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Care-giving and Healing: Lessons from Mr. Gardner

Mary looked at me with her round, hollow eyes. I wondered how an adult woman could weigh ninety pounds and quickly learned that her cropped, thin hair and half-full glass of Ensure next to her meant that she had been to battle. Mary was an avid rose gardener and lover of her four children and grandchildren. Her husband, Larry, was a WWII Veteran who had been to Okinawa and spent his life as a salesman.

Larry and Mary’s house smelled like flower petals and sailboats and I loved every detail of it: the workshop in the garage, the small desk in the basement with stacked bills and stock market balances, the “green” and “blue” rooms that were decorated with painted antiques and floral wallpaper, the wrap-around wooden deck that nestled into the side of a sand dune, the overlook at the end of the street that opened into a beautiful view of the lake with white sand beach scattered with a rainbow of umbrellas and sun hats and a majestic red lighthouse to the North.

They were not sure they needed the help—they’ve managed fine for all these years—but they agreed to interview me. To put me to the test, Mary had me make a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup from a can for Larry. I did this well, to her relief. I could tell by the way Larry’s hair was disheveled, his polo half-tucked, khakis needing a good wash, that the strain of caregiving was weighing on him.

They called later that evening after the quiet soup dinner and asked if I’d join them for ten bucks an hour. Would I make a simple dinner from time to time? Tidy up?

Larry loved to tell stories about his life before the war when they went sailing during the day and drinking and dancing at night on the streets of Milwaukee. He talked about his Irish Catholic upbringing and the way faith always felt heavy for him like an old suitcase. He was riddled with guilt (his description) and never felt quite comfortable in a church pew. As he got older it was harder and harder to kneel (his excuse for not going to church regularly). Mary was quieter, more introspective. She had an air about her that was almost other-worldly, like she had one foot in and one foot out of this one.

Learning about Recovery by Care-giving

Several weeks went by. I continued to fix dinners, though Mary was not eating much of anything by then except sipping a protein shake. I’d do odds and ends like replace the batteries in the remote control or accompany Larry to the grocery store.

It didn't take me too long to recognize that the more I showed up for someone else, the more my own past and traumas and addiction stayed away. It was as if I was given a precious gift in care-giving and what I would later learn is a central component to recovery: giving back.

The torn, dirty places inside of me, the flashbacks and intrusive thoughts, the thief taking away my everyday joys and hopes and longings—my old life was fading like a ring of smoke. Mary and Larry held a new place in my heart. The sound of the other voices were slowing disappearing.

One month after I met the Gardner’s, Larry called me crying before the morning light had even stretched across the sky over the bayou where I lived. In the middle of the night, he found her.

No words do honor to that kind of grief. To lose a spouse of over sixty years, the love of his life—the sorrow was an earthquake.

Dinners and tidying up soon turned into daily drives and getting groceries, to going to doctor’s appointments and holidays, even Catholic Mass. I was with him nearly every day for hours, even on holidays. Larry and I had countless trips driving across the countryside in his beaming white Nissan, exploring every nook that he knew from years past and telling stories over and over again from the good old days. Sometimes I wondered if all of his stories were true—but most days I just listened and delighted in his tender blue eyes, in the endless games of euchre and the Big Band music that floated through his sitting room overlooking giant oaks and beach homes that shifted with the gales. I became a part of his family and treasured every moment because I knew from past experience how fleeting it could be.

Relationships Can Heal

One weekend, Larry’s family was in town visiting. That afternoon, the stories were vibrant and the laughter matched the strength of the breeze. I felt good when I was complemented on keeping up the flowers like Mary used to do even though I knew that the rose beds and the rest of her green-thumbed handiwork looked nothing near what it did when her vitality was just as green. I felt comfortable.

This was such a new feeling for me: to feel comfortable in my own skin and not need anything to dull the senses or make the moments fuzzy when I was around other people. I still preferred listening to stories to telling my own; but I felt love.

I felt loved.

Not fear.

Through these living stained-glass windows of love, it was as if Jesus was wrapping up my wounds one-by-one with the most tender care.

A couple times Larry invited me to join him on an old sailboat called the Wind Dancer with neighbors or friends. There is something about Lake Michigan at dusk—the way the world turns lavender and mist from the water envelops everything in its sweetness, its luminescence. Even the sand, too, becomes pastel and fades into the skyline and gently lapping water. I watched the beach and beachfront homes and boardwalk and red, towering lighthouse get smaller and smaller as we drifted further out into the vastness.

I loved to watch Larry’s eyes as he experienced things not for the first time like me, but for the hundredth, maybe thousandth time and still his lake-colored eyes welled with tears and his rosy cheeks got rosier. I often wondered if he had any regrets or if he was glad he had lived so long on the earth, outliving most of his relatives and friends. Weathering so much loss and grief through the war and then the other wars and then his parents and then wife and then granddaughter. I wondered if the reason he always teared up was because he was taking in the sights those evenings on the lake as if every time it was not his first, but might be his last.

There were so many little moments that I will always cherish. Like treasures found buried deep in sand. Masterpieces. When I think of him now, I picture a photograph: me with a short blonde bob, young eyes, that blue t-shirt I was so fond of wearing and a silver cross; him smiling ear to ear, wearing his black Marine Corps baseball cap.

Larry had questions about God that we discussed in more detail as the years floated by. He had his doubts. And so did I.

Larry was a devout Catholic and enjoyed joking with the oddly approachable priest when he decided to go to mass. He even attended the church I went to several times so he could “shake it up.” Larry was definitely a believer, and an honest one. He was someone who was authentic about his doubts and wanted to wrestle with and talk about them with other people.

Larry also often asked me hard questions on our long country drives, questions that I could not answer. All I could do was quote the scripture I was starting to learn more about as my Bible collected less dust.

“Why did he let his own son die?”

So that we can have eternal life, see John 3:16.

“Why is there suffering in the world?”

The whole earth groans…, see Romans 8:22-24.

“Why does God let us get so old and see so much death?”

Persevere…for there is an eternal glory coming, see 2 Corinthians 4:16-18.

We wrestled together.

A part of me had to laugh when he asked me these questions. Why was he asking me? Why did he think I had anything at all to say about God and faith? Didn’t he know I was snorting cocaine between classes in a bathroom stall at fifteen. Hanging out with dealers in low-light parking lots, hoping the cops wouldn’t show up as the other car pulled away slowly with its lights off. Stumbling from the bar and getting behind the wheel and never getting caught. Didn’t Larry know what a troubled teen I’d been and what a lost twenty-something—like my life was one of those after school specials they made us watch in elementary school in the 80s that did absolutely no good (at least for me). Could he really see beyond the little silver cross I wore to the gritty, real-life reason(s) I wore it?

Meeting an Unlikely Teacher

I wasn’t the only person who lived through trauma, used substances to cope with the aftermath and questioned a god that would standby as the shrapnel fell. Larry, in his own quiet way, helped me to see that I was not alone in my experience. God was there with me through it all—and there were people who knew what I had lived through, too, even if the intonations of the details had a different sound.

Larry didn’t know all of my story and never asked for the details. He knew I didn’t drink, but what I had been through didn’t matter in the sense that it did not change who I was in his eyes. My past didn’t have to define me anymore. I was living a new chapter. And together in our brokenness, we could be real with one another. We could be vulnerable. We could let each other in to the places that used to carry such shame, cloaked in silence. We could shoulder each other’s sufferings and laugh together, hoisting our sails and looking towards the horizon.

Larry showed me what recovery was all about.

Our journey wasn’t always picture perfect. Larry started to develop dementia. I was there when his fifteen-year-old granddaughter died suddenly only months after his wife. I was there with his family to have to take away the keys to his car after he got lost again and didn’t show up until hours later from who knows where. I was there when he lost his home and had to move to an assisted living community because his health was teetering on the brink and being home wasn’t safe anymore. There were more tears than laughter in that home and yet, those were some of the happiest days of my life.

What did a ninety-two-year-old man have to do with a twenty-something’s recovery?

Everything, I’d argue.

God knew what I needed exactly when I needed it and lifted up for me an opportune moment where I could lose myself in someone else’s story. I could lose my life in order to find it.

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