When Nurture Doesn't Come Naturally

My default position has always been me, myself and I ... until Pat got sick

Photograph by Twenty20
(Photograph by Twenty20)

I've never been much of a nurturer. I'm the last person to jump up when someone gets injured. I'll just nod them towards the bathroom, usually not even suggesting they wash the wound with alcohol—or whatever ointment you're supposed to wash it with. My default position has always been me, myself and I.

I never dreamt of marriage and children, not even as a little girl. When they gave me dolls for Christmas, I'd yank the arms out of the sockets and do skits with them. When the neighborhood girls played house, I'd be the social worker sweeping in and taking their children away. Not only did I not want kids, but I thought nobody should have them. I once punched Chatty Cathy in the kisser for telling me she liked me, and when everyone laughed, I knew I'd found my calling. Comedy was more to my liking than changing Betsy Wetsy's diapers—a grim warning, if there ever was one.

When I met Pat we were both already tip-toeing into our 40s, and he made it pretty clear that children were on his "really want some" list. Clearly, his high school biology teacher wasn't quite as good as mine. I gently explained that it was a little late, that maybe I had two eggs left and one was probably hard-boiled. He laughed, but it was a sad laugh.

As our hearts ignored the dried-up elephant in the room, we fell madly in love. Then, almost without my consent, I loosened my stance on children, since he wanted one so desperately and I wanted him so completely. My career was flagging a bit at the time, so the idea of having his child didn't repulse me. In fact, a little family sounded nice, actually. I couldn't believe what I was even considering! Damn this love thing! We decided to roll the dice and see if we were meant to have a child together.

We weren't. I was relieved, but he was devastated. It was just too late.

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Then I started pining over a puppy when we were wading into the shallow end of 60. He knew I was very low on maternal instinct, so he gave me a stuffed dog with the mandate that if I could take it for a walk three times a day, we'd consider getting a real one. He wasn't kidding and I failed miserably—I didn't even walk it once. I threw it in a corner and planned a rebellion. I brought home a 6-week-old puppy without his consent the next year and his response was that I had to take care of her—alone.

I had no idea what I was doing and almost had a nervous breakdown trying to take care of the little monster. I was constantly overwhelmed, often bursting into tears. Friends were ignored, dates canceled, laundry was jumping out of the baskets. Even my balcony flowers started crying—gasping for water, love, a haircut, anything. I couldn't believe how all-consuming the whole dog thing was. Pat began to lend a hand and he was better at parenting than I was, to nobody's shock. So, I learned from him, and we worked together.

A few years later, Pat was diagnosed with the cancer that would take his life, and it was apparent that I was to be his sole caregiver. Clearly, more plants would die. Fortunately, there was no time for me to panic since immediate care and action were knocking on our door. I jumped in with all the love and compassion I've ever had so he could concentrate on trying to live.

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He got extremely sick very quickly. It was like having an instant infant. There was no preparation time. We had nothing we needed for this fight and I couldn't leave him alone for very long. I slept with one eye open for months. I spent all my time hovering around his bed, taking his temperature hourly after chemo infusions, (which I usually drove him to myself), mopped his forehead, mixed his smoothies, made homemade soup and spoon fed him, held his hand for hours, ran to several stores several times a day, doled out dozens of pills and made him laugh as often as I could. I was the sweetheart, health advocate, chauffeur, nurse, secretary, pharmacist, accountant, cheerleader. I was finally a mother.

Every shred of maternal instinct that I had worked so hard to suppress and even dishonor was erupting out of me. Instincts are powerful things that can take over in a pinch. Some of Pat's last words to me were about how surprised he was at how great of a caregiver I had become. I was surprised as well. We both smiled at the irony.

After he was gone, I was devastated, exhausted and pretty broken, yet I knew I had evolved into a person I never imagined: a patient, responsible, compassionate adult. Now it was time to turn my newfound nurturing abilities on myself. I finally knew what to do.

Tags: caregiving