Category Archives: caregiving

The thing about fathers is they’re not perfect. But forgiveness is the light that shines through.

In the early 2000s my father Stewart Cudworth experienced a set of severe health challenges. The first required open heart surgery that took more than five hours. I still recall the calm with which he faced his surgery. He held my mother’s hand as he waited to be wheeled off for the procedure, a quintuple bypass to deal with heart disease.

That surgery was successful. Another challenge awaited. He developed atrial fibrillation in the following years that led to a debilitating stroke. He lost use of his right arm and leg. He also lost the ability to speak, but not the ability to understand language and all that was going on around him.

I recall the day that my mother called from Upstate New York to inform me that dad was incapacitated. When I hung up the phone, I turned and said to my wife, “Well, my life just changed.”

It was true. From that point forward I became a caregiver to both my mother and father. Then my mother passed away in 2005 from a combination of cancer and stroke and it was my job to be the direct caregiver for my father.

The Comeback

That came with all sorts of challenges. My father had recovered from his stroke enough to gain his full personality back. That was troublesome because he can be a demanding guy. Without the ability to speak his frustrations sometimes boiled over into anger and even physical actions that were not conducive to solving his problems.

It forced all our years of association through the keyhole of having to learn how to communicate on a new and different plane. There were days when it was best for me to simply depart the room or even the entire house during visits to his home. We both needed time to chill out. Get away from the issue at hand and process the anger.

Because I had anger toward him that was unresolved. Some of those ancient conflicts from youth were never discussed before his stroke took away the ability to deal with them in full light. That brought irrational emotions to the surface in me.

All this was compounded by the fact that I was also dealing with the fact that my late wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2005, the same year my mother died. Managing her needs and those of my father, especially when time and patience were often worn thin, proved a real test of character.

Sometimes I’d just pray about it all and figure out what best to do. Figuring out how to handle the sometimes quirky needs of the live-in caregivers hired to stay with my father.

Haunted memories

But mostly there was one incident from my early youth that kept coming back to haunt me. My father was a forceful man prone to physical discipline of his four sons. At the age of six he tore into my two brothers for some transgression and it hurt me from the inside out. There were many other unreconciled emotions from those days as well. At the age of 27 I woke up pounding the pillow one night not knowing why I was so angry. That’s when I realized there was work to be done.

And through the years that work got done. And when it mattered most with my father I was able to forgive any and all anger that existed in our lives. He made it tough at times. But the thing that kept me going was his deeper nature. He is an enormously sensitive man, keen on relationships and wanting the best for others. For all the tension of youth there was also tenderness, loving guidance and care. When some sports injury came along his calm, intelligent voice walked me through it. He also helped me sell my artwork. Encouraged me to pay attention to my craft.

Know thyself

He knew my internal struggles better than I thought at times. That is something most fathers struggle with in their lives. How to tell their sons and daughters that they really do understand. That no one is perfect. Least of all ourselves. What we want to say at times is that we love our children more than we can express. And please forgive us if we do not always say or do the right things.

That is how I began to look at my father. Through a macro rather than a micro lens. The small, painful hurts began to dissipate. They were replaced by a sense of love rather than a sense of obligation. We began to have our laughs and through practice and concentration I learned to ask questions to help him express his concerns and interests even through the apraxia and aphasia that stole his speech.

Symbols

In many ways those conditions became a symbol for our communications over the years. It was strange one day to turn on a videotape made by my father before his stroke and hear him speaking so lucidly. It then struck me that so much personal history of his would be lost forever.

I know the basics. How he and my mother lived 200 yards apart on Upstate New York farms. How his mother died from complications of breast cancer when my father was only seven years old. He and his three sisters went to live with aunts and uncles when their father experienced mental illness due to the loss of his wife, a farm and another business during the Great Depression.

My father went off to war with the Navy late in World War II and did not see action. But he has photographs of his tour of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The boat on which his crew crossed the Pacific ocean was so bad and beat up the Navy scuttled it when they reached Japan. Somewhere on the bottom of the ocean lies a hulk of metal that my father once described as the smelliest tub you could ride upon.

He married my mother right out of the Navy and had four sons and a daughter lost at birth in a span of twelve years. He used his electrical engineering degree from Cornell University to work in the fields of television and later fiber optic cable.

The rest is our family’s history of sports and art and literature and music.

Happy Birthday Dad

And suddenly he’s 89 years old. He grieved with quiet tears for my mother when she died almost ten years ago. People can’t believe he’s done so well or lived so long. It surprises me too. The man I saw one month after his stroke barely looked like he’s live a week.

Tonight we’re going out for dinner to celebrate his birthday. We have many more things in common than we once did because forgiveness has opened those doors. In some ways I have to lead that conversation because he can’t talk. But we know it’s there. The thing about fathers is they’re not perfect. But forgiveness is.

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride available on Amazon.com. 

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What a plastic bag of Cheerios says about the right kind of parenthood

The praise service at our church is something of a refuge for parents of young children who want to attend services. With its open format of chairs arranged in semi-circles and a liturgy formed around singing every few minutes, young parents have flexibility to keep their toddlers busy while still paying attention to the message.

One mother had the requisite bag of Cheerios in a plastic bag. That gave her youngest child something to preoccupy his time. The other son was handily wrapped in his father’s arms. Those two played staring and face games for most of the service.

The Cheerio Sneeze incident

It all brought back memories of tending my own children in church when they were very young. Of course one legendary incident with a plastic bag of Cheerios stands out. My son was perhaps two when the great Cheerio Sneeze occurred. It was the late 1980s and women were sporting particularly fluffy hairstyles. One young gal sitting three rows up had no idea that after my son sneezed while eating Cheerios the sticky residue had flown forth and stuck in her coiffed hair. That is, until she reached back to feel the constellation of Cheerios goo stuck to her blow-dried locks.

It had been funny enough those first few minutes after the sneeze. The guy sitting next to me in church was suffering through a laughing fit so profound his wife was literally hammering him in the side with her elbow to get him to stop. My wife glanced over at me with that “don’t you dare laugh” look wives reserve for their husbands in such situations. But I had already lost it. My son was covered in Cheerio backdraft somehow and the sight of that stuff at close hand when I knew it was also stuck in a woman’s hair three rows up was too much to handle. I was gut laughing and there was nothing to do about it.

Unpredictable messes

Such is the life of young parents. You pretty much have to roll with the problems you face. Kids are unpredictable little mess machines. Every young mom I’ve ever known carries with her The Purse that contains solutions to all such emergencies. In it are diapers and sippy cups and medicine and who knows what else. The Purse could likely be used to get wounded men through an emergency in war, if need be.

It takes both practicality and humility to be a young parent. When your child erupts in mournful crying during church or at some other social event you know the drill; take quick action and hope it works. There is rocking and soothing and if all that doesn’t work (along with the offer of a bag of Cheerios) there is always the patented move known as the Quick Exit. Off you go into the netherlands of some bland hallway where no human being should ever be confined. Your child’s sad face either convulses further or turns to laughter. There is no predicting the outcome.

Unzipped and dealing with it

It really doesn’t get much better as you age. Your child grows a mind of their own and they make mistakes about which you can only shake your head and ask, “What did I do wrong? And then you think back to something like the Cheerios Sneeze incident and realize that you did nothing wrong really. Life is random and stuff like this happens.

I think also of the day my son and I sat next to each other in church while a young mother a few rows up and across the aisle struggled with her rambunctious son. He kept crawling under the pews and every time she bent dow to catch him the zipper on the back of her dress dropped a few more zips. Apparently she’d forgotten to get the clasp that held the back together and everyone in church could see where this was headed. It all happened fast and when she stood up to carry the child out of church her entire dress dropped to the floor. In church. My 5-year-old son gasped and my wife muttered a low “Ohh nooo” as the woman scrambled to pull the dress back up over her bra and panties.

Yes, it was humiliating. But there was not a person in the church community that day who laughed. We’ve all been there in one way or another. We all felt bad for the young mom losing her dress because those of us that had experienced parenthood were laid bare in a thousand other ways over the years.

Brave humility

Besides, it did not matter. What mattered was that her friend quickly leapt to her aid and all was rectified right there on the spot. To her credit, she hung right in there and stuck it out through church.What we also witnessed was the benefit of caregiving. Stepping in when needed. Saving face for someone else. That takes character on both ends. Sometimes humility is the bravest thing you can wield in this world. That young mother wielded it like a hero that morning.

When you are older and sit behind a couple with young children at church there are moments when you want to lean forward and share all that you know about how it works. That embarrassing moments will not kill you. That being a parent is both a humbling and emboldening endeavor.

The best thing you can do sometimes is simply look the other way so that mom or dad can do their business and navigate through any situations that can crop up. Then shake their hand during the Sharing of Peace and make sure you don’t put it near your mouth until after service when you can go wash your hands and get rid of any potential Kid Germs from colds or flu. That’s how it works in this world. The right kind of parenthood never really stops, and if you’ve learned anything from the experience at all, you’ll know that staying well is the first line of priority. Because it’s your job to care. For the kids. And for yourself.

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride about facing life’s challenges. It is available on Amazon.com. 

Tackling the Christmas Closet

By Christopher Cudworth

Christmas Closet
Sorting through Christmas decorations can be a soul-searching enterprise. And that’s good.

A few weeks before she passed away from ovarian cancer, my late wife pulled me aside and said, “Chris, I’m sorry about the junk.” She was referring to the many things a couple collects in 27 years of marriage. Over the last year it has been an interesting and sometimes emotionally challenging process to make decisions about what or what not to keep. Some of it was hers, and hers alone. Much of her clothing went to friends and charity. Her jewelry went to friends with the exception of a few meaningful keepsakes saved in her favorite jewelry boxes. Room by room it has been a tour through our lives together.

But the Christmas Closet is the biggest challenge of all. Jammed tight with strings of lights and glittering ornaments, thick in boxes and wedged with holiday paper stock and more lights, that closet has been on my mind for nearly two years.

This morning seemed like the right time to pull everything out and take stock. I found a few surprises such as a box labeled “Christmas Lights 2015 Good” that would have saved a few dollars on lights for the tree this year. It seems that like most families, Christmas memories are something we treasure but also soon forget.

And one must be forgiven for that. The holidays as a whole tend to be much like the Christmas Closet at our house. A jumble of lights and half-wrapped presents and suddenly it’s over. Then we stash it all away for another year.

Only when you never attempt to clean out the Christmas Closet it becomes layer upon layer of half-utilized sentiment. And think about it: keeping a year-round closet chock full of Christmas decorations is a bit warped.

Out of Season

It’s tough to wrest ourselves free some such sentiment. In July when we’re yanking regular old wrapping paper out of the Christmas Closet to give gifts to our friends or relatives, all that Christmas stuff looks absurd. But once Halloween has turned over the mind turns to winter and Christmas lurks. First the colors brown and orange emerge for Thanksgiving. There’s plenty of that stuff in our Christmas Closet too. It tends to intermingle with the red and green of winter decorations. That’s what makes it so tough at times to decorate. It seems like the entire holiday season extends from October 15 through January 15th.

So I’ll be bold. Come out and say it. At some point, we have to clean out our Christmas Closets for our own sanity.

That means right now there is a living room full of boxes and…and strings of lights, and…and candles and you name it. Some of it has to go. Even my late wife would have to admit that. She’d several times promised to give that closet the once-over. Yet it never happened.

News of the Day

NewsThere were a couple surprises waiting at the bottom of the storage. The two newspapers featuring the election of Barack Obama were stashed there, still in the wrappers in which they arrived. She was excited about Barack. She read his books and liked his character. Before she died she wondered aloud why so many people chose to hate the man. “He’s trying to do the right thing,” she said with some irritation at the manner in which political opponents threw up absurd barriers to his policies.

Below those newspapers was another announcing the new Millennium as well. That was published before cancer entered our lives. Anyone remember what a big deal Y2K really was? It kind of makes you realize our fears and politics and ideologies really don’t matter that much. What matters is caring about others.

Soul celebrations

And that’s how it goes with things like Christmas Closets. It’s a holiday that rends our souls in so many ways. That is made so clear when watching movies such as “It’s a Wonderful Life.” The stuff that really matters lurks behind all the trappings and the snow and the trauma of family and work challenges.

So it helps in some ways to clear out our collective Christmas Closets and take a look at what our lives really mean. The junk we accumulate to celebrate Christmas is not the purpose of the holiday. Otherwise we could walk in that closet in April or July or September and pull out lights to get in the Christmas spirit.

The real meaning of Christmas is much, much simpler. It is in knowing our closets well enough to know what’s really in there. That’s the meaning of Christmas. It might help to realize that while you’re putting all that stuff away this year.

Christopher Cudworth is the author of The Right Kind of Pride, a book about character, caregiving and community. It is available on Amazon.com. 

It’s Christmas and Chuck the Dog reminds us that love is all you need

Chuck thinkingWe buy Christmas presents for our dog. But we really buy them for us.

To Chuck, the schnauzer-poodle mix rescued by my son and friends from a Chicago street at two in the morning, every day is Christmas as long as his “people” are around.

He also has a penchant for chocolate that can kill him if we’re not careful. Just last week he discovered a Thanksgiving bit of cast off chocolate in the three-season room where he typically does not gain access in the winter months. He pushed open the door and dove into those wrappers to find that lone bit of chocolate and ate it fast as he could.

For an hour he shivered and felt sick. I kept an eye on him when I discovered what he’d done. A year or so ago we made a trip to the pet emergency clinic when he grabbed a piece of dark chocolate I’d been nibbling off the light table in the living room. That made him really sick. His affect was off and he hid under the table before I took him shivering and weird to the veterinarian’s office. They made him barf and found a piece of green eraser in the mix. I was chagrined at that as well.

When I apologized for letting him get to the chocolate, the vet staff laughed and said, “Don’t feel too bad. The other four dogs here all ate panties.”

Okay, I thought. Perhaps Chuck isn’t so bad after all. He just eats like a dog. At least he doesn’t have any human fetishes.

Now that my kids are home for Christmas he’s torn in his loyalties toward my son, who originally found him and was his first owner. Yet it was my daughter that wanted to bring him home once Evan started to travel in his job. So Chuck came west from Chicago and took to my late wife as well. She’d stated for 20 years of marriage that we never wanted to own a dog.

Chuck MopeyBut he won her heart and Chuck has become part of the broader family network of in-laws and friends who tolerate his manic three minute greetings. He loves a good pet once he settles down and has been known to keep many a visitor company on sleepovers.

So Christmas is nice but Chuck lives in a different universe from us. He’s grateful for his twice-daily walks. I let him have his “time” at the lightposts and other sniffing spots. He also has a few doggy girlfriends with whom he visits in the park. He doesn’t get overfed or too many treats. We’re grateful he’s been healthy and happy with the exception of those tiny burrs he keeps finding in the garden somewhere. It takes an hour to get them out of his hair.

I’ll take the liberty of speaking for Chuck and say that he wishes you all a very Merry Christmas. He’ll be tearing up wrapping paper when we open gifts. He’ll probably get a few table scraps but not too many. And when it’s all done he’ll join us during the Christmas Night party my children host at our house for friends. That’s a new tradition and Chuck just loves it when the house is full. But by late in the evening he’ll tuck in the corner of the couch somewhere and start to sleep it all off. The day after Christmas is another day of joys for Chuck. You don’t even have to buy him anything. Just give him love. Love is all you need.

The important relationship between forgiveness and self-confidence

By Christopher Cudworth

In the midst of prolonged stress from caregiving to a wife with cancer a few years back, it occurred to me that dealing with the challenges definitely had an emotional cost. It was difficult finding balance between work challenges and trying to keep my spouse healthy and family life on track.

For a time I tried to go it on my own, coping with caregiving pressures with a low dose of anti-anxiety drug. That helped the “how” part of coping, but it left open the “why.”

If it seems obvious from the quick description given here “why” I was feeling anxious and a bit depressed, understand it’s really not a good idea to psychoanalyze and treat yourself when you’re under that kind of pressure. All types of latent emotions enter the formula and it’s hard to separate what is actually making you anxious. Is it present worries or past failures that make you feel less capable of coping?

Getting help

I put in a request to receive counseling through the Living Well Cancer Resource Center, a non-profit dedicated to providing services for cancer patients, caregivers and their support networks. The counselor took the time to review more than our present situation. She also asked what other issues I was facing, and that happened to included my role as primary executor and caregiver for my father, a longtime stroke victim.

The emotional helix of all that family need was drawing a tight knot around my self-confidence. On a daily basis everything was getting done, but it felt like I was nearly hanging myself from the emotional burden all that responsibility required. Old hurts seemed to surface with some regularity in caring for my father. These in turn angered my wife who saw him as a bit ungrateful given our situation. And so it went, like a maelstrom of emotional concerns.

Life-changing question

As we discussed all these relationships the counselor discovered a pattern emerging. “You seem pretty good at forgiving others. How are you at forgiving yourself?”

That was a question for which I was not prepared. All those years of training in personal faith had taught me the importance of forgiveness. I’d seen the very real benefits of forgiveness toward others.

Forgiving yourself is an entirely different dynamic. It requires both an admission that you have done things wrong in the past and a will to not blame yourself to the point of eroding your self-confidence. Those two attributes are very much like the two wheels on a bicycle. You arguably need both to make healthy emotional progress in life.

Personal history

In fact self-confidence had long been a challenge in my life. It’s a funny thing however. Low self-confidence and self esteem can come from many sources. It’s both a nature and a nurture issue, but an in-borne propensity for anxiety never helps.

Her question about my ability to achieve self-forgiveness set off an interesting process of self-examination. Actually it was self-revelatory. Acknowledging my flaws was no longer so devastating. That opened up a vein of self-confidence born not so much of bluster or pride, but of humility. The ability to look at your past and say, “I did my best” makes it so much more possible in the present to honestly say, “I will do my best.”

If that isn’t good enough now and then, you learn to forgive yourself and keep trying. That kind of persistence is really important in caregiving. it is also important in other pursuits from sports to business to creative ventures of all types.

The important relationship between forgiveness and self-confidence is not easy at times to understand, but it is worth knowing there is a connection and keeping your emotional eyes open to opportunities to forgive yourself. That can be life-changing.

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride, a chronicle of cancer survivorship and facing life challenges in a positive way. It is available on Amazon.com. 

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On working under pressure

The little brick bungalow in which our family lived for 10 years when the kids were little had only 750 square feet of living space. The house was cute, in other words, but not spacious. It also had one bathroom. That meant that when repairs were needed it took some planning to make it happen without putting everyone in jeopardy.

The tub was old and we hired some contractor to coat it with some form of material popular at the time. The wall tile needed to be replaced as well. The vanity was rickety. The toilet was too. Even the floor tile was due for a change.

I scheduled the entire makeover for a single weekend. It was an ambitious plan for sure. My wife and kids went to grandma’s house from Friday through Sunday night. It was just me and the bathroom for the weekend.

Planning

The work went well. It was all planned out in my head. The wall tile was tough to do because the plaster came loose from the backing. That meant a major patchup with wallboard compound was necessary. I never knew whether that was advisable, but it worked. That’s what counts around the house. It worked.

The sink and vanity and toilet came out and the floor tile was torn up. Underneath were rotted floorboards. A quick trip to the lumber store fixed those, and a lot of nails.

Panic

Now that the entire bathroom was stripped down it was late at night. Midnight to be exact. I’d worked solid for 14 hours and was pretty tired. And then it hit me. I really had to go to the bathroom. Number two. There was no toilet now. Just a dark hole in a flat floor.

That was a humbling situation, but I made it happen. It struck me that for thousands of years in human history this is how people got it done. One way or another, it all came down to one thing. Squat and go. No need to flush. No modern plumbing. Just a lone sole over a dark hole.

Preparation

The next morning it was time to put in the wall tile and the floor tile. That took a few hours. The grout was done on the wall while the floor set. Then I put the seal down for the new toilet and put the new bowl into place. Like Tom Hanks in the movie Castaway I stood back and admired the modern contraption that plumbing really represents. All that to take care of our excrement. The world really is a humbling, confusing place at times.

All this work had to be done with care to avoid bumping into the new sealant on the tub, which was sprayed into place and therefore delicate for the first 48 hours.

It all got finished at exactly the moment my children came running back into the house yelling, “Daddy can we see the new bathroom!” Of course they also used it right way. That first flush of the toilet made me proud. Same with the working faucet on the sink. My wife walked in and said, “Is it safe?”

Pushing it

I secretly laughed but assured her that everything had worked out well. I shared the “poop in the dark hole” story and she just shook her head. No need for details, she told me. We all did our business while I kept reminding them to walk gingerly on the new floor. The grout was barely dry. But it held.

That’s not really a good way to do a bathroom makeover. It’s a simple truth that necessity demands a combination of determination and humility at times. The rewards of success outweigh the tough moments of personal doubt. In the end, that’s the right kind of pride.

Christopher Cudworth is author of the book The Right Kind of Pride, a chronicle of cancer survivorship and facing life challenges in a positive way. It is available on Amazon.com. 

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