Sheila glowed with youth and life. So did her husband, though his bulky power wheelchair somewhat cramped Tim’s style. The four of us had arranged to meet for dinner at a restaurant, where we could trade stories and get to know each other.
Their how-we-met-and married saga turned out to be as charming as they were. They’d known each other since kindergarten, but their casual friendship didn’t deepen until after his diving accident. Tim waited a full year, wanting to make sure Sheila understood what she was getting herself into. Only then did he ask her to marry him, and she said yes.
“I’ll say she did.” Tim grinned. “She didn’t even wait for me to finish the question.”
Sheila grinned back. “I’d already waited too long.” Now, that’s romance!
We in turn told about a cold January weekend when David and I led a marriage seminar at a downtown hotel. Back then, David could handle the three steps at our back door, so we didn’t yet have a house ramp or converted van. To save time with our early morning start from home, I’d packed his manual wheelchair in the car trunk the night before. We got to the hotel, I assembled the wheelchair, and David sat down.
Overnight, his chair’s gel cushion had frozen solid. To make matters worse, the heat malfunctioned in our part of the hotel. Everyone at the seminar was shivering— even those of us who didn’t have to sit on a block of ice. The cushion took hours to thaw, and David never really warmed up that day.
Not romantic like their tale, but funny. Sheila laughed long and loud, then sighed and said, “I love stories like that.”
After dinner, the four of us left the restaurant together. Tim and Sheila watched with interest as I helped David stand for his transfer into our car. The people from the SUV next to us showed up just then and stood around waiting for us to get out of their way. Flustered, I tried to hurry the transfer.
Sheila spoke up, her voice firm and confident. “Take your time. They’ll wait.”
Finally, David sat safely down on the passenger seat. I swung his legs in, closed the door, and hustled his wheelchair back to the trunk.
“G’night,” Tim said. “Let’s do this again. It’s good to talk to someone who can relate.”
“Definitely! This was great.” Sheila hopped up to stand on the back of Tim’s chair, holding onto its handles. She turned to wave at us and rode jauntily off to their van.
In the gathering darkness of the spring evening, their beauty pierced my soul. Tim and Sheila understood their challenges and met them with grace, youth, and clear thinking.
The SUV beside us drove away. Feeling dull, middle-aged, and foolish, I climbed into our trusty Chevrolet, buckled us both in, and headed for home. David and Tim might stay in touch, but I doubted Sheila and I would.
She had it all together. She didn’t need me.
David and Tim did stay in touch. They talked by phone every month or so, but the four of us didn’t get together again for another year.
That evening, we met at the same restaurant as before, but the atmosphere around our table felt different. Tim went on at length about his legal studies and a new physical therapy he was trying. Sheila seemed quieter than before, less ready to laugh. This was probably true of David and me as well. All I remember is listening, watching, and feeling vaguely uneasy. I don’t recall how the evening ended.
The next time David called Tim, we learned that Sheila had left him.
A year earlier, the beauty of their hope-filled story had pierced my heart. Now their affliction did the same. Sheila had believed she knew what she was getting herself into. But caregiving is hard.
Your friends plan a hiking trip. That’ll be fun. Sure wish I could go.
Waking up tired, you face an hour-plus of hard work getting your person ready for the day. Can I do this for the rest of my life?
Then, Was this a big mistake?
And finally, I’m trapped.
Doubt. Resentment. Guilt. Shame. Fear.
It helps to have people around who understand. Why didn’t Sheila call me? Maybe she had others to talk with. Or maybe she didn’t know that’s what she needed.
Why didn’t I call her? What if I had called her? Would that have made any difference?
I don’t have answers, but one thing I do know: Never again will I look at a caregiver and think, They have it all together. Because none of us do.
I dithered about writing this. I almost didn’t. But my friend Jani, who cared for her mother for many years, said, “This is the elephant in the room for every caregiver. What if I can’t do this? What if I fail? You have to get it out in the open.” She’s right.