When He's Down and Out

Last summer my hardworking farmer-husband, Jim, attempted to lift a 150-pound goat cage by himself. This action completely severed his left bicep tendon.

After Jim?s three-hour surgery, I drove him home. His arm was in a sling and his head in a happy place, compliments of some heavy-duty pain meds.

Yet at home, when Jim couldn?t even open his left hand, I knew that we were in trouble. He couldn?t shower, drive, dress, cut food on his plate, or tie his shoelaces. I took to sleeping on the couch at the foot of his recliner.

Literally overnight I had become a caregiver. And I had no idea if this situation would be temporary or permanent.

Perhaps you?ve had a similar experience. In a heartbeat, a loved one?s injury, accident, or disease diagnosis changed your family?s dynamics and relationship roles.

Battle fatigue

Becoming an unexpected caregiver often impacts three vital areas of our lives: the physical, the emotional, and the spiritual.

?Being a typical male? (as my mother used to say about my father), my husband immediately wanted to get back ?to work? (contrary to the doctor?s orders).

Two days after his surgery, he asked me to ?check the garden.? Now, what he calls a garden, I call a field?because we?re talking about 104 tomato plants down there, plus 11 other kinds of vegetables (lots of them!). After God, family, and country, ?the garden? is my husband?s life! So I knew that what he really wanted was for me to not so much ?check? the garden but harvest the garden. I mounted the ATV and pulled the empty bucket-loaded trailer down the hill to Jim?s garden.

I was a poor match for the mid-July humidity, mosquitoes, and Japanese beetles. My dull pocketknife slowed the ?harvest? process as I laboriously filled baskets and buckets with cabbage heads, okra, tomatoes, pole beans, collard greens, and organic corn (each ear containing an organic worm).

Looking up, midgarden, I was shocked to see that nocturnal marauding raccoons had all but leveled the last two rows of corn. Later, back up at the house, I unwisely mentioned the raccoon invasion. Big mistake! With arms and legs flailing, Jim staggered to his feet and precariously balanced over his temporary walking cane.

?What are you doing?? I asked in alarm.

?I?m goin? to the garden!? he roared (as best as he could roar in his weakened state). ?Those coons are ruinin? my corn!?

A few minutes later, despite my fatigue, I was running down the hill after the ATV, which Jim had insisted on mounting and driving?with his good hand, of course. Fortunately for the raccoons, they hadn?t scheduled a high-noon garden raid that day.

Jim?s corn wasn?t all that was losing a battle with wildlife. While tending the chickens one afternoon, I turned my head just in time to see a shiny red fox carting off a fat hen. (So that?s why we?d been losing a chicken every day that week!) I was too exhausted to do anything but yell at the wily predator?and hurt for the hapless hen.

At that instant I experienced a feeling common to most caregivers at one point or another?helplessness! I dragged back up to the house to pay bills, field phone calls, fix supper, fold the laundry, and change the dressing on Jim?s surgery sites. That night I dropped my head onto the pillow at the end of the couch and thought, I?m losing this battle. I?m not in control of anything anymore. And I?m just so tired.

Am I going crazy?

Not only do caregivers experience taxing physical demands; they also feel emotional balance draining away.

A significant contributing factor is simply the day-to-day (sometimes hour-to-hour) uncertainty of the given situation. Due to Jim?s pain meds altering his reasoning abilities, I had to watch him like a hawk. Even that type of vigilance wasn?t completely adequate, as evidenced by his ill-advised, rifle-totin? ATV ride down to the garden.

Another reason I didn?t want Jim ?bearing arms? was because of (how can I put this delicately?) his postsurgical mental acuity issues.

For example, while reading to him during family worship one evening, I commented on a paragraph in the book. ?What a reassuring thought!? I mused. ?Don?t you agree, honey??

Jim shifted the ice pack on his arm so he could turn and look directly at me. Narrowing his eyes, he said, ?Well, Larry . . .?

Larry? I asked myself. Who?s Larry?

Jim continued, shaking his head. ?I can?t help you on this one, son. Concerning this matter, you?re on your own!?

Yikes! Perhaps I really was on my own!

Keeping track of him was often like herding a cat. When I?d slip into another room to fold laundry or return a phone call, I?d come back to the living room to find his recliner empty. I?d start the frantic search.

One morning I located him up in his office shredding the Sears warranty for our new treadmill. Late one afternoon I found him rifle-sitting down at the chicken pen, waiting for Mr. Fox to step out of the woods.

Don?t get me wrong: I was most grateful that Jim had survived his surgery. However, as my increasingly frayed emotions churned inside me like so much fruit in a blender, I began to wonder if I?d be able to survive his surgery!

Spiritual void

Jim?s being out of commission at almost every level impacted my spiritual life, as well. Our home suddenly had a spiritual leadership void. Under normal circumstances, I fully respect (and lean on) Jim?s biblical role as spiritual leader of our family. During this caregiving time, however, without Jim?s being able to read?or even reason, at times?I felt the full burden of both my spiritual welfare and his.

God impressed me to read one or two healing stories from the Bible to Jim every day and to pray over him. I was used to the reverse, however. The new spiritual demands of caregiving made me appreciate?and miss even more?Jim?s faithful spiritual leadership in the home.

The ultimate resource

So how did I cope with everything following Jim?s surgery? I?ll tell you the simple truth: I didn?t!
One evening a few days after Jim?s surgery, his forehead grew hot. He complained of chills. I piled lap throws atop the ice bags packed about his affected arm. A quick thermometer check revealed that he was running a low-grade fever. Though my voice stayed calm, I sensed an inner panic rising.

After Jim fell asleep, I slipped out onto the back porch and leaned against the handrail. Looking up into the starry heavens, I began to recite Psalm 19 as a prayer. That?s the psalm that celebrates the power of God?s Word in the context of creation. It ends with this supplication: ?Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer? (verse 14, KJV).
On the last verse of this poetic psalm, my voice broke. Very unpoetically, and with only the katydids to hear, I cried out, ?God, I know that You made all that beauty up there. But down here, tonight, I?m absolutely wasted! Help Jim. Help me.?

Tears flowed as I waited that warm muggy evening for an assurance of His presence. Eventually He gave it?in the context of the psalm I?d just ?prayed.? He reminded me that He could sustain me with the same power with which He had created ?the heavens? and ?the firmament.? He was just waiting for me to ask in a pointed manner.

That same psalm also reminded me that God has given me the power to choose how I will respond to life?s adversities. If I respond as His Word tells me to, these setbacks will only prepare me to cope better . . . tomorrow. Yet even beyond tomorrow is the place God has prepared for all of us. A place with no arm injuries, coon-ravaged cornfields, or ?battle? fatigue (see Revelation 21:3-5).

The following morning Jim?s fever was completely gone. In fact, he felt so good that he decided to stop taking pain medication. Within hours I had my clear-thinking, thoughtful, logical husband back again. As I write this, he?s down in the ?holler? chainsawing?with both hands and arms!

I?ve learned that whenever we find ourselves in the role of caregiving, the only way we can possibly cope is to trust in the power of the One who has promised to care for . . . the caregivers (1 Peter 5:6, 7).

Carolyn Sutton lives with her husband, Jim, in Dayton, Tennessee. She is a retired educator (25 years) and Guide editor, author (a half dozen books and scores of articles), poet, speaker, television cohost, former missionary, banjo player, and herb grower.

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