on the love that blossoms in caregiving: Romans 6

Romans 6.  I used to fear about a thousand and one things in life.  Breast cancer was my deepest dread.  Actually scratch that.  It was about a billion and one things I feared.  I was haunted by everything from being attacked by wild birds, Hitchcock-like, to failing on my exams, to saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, to losing a limb, to losing my teeth, to, well…  you get the picture.

And then something strange happened.  I discovered there were all these things I thought I HAD to have to be happy.  Yet when I got them I was kind of like, well, … yawn.

That kind of revelation can cut many ways, right?  You can start to think you don’t want anything.  That’s a zen life.  It’s a letting go of all desires.  But who wants to live without desires? It’s like being a zombie.  Desires are the lifeblood of our existence.  So maybe instead, we have to figure out what we REALLY desire and hold the rest of our lives lightly.  Maybe we have to learn not to “set our hearts” on things we don’t really want.  But how?

To answer that, it might help to walk around inside something we think we DON’T want, something we fear, which for many of us is caregiving.  I mean real caregiving – feeding, bathing and bandaging someone who is messy sick.  A few people are gifted in that area.  But most of us fear it.  When my Dad was sick, I left the true caregiving to my mother and the nurses.  I was happy to sit on the arm of his chair and entertain him.  And if there had been no other caregivers, I’m sure I would have rallied.  But I wasn’t jumping into the fray.

I shouldn’t have feared it.  Because I had already learned something curious about caregiving that came from having children.  Before I had my own, I didn’t “get” babies.  What were you supposed to DO with a baby?  Aren’t they boring?  And who in their right mind would want to change a smelly diaper?

Everyone told me you had to wait until you had your own baby to get it.  They said you find your own babies beautiful and fascinating. They were right, of course.  But like most things in life, you can’t really understand that until you experience it for yourself.

When my son was born, they popped him straight into the ICU.  He was healthy as a clam, but they wanted to make sure because he had been born with a cleft lip and palate.  So he lay on his little side wearing the blue and white striped hat that New York Hospital slips on every baby’s head.  I sat on the other side of his incubator and watched him.  He had the sweetest most contented look on his face you’ve ever seen , and BOOM.  I fell in love.

We brought him home, and he kind of just sat there.  “He doesn’t do anything,” I complained to the baby nurse.

“Look at his hands,” she said.

I looked.  He couldn’t move.  His cries were the volume of a baby eagle’s.  But his little hands were waving in the air as if he were conducting music only he could hear. I was entranced.  I discovered I could watch him for hours.

When you look with eyes of love at another human, EVERYTHING they do becomes endlessly fascinating.

But there’s something even more fascinating about babies.  It happens as a result not just of watching them relax in a cute hat or wave their tiny little hands, but when you look after them.  There’s a love that blossoms in caregiving.   There’s a depth of passion that arises only from bathing, feeding and changing them at their messiest.

And if your child has a medical need, you discover that the deeper their need the more your love blossoms.  The doctors told us that newborn skin is almost as malleable as foetal skin.  So the moment my son was born, the doctors at NYU Medical Center crafted a moulding plate for his gums and nose to help his features grow in the right direction.  That meant I had to glue bandages on the delicate skin of his cheeks, rip them off twice a day and reglue them back on no matter how blistered and sore his little cheeks got.  I wouldn’t let anyone else do it, even though it killed me every time.  He had two operations before he was a year old.  In the grand scheme of things, my baby’s medical issues were nothing.  And at age eighteen now, he looks fabulous.  He’s having what will hopefully be his last surgery this summer, an enormously complicated jaw surgery, and he seems as completely relaxed about it as he is about most things.  His calm gives me permission to be calm. But eighteen years ago, when he was my first baby, ANYTHING that went wrong turned me into a tense mess.

“This too shall pass,” that same baby nurse told me, every time my baby screamed.

“Right,” I thought, sarcastically.

She was right.  I didn’t know it then.  But the more I fussed over him and tended to his ripped skin and wept over his little bloody stitches, the more my own love grew.  The deeper his need, the more I loved.

It’s this kind of deep love that arises only from caregiving that Carol Mithers wrote about so movingly in the NY Times recently:

“I wasn’t one of those women who went all dewy-eyed with love the second she gave birth.  Within two weeks, though, I was transformed, flattened by a passion I had never even dreamed existed, and it was the grunt work of motherhood that did it to me, the holding, touching, watching, feeding, smelling.  I had always imagined that you put up with the job of caring for a baby because you loved her, but for me it was the unfathomable, slightly terrifying intimacy of caregiving that brought the love.”

“And with my old people it was the same.  Just as it is with a baby, your job is tending, and the comfort you bring is simple and physical.  You come to know the precise texture of thin, dry skin, the kind of touch that pleases, the small things that bring a smile.”  New York Times, Tuesday March 26, 2013, “Suddenly They’re All Gone.

Mithers is right.  It’s the caregiving that brings the love.  And yet, we fear being needy.  We don’t want to let anyone take care of us.  We resist asking for help.  We shouldn’t, of course.  It’s our neediness that can allow the love of others to blossom.  And isn’t one of our deepest desires to be loved?  But apparently we have an equally strong contrasting desire, which is to be independent.

So we all seem to have a built in mechanism that prevents us from getting the very thing we most want.

Luckily for us, the one who created us already knows this about us.  His sacrifice bridges the gap between what we want and how we act in a way that prevents us from getting what we want.  His tender passion for us on the cross, a passion that will be spoken about, re-enacted and sung about this Easter weekend, is the deepest act of caregiving of all.  He cared for our deepest desire, the desire for unconditional love.  He took the physical, emotional and spiritual wounds we deserve, so we can be healed of our spiritual sickness.

We resist hearing that.  We don’t want to be dependent on anyone, especially not God.  We don’t want to be beholden.  We don’t want to have to obey Him.  We want the seeming “freedom” to do our own thing.

What we fail to realize is that dependence on God is what we were made for.  We’re at our happiest and most fulfilled when we swim in the waters for which we were bred.   The more we need God, the more we rely on Him.  And only when we are utterly dependent on Him, can He use us for His purposes.  When we rely on ourselves, we are wandering in mazes lost.

That’s the truth we get to walk around inside of for the rest of our lives.  And what we discover when we do that is that God’s love IS the desire that thrills us: “In Him, we live and move and have our being”.   Acts 17:27.  St. Luke’s words almost shout their way off the page.  We LIVE in Jesus.  We have our “being” in God.  We breathe in His breath.  That is our deepest desire.  And the more we begin to trust Him and His love, the more we can face all our fears with peace.

My son’s baby nurse wasn’t quite right.  Some things in this world don’t “pass”.  Some diseases are terminal.  Some limbs can never be restored.  We’re not glass lizards, able to regrow our own tails.  Everyone has a crucifixion to undergo on this earth, and some are far worse than others.  But there is one crucifixion that releases each of us.  It happens when we “die” to ourselves and our ideas of what we need. Usually it happens because God allows the things we thought we had to have to be ripped from our hands, and we feel like we’re dying.  Yet if we turn to Him in our need, He cares for us.  In His hands, we discover a love blossoming that is greater than anything we’d ever known or imagined.  It’s through this process of discovery Paul describes here in Romans 6 that we decide we no longer want so strongly the things God says are bad for us, and we decide we want Him more.  Romans 6:6.

And as we grow in trust, and begin to feel God’s love blossom inside us as we allow Him to care for us, God opens our eyes to the truth that the things we dread most can bring us the greatest joy of all.

posted by Caroline Coleman in A Chapter a Day, on March 27, 2013