When I get home from work, my hair is messier than usual, my back might be a little sore, but I am tired in the best way I can think of.
Care-giving as an aide is hard physical, emotional and spiritual work. Just try dressing an adult who is a dead weight, bathing a dying person, or trying to practice loving presence and mindfulness in the middle of a particularly noxious diapering experience!
So why am I usually smiling on my way to work and feel I couldn’t have spent my time better when my day is done?
Care giving satisfies my soul, lets me give, and helps me grow as a person. Sometimes I even feel kind of guilty that I get paid to do it. I often feel that it isn’t work, it is love.
Most people probably don’t think of care giving as a two way relationship. But it involves all of friendships’ gifts and virtues, even when the one being cared for can’t speak or see, and his mind’s workings can be enigmatic, as in my present job caring for a young man named Mac. *
Mac and I practice trust together, respect, affection, patience, forgiveness, cooperation, reciprocal love, shared interests, (like music,) and the joy of friends who appreciate each other’s company. When I get up for work, I often feel I am just getting up to go to my friend’s house.
The relationship between the care giver and the family she assists is often friendship, too. If I am around the family, as I have been in most of my work situations, the relationship with them can be profound. That’s the way I like it, too.
When I first came back into this work after doing other things for a few years, I prayed that at least at first, God would find me a family and a person to care for who would be easy to love and who would love me, too. I got that in Mac and his family.
Besides being a great opportunity to practice the corporal works of mercy, and often the spiritual ones as well, care giving is an excellent school of mindfulness, gentleness, tenderness, self forget-fulness, determination, sacrifice, awareness of the presence of God in others, a teacher of the rhythm and unity of work and prayer, a course in humility, a constant lesson on love.
While a lot of work is service-oriented, care giving is direct and intimate. Another human being depends on on me for his physical needs, as well as his emotional needs for concern, companionship and care. He has to trust me and rely on me in a very personal, vital way. I have to make a gift of myself and be available, willing, consistent, and fully present.
As friends do, we represent and serve Christ in one another in a powerful way. Some of these ways are hidden, like the way I feel comforted just being with Mac. I feel he is aware of how I am doing, in his own way. I am aware of him too, and we are very connected. I think this happens a lot between aides and the ones they care for. It is natural for a bond to develop under such circumstances. Love and friendship make people interdependent, even if on the outside, the relationship can appear to be one of one-sided service.
There was a time when I was feeling very sad while I was working with Mac. He unexpectedly reached over and held my hand. There have been moments like that with others I have taken care of, too, when I realize they also take care of me. These are holy, kingdom moments, when love turns surface social perceptions and previous ideas about relationships upside down and inside out.
Care giving naturally brings one into an awareness of God, as does any service done with love, especially things one does again and again. Even on days when I am worried, distracted, going through the motions, it is the very doing of the routines of care giving that sometimes brings the presence of God into sharp focus. Many of the simple tasks I perform as a care giver have taken on, over the years, a sense of holy ritual. Washing Mac’s face every morning, feeding him, brushing his teeth; these actions, when done mindfully, bring my awareness to God in the present moment as if I were kneeling in church.
This awareness has come about with practice, effort, and experience, but also by grace. God’s gentle revelation in my daily life seems to bring me, at times, a small understanding of what this seemingly quotidian task I am doing means to Him, the person I am caring for, and my own soul. At times I have a glimpse of the spiritual value of these tasks to the whole world, because of the value God gratuitously places on the smallest acts of love and service.
Sometimes the physicality of my job helps me reflect on the sacred humanity of Jesus.
Sometimes my job is just plain fun.
I sent a text to my boy friend one afternoon, about how Mac was making me forget my troubles with a long giggle fit after lunch, and he texted back, “Of course he is! He’s Jesus!”
“Whatever you did for one of these little ones, you did for me.” Sometimes Mac is that little one Our Lord is talking about, and sometimes that little one is me.
In this way, work becomes love, love becomes prayer.
Here is a poem I wrote during the time I was caring for my mom during her last illness three years ago.
The day slips through my fingers
Like rosary beads-
The hours loose in my hands,
Uncounted but surely prayed,
Each one a holy mystery.
But still I don’t know…
Where the time goes-
*You can read a post I wrote about Mac here: http://www.austincnm.com/index.php/2014/01/meet-mac/#.VqG9yWQrIy4