Jan was my sister’s best friend for 25 years. For most of that time, I was in different cities, different states, raising four kids, working, and trying my best to keep my head above water. Carrie and I weren’t necessarily close then. We were both in different phases of life with different beliefs and different viewpoints. But it still stung when I would see her post pictures of Jan and call her “my sister.” I was jealous and petty and wanted to comment, “But you HAVE a sister.” I didn’t know Jan well. She didn’t know me well, either. She was beloved by both my sister and my mom. I felt like an outsider in my own family at times.
Then Carrie got sick.
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I can still easily recall the physicality of caring for my children when they were little. Four little bodies in the bathtub, one after the other after the other. I’d wash their chubby legs and scrub their silken hair and wrap them tightly in oversized towels to keep them warm and dry. One after the other after the other. Then the baby lotion, then the tooth brushing, then the jammies, then the bedtime stories. Caring for them during those days was mostly my motherly body meeting the needs of their baby bodies. My corporeal self running and sweating and moving nearly every minute to provide them with food, with entertainment, with comfort, with Band-Aids and popsicles and lightning bug jars. As they grew older, their needs became more cerebral and less physical. Harder in so many ways, but easier in others.
As humans, our needs are always evolving, always changing.
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My stepdad, Bob—the only father I’ve ever really known—cared for my sweet, sassy Mom for so many years. When she was in the nursing home, he left her side only to run errands or sleep. He sat in his recliner, holding her hand, offering her water, bringing her snacks, unwrapping her Werther’s caramels. More than occasionally, he’d fall asleep there with her, his snores intermingled with hers. When she was still able, he’d help her into her wheelchair and drive her to lunches and dinners where she could enjoy time and Keoke coffees with her friends, her sisters, her beloveds. He knew all the best ways to care for her and her failing body. He was gentle and kind and patient. Just as he has always been.
When he first married Mom, I was a grumpy teenager who craved the love of a father while I simultaneously pushed him away. Every Sunday, I’d tag along while he took his own mother to MCL. I was there for the fried chicken and the Jell-O. He was there because he loved and honored his mom. I’d watch him spoon noodles into her open mouth, encouraging her to chew. I’d watch him wipe her chin. Every week, she declined a little more, but he didn’t stop taking her until she could no longer leave her bed.
Mom said that was one reason she was so attracted to Bob, one of the major reasons she agreed to marry him—because of how he cared for his own mother.
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My kind brother-in-law, Kevin, cared for Carrie in similar ways. Always her number one fan, always devoted solely to his bride, he was there to sit with her, to feed her, to love her. Jan did the same. When my mom and my sister were dying is when I finally got to know Jan. She was more at ease with my dying sister than I was, sitting beside her on the bed, rubbing her hands, brushing her hair. She’d sing “Sweet Caroline” to her and tell her stories even when Carrie could no longer reply or understand or sing along.
When Carrie lost her words, Jan filled in the silences with her own.
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Four months to the day before we lost Carrie, Jan lost her other best friend, Angie. She walked them both to and through their deaths. Carrie went peacefully. Jan says Angie did not. But Jan was there, faithfully. Steadfast. These profound losses in the midst of caring for her own aging parents, her own husband’s cancer battle, her grown children and grandchildren. That’s what Jan does. She cares. With her words, her actions, her snickerdoodles, her songs. She is the quintessential caregiver.
She came to visit a week ago, the first stop on a well-deserved beach getaway with her childhood friend. We had one day together. We planned to make the most of every minute, catching up, laughing, dog-petting. At lunch, we were enjoying music and mimosas when Jan said she was feeling funny. She’d been up since 2:00 AM, had been through one of the hardest years of her life, and we decided it was probably just best to go home and rest. I started to gather things up, and when I turned to look at Jan, she was a dusky gray—a color like I’ve never seen. Her eyes began fluttering back in her head, and she was gone. Instantly, everyone began responding. Our friends two tables over called 9-1-1. We held her hands and her head as she went in and out of consciousness. We rubbed her neck and armpits with cold cloths. I called Jan’s husband, checked on her medications, was reminded that she had an epilepsy disorder. I was terrified, panicked, running around like Chicken Little. The sky is falling! The sky is falling! My friends took care of her, took care of the check, took care of the ambulance directions, took care of finding nurses in the restaurant to tend to her until the paramedics arrived.
When we were allowed to see her at the hospital, I just sat beside her and held her hands. It was her time to be taken care of. Sweet Jan who spends so much time taking care of others. I’m convinced her body said, “That’s it. Enough. I can’t do it any more.”
The body can be that way, you know. It keeps the score.
But our friends. My gawd. The way they all came together to care for her. What a miracle it was to witness. Steve and Marie came to the hospital to check on her and to bring us the farmer’s market purchases we’d left in our frenzied wake. Our friends from the restaurant texted continuously.
The humans we have in our lives are amazing. The way we care for each other, inspired. Care looks different for all of us at different times. I’m learning to be cared for. I’m learning to care better. I’m learning how to sit. To be. To hold a hand. To sing a song. To comfort in small ways, which are often the biggest ways.
I have been taught so well by the people I love most. Lucky, lucky me.