“Without spilling the personal details of a dear friend’s recent health crisis, I’ll just say that serving as health care proxy is not a walk in the park. For several months, my mind has been consumed with decisions I’d rather not have to make, my thoughts centered around hospitals, rehab facilities, health aides, bills, medical supplies, medications, forms, diets, physical therapists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, lawyers, physicians, and nurses. Oh, and lest I forget . . . death.”—Kathryn E. Livingston
Words & Wonder
By Kathryn E. Livingston
CAPE MAY New Jersey—(Hubris)—January 2024—Without spilling the personal details of a dear friend’s recent health crisis, I’ll just say that serving as health care proxy is not a walk in the park. For several months, my mind has been consumed with decisions I’d rather not have to make, my thoughts centered around hospitals, rehab facilities, health aides, bills, medical supplies, medications, forms, diets, physical therapists, speech therapists, occupational therapists, lawyers, physicians, and nurses. Oh, and lest I forget . . . death.
Fortunately, my friend (I’ll just call her Olivia here) is still with me, but her unexpected health dilemma totally changed the focus of my life (not to mention hers). In the midst of it—juggling appointments, calls, supplies, etc.—my husband became concerned. He was impressed that I’d managed to resolve a series of medical conundrums with dogged persistence, but worried that in so doing I was unable to sleep and seemed able to discuss one topic only: Olivia.
We all know how swiftly life can change, and we know, too, that little can be done about it in many situations. But in this case, once I had set the various wheels in motion, my mate suggested that my 24/7 focus was over the top. After nearly two months, he insisted I take a break, that I quite literally remove myself from the scene for a day. He made a call, took me by the arm, and led me to our vehicle. Destination: Cape May, a quaint town on the Jersey Shore less than three hours from our home. Filled with historic bed and breakfasts and colorful “painted lady” homes, it’s a popular summer destination for scores of vacationers. It’s a favorite place we visit primarily off season when rates are slashed, traffic is nil, the beaches are abandoned, and many restaurants are closed. Did I mention that it’s cold?
I never care, for within a few hours of sky and surf, my thoughts always wander to breezy, inconsequential topics. Should I reserve a table for two at the upscale Peter Shields Inn? Was that the song of the Cape May warbler? Could I walk for two miles in my leather boots or did I need to change to sneakers? Was it too windy to sit in beach chairs watching the ocean (yes, but so what?). We talked of our grown children, imagined future vacation plans, debated whether to splurge on a bottle of Bordeaux, or stop for a peanut butter hot cocoa at the Cape May Peanut Butter Company. After honing in on medical issues for weeks, my gaze shifted to sunset, sand, seagulls, and festive seasonal lights on the historic houses. I felt a sense of peace. And gratitude. Not only for my ailing friend of nearly 40 years, but for my husband, who had the sense to get me away from her travails for a spell.
Though I kept in touch with the medical team in the two days we were away (we opted for a second night since my condition was vastly improving), I realized how important it had been for me to re-set. With some distance, I recognized my inability to control every detail, and I admitted (to myself) that I didn’t have the power to solve every crisis. But being away also strengthened my resolve: I knew what Olivia would want and I stood my ground.
The experience revealed that occasionally the best solution isn’t to “lean” or dig in but to step away. That very withdrawing may lead to a state of clarity that couldn’t have been achieved without the sun, waves, cold air, a different visual focus, unusual sounds, some solitude, nature, rest, and/or fancy food. It helps to have someone (friend, spouse, colleague, sibling?) who recognizes the futility of obsessive managing (if we can’t see it ourselves) who will take our hand and instruct, “Go!”
This isn’t always possible, of course. But as a caregiver for someone who is seriously ill it may be wise to heed the familiar reminder that it’s not selfish to allow yourself some space, emptiness of thought, and a surrendering to the healing power of time. And, if this can be achieved in Cape May, New Jersey, all the better. Sometimes, even, in winter.
It turned out that time and a change of scenery (in her own home) was exactly what Olivia—now out of the hospital and improving daily—needed as well. Together, we defied some rather grim predictions. Of course, as friends of 40 years, we’ve seen each other through some rough patches. This sure wasn’t our first rodeo; I do hope it’s not our last.