Thursday, March 26, 2009

Labor of Love: A Caregiver's Reward

One of the most kind, gentle and loving men I have ever known was my dear father-in-law, Edward Jagoda. From the first time I met him, until he passed away some nine years ago, Eddie was a man I held in very high esteem, not because he did extraordinary things, but rather because he did the ordinary things in extraordinary fashion.

What made Eddie so special as a man were characteristics which often eluded many other so-called men. He was sweet, gentle, amiable, soft-hearted, and above all had a supremely understanding nature. During the worst of my personal crisis of mental health, Eddie never once stopped believing in me. Not only did he have faith in me, but he also had faith in his daughter's decision to choose me as her companion for life. Through several hospitalizations and a long recovery road, he displayed a kind of loyalty to me I had never known, and amazingly he did so with few words. It was his calm and reassuring demeanor that was so important in my struggle to relearn trust.

A photographer by trade, Eddie captured many memorable moments while in the Navy during WWII in the Pacific theater. Later he applied and perfected his skills in a long career at Pratt & Whitney Aircraft. He kept busy after retiring with a small business of his own in video production and, his first love, still photography.

Fate was beginning to catch up with my father-in-law just as I was seeing some real progress in my recovery. As it turned out, for the both of us, the timing couldn't have been better. I was at a point where relieving some of the self-absorption that often accompanies mental illness needed to be addressed, and, as fate would have it, Eddie's deteriorating health needed something - or someone - to help mitigate his hardship.

The illness that was taking hold of Eddie was not so gentle as he. As liver cancer usually does, it invaded with a virulent aggression. It was Eddie's wish that he die amid the company of his family at home, and because he had already been living with us for several years, he was right where he belonged. The Visiting Nurse Association arranged for home hospice care and, by virtue of my mere availability, the consensus was that I would be Eddie's main caregiver whenever the nurses were away which, much to my challenge, was quite often.

Very soon it was my charge to feed, clothe, bathe, cleanse and otherwise tend to Eddie as he began his voyage home. I never considered these chores as being undignified in any way. On the contrary, before long it was clear to me this task of intimate care was both my gift to Eddie as well as my duty to my fellow man. The struggle was mighty, and the tasks were demanding, right up until it was plain his hours were numbered. At a propitious moment, I was compelled to gaze upon him and utter my profound thanks for all he had done for me. With a firm clasp of his hand and a gentle kiss upon his forehead, I conveyed my subtle remorse for doing 'only' what I had done for him in his last days and not more. The symbiosis of the moment was not lost on me. Eddie and I parted knowing we had given the very best of ourselves to each other.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think my labor of love would be so thoroughly rewarded. I miss you and think of you often, Pop. Thank you for showing me what it really means to be a man.

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