daughter from to and from everywhere a busy and, apparently, popular teenager needs to go.

I don't think I really have a complaint here; it's more of a concern. I appreciate how devoted he is to the family unit that we have created and shared for close to a decade now. We have a closer relationship with our daughter than any other of her friends seem to have with their parents. I never have to worry about him blowing all of the rent money at a bar or casino (Since we've been together, I could count on one hand the number of times he's even had a single beer and he doesn't gamble). My daughter has never had to deal with watching her dad yell or engage in any other threatening behavior. We know when he's really angry, because he gets really, really quiet.

Some people might not see anything wrong with this picture, but I worry that there is. See, I think that everyone needs a way to get out some of their aggression. I mean, is it really healthy for someone to never raise their voice or just beat up a pillow or two? Maybe there are some people whose personality makes them perfect caretakers, but I suspect that they are few in number. What about those who do not have the wherewithal to be happy with a life like the one my partner has?

1 comment:

Lucie said...

This is a beautiful tribute to a man who sounds like he's right up there with mine -- not just a caretaker or a loving partner, but someone you can count on always. We are so lucky.
I've had some of the same worries as you. Is there a lot of rage in there that has to come out physically? Is there something wrong if he can handle it so well for so long?
I don't think so. Maybe it's our culture with its testosterone-driven ideal male, always ready for a fight, that makes us wonder how a guy can manage to continue being so calm and competent without even beating up a pillow or two.
I asked my husband (42 years last week) how he dealt with the constant fact of my cancer and the times he has to take care of me on the most intimate levels, and he said, "I am grateful for every day that you are here."
We must have done something really wonderful last life.