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A Stranger’s Words Comforted This Caregiver

She had felt guility after her father-in-law passed away. 

A woman rides a ferry at sunset

I stood near the railing of the ferry as it skimmed over Lake Erie toward the small island of Put-in-Bay. The eight of us—my mother-in-law, Judy; husband, Eric; our five kids and I—would be spending the week there. It was our first vacation in more than two years. I should’ve been excited. Instead, all I felt was crushing guilt.

My father-in-law, Larry, had recently passed away. We’d helped care for him over the past couple years. I’d spent the weeks since his death feeling ashamed of myself for my relief at no longer having to look after Larry, a man I loved as if he were my own father. As I surveyed the sparkling waters of the lake, my kids chattering excitedly in the background, all I could think was I’m a terrible person. I don’t deserve to enjoy this.

In January 2015, Larry had suffered the first in a series of strokes that left him completely incapacitated. Before his strokes, he was kind, capable and caring. He had a sharp wit and was always looking out for us. The strokes took away most of the man we once knew, leaving Larry confused, irritable and unable to walk or even stand on his own. It was heartbreaking for us all. Larry and Judy lived across the street from us. An in-home nurse wasn’t financially feasible for our family, so Eric and I played a key role in Larry’s care.

It turned out to be harder than any of us anticipated. Every morning began with Eric rushing across the street to help Judy bathe and dress Larry. One of Eric’s brothers would come by to help him into bed each evening. The other siblings lived farther away and would help out on the weekends.

I was the designated afternoon sitter. After lunch on weekdays, I stayed with Larry while Judy went grocery shopping and picked up Larry’s medicine. At first, it was easy. I work from home part-time and always took my laptop with me to use while Larry napped. But as his health declined, so did his mental state. He became increasingly confused and insecure whenever Judy was gone. I had to sit with him the whole time, trying to calm him down and reassure him that she’d be back soon.

By the time I returned from Larry and Judy’s, the kids were getting home from school and needed dinner and help with their homework. Eric was always on call with his parents and couldn’t help out as much as he usually did. I started staying up later and later to complete my work assignments. I was exhausted and struggled not to be short-tempered with the kids. But I told myself I wasn’t overwhelmed—after all, Eric and Judy were handling the most challenging parts of Larry’s care. I wanted to do my part.

One night, we’d just climbed into bed when the phone rang. Eric answered, already getting dressed. We knew by now what these late-night calls meant.

“Your dad fell again,” Judy said. “Can you come over?”

Eric rushed out the bedroom door just as our seven-year-old walked in. Rubbing sleep from his eyes, he asked, “Was that Grandma again?”

“Yes, Daddy went to help her with Grandpa,” I said.

“That’s all you guys do anymore.”

His words hit me like a punch. Clearly, we were spread too thin, trying to do everything and winding up not doing a good job at anything. The kids were noticing the difference. I needed a break. We all did.

When Eric returned, I told him we needed a vacation so that we could recharge and spend some quality time with the kids. He agreed. Later, we planned for his brother to stay with Larry and booked a trip to Put-In-Bay for a month out.

Then Larry had another stroke, this time fatal. The loss was hard on the family, but knowing that Larry was at peace and no longer suffering made it a bit easier for us.

Now, just weeks after his funeral, we were on this ferry. I’d caught myself feeling relieved that our phones wouldn’t be going off, alerting us to the latest emergency and pulling us away from time with the kids—and instantly felt awful. I loved Larry, but now that he was gone, I felt grateful for a simpler life. Who thinks like this?

The question plagued me through our first night there and into the next day, as we boarded a train to tour the island. I couldn’t let myself enjoy anything. I was a bad person.

The locomotive chugged past a giant lighthouse, a carousel and a chocolate museum before hissing to a stop at an unusual sight. A giant bronze statue of the mythological Atlas, straining under the weight of the world on his shoulders. Tears filled my eyes. I felt like this statue. For the past 18 months, I’d struggled to fulfill all of my responsibilities. And now that Larry was gone, that burden had been replaced by the weight of my own shame—a shame I felt I had to keep entirely to myself. It was all too much.

I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned to see a bald, elderly man in the seat behind me. His eyes were kind. “You can put it down, you know,” he said, motioning to the statue.

“You don’t have to carry it anymore. Larry wouldn’t want that for you.” 

Larry? How’d he know about him? He must’ve overheard us mentioning Larry at dinner the night before and thought to offer a kind word. But then I noticed the man’s suitcase, his ferry ticket beside him. My eyes grew wide. He’d just arrived on the island!

The train slowed for the next stop, and the man spoke again. “God’s got this. It’s time for you to rest.” He winked and exited the train, leaving me speechless.

I’m still not sure how this stranger knew what he did. Or how he managed to say exactly what I needed to hear at that moment. But his words gave me the confirmation I needed to move on. I could put down the burden. I didn’t need to feel guilty. It was time to rest.

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