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The Silent Cry of the Caregiver

Tending to his dying wife, he did what guys do: He hunkered down and tried to fix it

It's the one vow that can really come back and bite you in the butt: "… in sickness and in health." On your wedding day the phrase conjures up visions of tiptoeing into a sun-drenched bedroom with lunch on a tray; of dropping cough medicine onto a tablespoon and gently bringing it to your spouse's smiling lips.

See also: AARP's Caregiving Resource Center

What you don't expect it to mean is crouching in the harsh fluorescent glare of a hospital treatment room and holding her head to yours, trying not to faint as a technician inserts a large needle between her ribs to suction two liters of fluid from around her lungs. What you never imagine is spending endless hours in countless waiting rooms, or having friends and relatives second-guess your medical decisions, or hearing your bosses and coworkers hint, suggest or just flat-out say that you're not carrying your weight around the office.

No, you don't expect "in sickness and in health" to mean any of that. But it does. And more people are learning that every day.

Across America, 43.5 million people — nearly one in five adults — are caring for a loved one 50 or older. Most are tending to parents, but the older we get, the more likely we are to be caring for a spouse.

One hot August afternoon in 2006, I joined that group.

Cindy, we discovered, had clear-cell ovarian cancer. Chemotherapy worked for a while, but less than six months later, the cancer was back, and one Friday evening, after office hours (trust me, you never want your oncologist to ask you to come in after everyone else has gone home on a Friday), we heard the verdict: There was no "cure scenario." Cindy was 52.

This is where we cut to a montage of the three years that followed: how I sat by Cindy's side through virtually all of her chemotherapies; how I kept track of the dozen or so drugs she was taking each day, especially her painkillers, to make sure she didn't overdose; how I had to wake up and rub her spine several times each night after her back pain became torturous; how I took the subway home for lunch every day after she became too weak to get down to the kitchen; how I prayed with her, encouraged her and held her.

On the other hand, well, who cares? I find such litanies of caregiving duties and rituals at best distasteful; at worst, self-congratulatory. Certainly, when I was in the midst of it all, the last thing I wanted was to sit down and share the intimacies of my life with anyone. Living it all was exhausting enough.

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