27: In Her Footsteps

27: In Her Footsteps

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

In Her Footsteps

Just about the time a woman thinks her work is done, she becomes a grandmother.

~Edward H. Dreschnack

I never wanted to be a caregiver! That role seemed more suited to people like my grandmother. When my father died, Granny came to take care of my siblings and me while our mother worked.

I wanted to be like Mom—a tough women’s libber who became the first female executive at a Seattle luxury hotel. Mom was out there. She knew people. She rubbed elbows with presidents and kings.

But Granny? She stayed home to do chores and take care of kids. How boring! And that’s how she’d spent her entire life. She began by taking care of her father, a widowed Civil War amputee. For his sake, Granny delayed marrying and having children, though she had plenty of children around her, since she also served as a nanny to the offspring of her six siblings. When Granny finally did marry, her husband died young, leaving her to provide for three kids. She found an abundance of work in private homes, nursing the elderly.

Granny had no interest in status, fashion, or power. She didn’t even know how to drive a car. Her only desire was to take care of people. Even when Granny had a chance to sit down, she was boring—preferring to read quietly in her chair. Her face would glow as she pored over the pages of what she called “the good book.”

But I was ashamed to be seen with Granny. My friends used to stare at her bent back and her big, gnarly nose. She was embarrassing! I promised myself I’d never be like Granny.

Then, five years into my marriage, a neurologist looked at me with compassion as he said, “Mrs. Bradford, I’ve just told your husband he has multiple sclerosis.”

Suddenly, I felt faint. Had I heard the doctor correctly? Had my chair actually plunged through the floor... or was that my hopes? Had the baby kicking inside of me just become abnormally still?

“Finally, a diagnosis!” my husband said excitedly. “All those weird bouts with numbness and blurred vision weren’t just my imagination.”

John seemed happy, but I had no idea why until he turned to the doctor and asked, “Okay, Doc, what can we do to fix this?”

John didn’t know what I knew. As the granddaughter of a care-giver, I realized that MS has no cure.

Once we got home, my brilliant, young husband began an in-depth study of MS. After the bad news had sunk in, my dynamic, carefree John became a lethargic, angry drunk. He’d already been forced to quit his active job because he couldn’t walk without the support of crutches.

I had no patience with John’s alcoholic rage. Shortly after his diagnosis, I’d given birth to a healthy baby boy who had me on the run day and night. In addition, I’d taken on John’s chores, from lawn mowing to snow shoveling. I had no time to join his pity party. Besides, I felt I was the one who deserved to be pitied.

Exhausted and hopeless, I asked everyone I met how they’d cope with my challenges. Fellow libbers advised, “Aw, leave the bum and take the kid with you!” But that seemed wrong. How could I leave the man I loved—my brilliant, funny sweetheart? He had to be hidden somewhere behind that angry façade. And how could I take my son away from his father when I knew the intense pain of growing up without a dad?

I kept pressing everyone for answers until an angel-faced neighbor said she’d been praying for me and handed me a “good book.” I devoured it eagerly in my hunger to glean any tidbit of truth that might reveal why Granny had such a peaceful look whenever she read it. As I pored over chapter after chapter, I came across a totally fresh definition of love. It spoke of a love that’s not about self, career, or ego, but dedicated to serving others.

Bolstered by supernatural insight, I began to have compassion for the angry drunk who’d replaced my husband. While I gradually shifted my focus from me to John, I discovered the joy of putting the needs of others ahead of my own.

In time, I sensed I should compliment John daily on his strengths—on all the reasons I’d fallen in love with him. During the months that followed, our relationship began to sprout new life as we both realized what a treasure we had in each other. Amazingly, John even quit drinking. Instead of using alcohol to drown his pain, he got high on being loved, respected, and accepted for the man who remained inside that failing body.

He returned to school to obtain his master’s degree in business management, although it took three years and all the strength he could muster. At home, John developed into a stellar father and the one in charge of household business. After graduation, he became an advocate for the disabled, advising them on available services, training programs, jobs, medical help, and equipment. All the while, he kept them smiling, despite the challenges they faced.

One of his fellow MS sufferers told me, “About the time Nick and I start feeling sorry for ourselves, we see a smiling John zipping down the sidewalk in that big electric wheelchair with you, his faithful caregiver, by his side.”

Me... a caregiver? What happened to my executive goals?

After all, I could have divorced my drunken, disabled husband and become an ambitious, single, working mom. Yet, I sensed a different perspective reaching out from the pages of Granny’s favorite book. It had guided me to embrace, with unbridled love, the brilliant, funny, responsible man I’d married. His works of advocacy and his resource-filled writings ended up making a positive impact on hundreds, maybe thousands of lives during his 30-year struggle with MS.

Yes, my days as a full-time caregiver were often agonizingly long, and my heart broke as I watched John struggle through continual losses in function. Yet, I’m exceedingly glad I made a career of caring for my husband.

Now, when I think of my grandmother, I no longer remember her as a bent-over, boring, old woman. I remember her eyes. They beamed with faith and twinkled with a love she couldn’t contain. Now I know why. Granny became wealthy as she gave her all to care for others. It’s true that her wealth didn’t come in the form of money. Instead, she gained rewards from helping people thrive through her selfless love and care.

Today, I’m exceedingly grateful for my grandmother’s example. If I’d never seen her self-sacrificial love in action, I’d never have been inspired to reach out to John and help him rise from the depths of despair. And if I’d never seen Granny’s glow as she read her “good book,” I’d never have found her source of strength.

As I settle into my own years as a grandmother, I’m honored to be following in Granny’s noble footsteps. She left behind a legacy I hope to pass on to my grandchildren—a legacy of unconditional love.

~Laura L. Bradford

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