It happened about 6:00 in the morning on August 2, 1992: my grandmother died.
I remember her hands most of all. I had spent so much time growing up looking at those hands. Holding those hands, massaging them with lotion. The thick knuckles, and the rings that could no longer be removed because the knuckles had gotten so big. Hands that had spent years scrubbing and cleaning, washing, and ironing, kneading and mending. Hands that were calloused – chafed and dry from being in and out of the water. Nails that were shorter than they should have been. She had tried glue-on nails a few times, but they always surrendered to the work, and eventually she just gave up on them. Hands that crocheted, hands that comforted, and hands that used to pat me gently on the back when we hugged. My Grandmother’s hands.
They were once strong hands – hands of substance and character. But so different now. Now they were frail – fragile even - but she didn’t care anymore. It just wasn’t important to her anymore. But it mattered to me. I thought that if I could just massage those hands with lotion that would be enough – somehow that would be enough to stop what was happening – to arrest her disease – to keep her here and with me. And then I wouldn’t have to say goodbye.
I had asked her during one of her moments of consciousness if she knew what was happening, and she nodded yes. Then I asked her if she was afraid. And she shook her head “no.” That was the last time we ever communicated.
So I sang for her. She used to ask me to sing for her so I quietly sang her favorite song, the Tennessee Waltz, while I massaged her hands. I don’t know how I was able to sing – there was so much emotion welling up within me – and yet, the song came soft and sweet, gentle and assured. She didn’t respond, but I knew that she heard me.
Empty with exhaustion from four months of keeping vigil, I mindlessly left her bedside and let someone else take over for a while. I shuffled to the front porch where I collapsed on a bed of blankets I had made on the floor. They woke me just in time. Surrounded by her family, in the comfort of a makeshift hospital bed set up in her dining room, my grandmother breathed her last as I stood there, massaging her feet as she slipped through the veil. Those hands that had been caregivers for so long, lay still at last.
Like my grandmother, I have always been a caregiver. As a child, in college, and even as an attorney. It is part of my DNA, part of what makes me, me. I care about what others are going through and I do my best to listen and to help.
But the thing that most people never understand about caregivers is the incredible toll it takes on you. Being a caregiver is extremely costly, but we hide it well. That’s not to say that you ever resent or regret being a caregiver, because that is simply how God has fashioned you. But to be a caregiver is to gift a part of yourself away every single day. To feed the feeble who can’t raise a spoon to their mouths, to breathe with them to encourage them to breathe, to hold the hands of the dying, to weep with those who weep and comfort those who mourn, all the while doing your best to be a calm, steady presence, a life raft that they can hold on to in a tempestuous sea of uncertainty.
I’ve been thinking a lot about caregivers lately. And on this Labor Day weekend, when we celebrate the achievements of our working men and women, there are two groups that I think deserve recognition more than any other this year: our caregivers and healthcare workers.
Our caregivers and healthcare workers have been through absolute hell for the last year-and-a-half. The first wave of Covid hit. Then the second wave. Now the third wave. We have gone from a pandemic that largely affected the elderly and those in care homes to a pandemic largely of the unvaccinated of all ages, often with more severe symptoms and worse outcomes.
Day after day our caregivers and healthcare workers have been on the front lines fighting this battle, caring for the sick and dying in staggering numbers, gifting parts of themselves every single day. We have all seen the newscasts and read the stories about our healthcare workers who are struggling just to get up in the morning, facing yet another day of death and despair: an unending, relentless parade of grief, making them feel inadequate and convincing them that they are failing miserably.
I have heard some try to comfort them by repeating the platitude many of us have been raised with: “God never gives you more than you can carry.”
But speaking as a caregiver and a priest, I am here today to tell you that, not only is this bad theology, this is absolute and utter rubbish as any caregiver can tell you.
First of all, God did not send this pandemic upon the world to test the world or punish the world. Second, God is not sending our caregivers and healthcare workers an endless stream of the sick and dying to test them or punish them. That is not what a loving God does and our God is a loving God.
Caregivers and healthcare workers are human, not divine. Only Christ, through his divinity and humanity, was able to bear the weight of the whole world on his shoulders and carry it to the cross: that was his calling and his alone. Being human, we are not only creatures of creation, we are subject to the limits of creation. God has fashioned the heart of each caregiver and healthcare worker and, like all things in creation, each heart has limits.
Think of it this way, each of our healthcare workers is like a life raft. Life rafts are designed to support and uphold people and help them navigate to safety as a last resort in the midst of tragedy. But each life raft has an occupancy limit and can only operate safely and effectively within those limits. When it stays within those limits, the life raft can keep itself and others above the water’s edge, carrying its cargo to safety. When it is overloaded, it can sometimes stay afloat for a short time, but eventually it will go down with its passengers, no longer able to save them or itself.
Our healthcare workers aren’t failing: they are life rafts that have been asked to carry far too many and far too much for far too long. They are exhausted, they are overburdened, and they are being swamped.
So where is the good news in all of this? Where is the hope and promise in the midst of all this darkness?
Jesus knows what is feels like to carry the weight of the world. He knows what it feels like to carry a burden so heavy that you feel that you are being crushed. He knows what it feels like to be afraid and to despair, to pray with everything you have that the cup would pass from you, that you wouldn’t have to do what you are called to do, that you wouldn’t have to stare death in the face, but to choose to take up the cross nevertheless. Jesus knows better than anyone because Jesus has been there.
My brothers and sisters, we must reorient ourselves away from the bad theology of believing that “God never gives you more than you can carry,” to the hope and the truth of the Gospel: “There is nothing that you and God can’t carry together.”
God does not send these things upon us to test us, but God can help us carry them when the burden becomes too heavy to bear. In those moments of despair, God can speak gently to us to lay our burdens down for a time, to rest and refresh, so that we can once again take them up with renewed vigor. And when we try to do it all ourselves and our human strength fails, and it always will, Jesus will be there to catch us.
No one does a better job of revealing this theological truth than J.R.R. Tolkien. In The Return of the King, the final book of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Frodo Baggins is secretly carrying the Ring of Power, as he has been all the way across Middle Earth, to Mount Doom in Mordor where it was fashioned in an effort to destroy evil once and for all. With every step, the Ring grows heavier and heavier, the chain holding the Ring cutting into Frodo’s neck. By the time Frodo reaches the base of Mount Doom, he is utterly and completely spent. His human strength fails him as he falls to the dusty ground in agony and regret: he can go no further and despairs over the probability that he will fail in his quest. For if he fails, evil will win, the world of men will fall, and millions will die or be enslaved. Yet, he bears the Ring still, for only he can carry it.
In the moment of his greatest despair, his loyal companion, Samwise Gamgee, who has been at his side for the whole journey, sees the pitiful state Frodo is in and how the Ring has taken everything Frodo had to give and now threatens to take Frodo himself. Sam asks Frodo if he remembers the Shire, their beloved home. Frodo responds, “No, Sam. I can't recall the taste of food, nor the sound of water, nor the touch of grass. Instead, I'm... naked in the dark. There's nothing. No veil between me and the wheel of fire! I can see him... with my waking eyes!”
Sam, realizing that Frodo has given everything that he has to the quest, responds, “Then let us be rid of it! Once and for all! Come on, Mr. Frodo. I can't carry it for you... but I can carry you! Come on!” Sam lifts Frodo onto his back, carrying him up the mountain to make the final ascent.
My brothers and sisters, on this Labor Day weekend, let us lift up our healthcare workers and caregivers in prayer and be their companions in the fight. Let us ask God to strengthen and refresh them. Let us ask God to support them, uphold them, catch them when they fall, and carry them when they are utterly spent. Let us do all in our power to persuade our friends, families, and colleagues to do their part by getting vaccinated and taking mitigation efforts to give our healthcare workers and caregivers a fighting chance in the daily battle they willingly embrace: they cross they have chosen to carry.
After all, in the midst of this tempestuous and unpredictable sea, we may one day need a seat on the life raft ourselves.