You’d think I’d have gotten used to it after four years, ten neurosurgical operations, drug-resistant infections and falls in the middle of the night, but it’s lifting up my husband’s wheelchair to put it into the car that I hate the most. The wheelchair’s handlebars are about two inches too high to fit in easily, so I have to balance it on the back bumper, tilt it just so, lean back to shove it in and quick slam the door so it doesn’t slide out. Getting it out isn’t so bad because it slides out, but getting it in is a real bitch.
The reason for the wheelchair is my husband Frank’s legs. They stopped working late on a January afternoon in 2015. No car accident, no surgical slip, no fall, no injury. One moment he walked and then he couldn’t. A tiny growth on his spinal cord had blocked 95% of his spinal fluid, causing massive permanent neurological damage. His life as he knew it was gone. And so was mine.
This blog post is about me and my experience of caregiving, not about Frank or my 96-year-old mother for whom I am responsible. And about the whole congregation of people, many of whom are elderly, for whom I am charged to take care—for am their pastor. 39 years ago this month I was ordained a Presbyterian minister and currently serve full-time as the pastor of a small struggling church. A professional caregiver with advanced training in hospital chaplaincy, I am trained to let the other person’s concerns – not mine – direct conversations. I visit in hospitals and homes and talk on the phone a lot. For a few years I even ran a support group for caregivers. I know how to keep confidences and hear confessions. And, boy, am I tired of being patient, forbearing and kind. It’s not that I don’t love all these people but I’m just tired out. I spent the afternoon binge-watching bad made-for-TV movies on Netflix when I should have been preparing the service for Christmas Eve.
This evening I had to pick up Frank from a meeting with some young people in a restaurant across town. When I pulled up in front of the restaurant, he came out in his wheelchair with his service dog. Nobody had thought to come out with him to help fold up the wheelchair and get in into the car, nor had he thought to ask.
Rev. Dr. Heidi Vardeman
Heidi Vardeman is the grandmother of three, mother of two, wife of one and pastor of an entire congregation. She has served as a pastor, political lobbyist, non-profit executive and college professor.