Caring again?

By Laurie Hilsgen

There is a poem in Ted Hughes’ final book, Birthday Letters, recalling his innocence as he bites into a peach for the first time and soon thereafter falls in love with glamorous fellow student and poet Sylvia Plath. 

With awe and a tincture of pity for his young self, Hughes writes of his headlong tip into a waterfall of firsts: marriage, fatherhood, and supporting Plath, who committed suicide after their breakup several years later. 

Hughes seems to imply that had he been older and wiser, he may not have taken the fateful step that bound him in legal matrimony to the famously troubled Plath. But he was callow and enamored and, back then (in the late 1950s), getting married was what one did.

I thought of this poem when pondering our decision to live with and care for a frail parent. 

As Hughes might recommend, I made a more considered choice than that first time, when I was young myself and my then partner had a severe, disabling stroke. 

I have been here before. 

I am not starry-eyed about what it means to support someone 24/7. 

When such things happen the first time, you think that if you only try hard enough, you can shepherd life back to “normality”.

Acceptance that there is no such thing as normal only comes with experience: overnight, life can and does change. In an instant, the old normal can die away and how well you adapt determines the quality of your relationships, your own physical and mental wellbeing, and achievement of the balm of acceptance that brings peace.

It is now 22 years since my partner’s stroke … a dozen years since his death … and in the intervening years there have been other caring needs for loved ones, but not 24/7 again until now. 

It has been 10 days since the big move. The routines and feelings are so familiar and, to my now middle aged self, claustrophobic. 

Can we sustain this indefinitely? Do we want to? 

There are no right or clear answers, a truth I railed against that first time, but now accept. 

Readers may enjoy Carol Bere’s reflections about Birthday Letters; I did

Laurie is the chief executive of Carers NZ and publisher of Family Care magazine.