Benjamin Pratt: Reflections from a life-long caregiver on National Caregivers Day 2019

Lord, you have been our dwelling-place
in all generations. …
Yet—you turn us back to dust and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’
For a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.
From Psalm 90

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

EDITOR’S NOTE—There are a number of annual observances to honor the nation’s millions of caregivers. The third Friday of February currently is one of those times to use #NationalCaregiversDay hashtags and thank those you know personally. That’s easy to do because most of us know a caregiver in our families or neighborhoods. After devoting many years to service as a caregiver himself—and teaching other caregivers through his talks and his popular book—Benjamin Pratt now has discovered he’s on the receiving end of these services! Here’s a special Thank You from Ben. Please, express your own appreciation this week!
—David Crumm

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By BENJAMIN PRATT
Author of Guide for Caregivers

Once upon a time, I sat on the floor with my 6-year-old grandson while he used blocks to build a wall—replete with small buttresses. In wonderment, I silently watched his little tongue move deftly in his mouth as if it too could guide his fingers in the placements of the blocks.

The wall grew higher and higher and finally—as he tried to crown that wall with the final two bricks—the entire structure began to sway. He panicked and quickly tried different placements of the final blocks, but to no avail. As the wall irresistibly crashed into ruins at his knees, he burst into tears.

Of course, I was right there to comfort and encourage him.

For my entire life of more than 70 years, I have served as a caregiver in one form or another.

When I was just a child myself, I helped to care for my mother who suffered incapacitating effects of rheumatoid arthritis. Defining caregiving in its broadest sense, I simply kept going in my vocation. I became a parent—and a pastor in a diverse congregation. Later, I served for many years as a pastoral counselor. When my wife Judith experienced years of debilitating migraines, I was by her side to help her through those harrowing times.

Eventually, I “wrote the book” on the spiritual needs of caregivers!

Wherever I have traveled—and whenever I have written about the challenges of caregiving—I always have been greeted with warm responses from strangers who introduce themselves with stories from their families.

A few years ago, I wrote an online column about a foot washing conducted as a part of a wedding ceremony—as a symbol of humility, hospitality and service shared by the new couple. I was overwhelmed with readers all around the planet sharing my story! In fact, that 2014 column has become one of the most-read and widely shared columns in the history of www.ReadTheSpirit.com magazine.

And now?

Now, I feel like my grandson watching his walls crumble!

I’ve always been active. Judith and I love to travel and hike—and bike! We once made a lengthy bike ride from Pittsburgh to the Washington D.C. area—350 miles in seven days!

Now, due to major surgery on a lower limb, the only way I travel past our front door is seated firmly in a wheelchair that Judith pushes. I can’t even imagine trying to take these wheels on one of our cross-country, open-air adventures! I know many wheelchair-bound athletes have performed such amazing feats—but I’m in my 70s now and truly feeling my limitations.

As the Psalmist says: We gradually turn to dust and, compared with the vast scale of God’s great cosmic Creation, our lives seem like a mere day that passes in a flash.

That’s a somber reminder to me in my wheelchair, I can tell you. This great Caregiver finds himself, now, dependent on care.

For a month, I even rode through the world in my wheelchair with one of the more humiliating attachments to my personal gear—a catheter. It was a weeks-long necessity as I healed from this surgery. And, research shows us, the point of needing a catheter is one of the most telling dividing lines between a person remaining active in the world—or in a local congregation—and beginning that slow retreat into isolation. There’s something about the idea of a catheter that makes most of us squeamish, right?

If you’re still reading this column after that, pause for a moment and think about relatives, neighbors, former co-workers or members of your congregation who you don’t see very often, these days—because their footprint in the world isn’t as big as it once was. Think about the caregivers on whom they depend.

And my message from this wheelchair this week is this: There’s a lot you can do!

I start by practicing what I’ve preached for so many years. Get my book Guide for Caregivers and you’ll find lots of short chapters in which I share my hard-won wisdom.

Just a few examples:

Judith and I have always promised to show each other kindness in the many small daily tasks we undertake each day. However, suddenly, a whole host of those tasks have moved from my side of the ledger over to hers. She used to cook—and I’d clean up. Now, she does it all and I’ve seen her, each night, feel the weariness creep around her earlier and earlier in the evening. At such a stressful time in life, a well-formed practice of kindness toward each other is invaluable.

There’s a chapter in my book about the importance of laughter—and we make a point of laughing with friends as often as we can!

We reach out in many ways, every day. In fact, as a couple, Judith and I have informally adopted several younger couples we have met through our community. We’re good friends—and we’re also pleased to serve in what sometimes amounts to maternal and paternal roles. We never want to allow the crumbling of our physical walls to shut us off from these life-giving relationships.

When we recently told one of our young friends about the debilitating effects of my surgery, this young woman tried her best to compassionately respond. She told us about some painful side effects she had recently experienced after oral surgery—and about her daughter keeping her up all night over the anxiety of a high fever.

I was thankful for her empathetic words. But, I also thought: Count your many blessings now! And learn the spiritual skills for coping as a caregiver—and a care receiver—so you’ll be a wise veteran when the real blocks begin to topple half a century from now!

In my case, I pray that my current disabilities are only temporary. But I am aware that this is just a taste of what is looming in life—as the Psalmist says. It’s a little chilling to read his lines:

The days of our life are 70 years—
Or 80 if we are strong.

Dear Lord, that’s my stage of life!

And then, I remember: Hey, I wrote the book on this! In the opening pages, I tell readers, “Our goal is to restore a new and right spirit in us. Our goal is to restore balance to your spirit—to replace sadness with laughter, fear with hope, exhaustion with vitality, mourning with gratitude, emptiness with joy and burnout with a rekindled passion.”

Then, in my voice as the Guide to Caregivers, I ask readers: “Is your spirit joyous? Are you filled with hope?”

And, today, I can affirm: Judith and I are filled with hope.

Modest hopes, yes. Will more blocks fall from our walls?  We know: Certainly!

I like the way the Psalmist ends his ode to God as our greatest Caregiver. The Psalmist tries to bargain with God. He prays that God will “teach us to count our days—that we may gain a wise heart.” He continues to bargain—begging God to at least grant as many moments of gladness as he has suffered moments of affliction.

And then?

He just keeps going. He just keeps writing.

I can see him sitting there—a man in his 70s who I have to assume has been beat up by life. But he’s a teacher and a writer, like me. I can envision him staring at his hands. And then those hands write this simple closing prayer:

Prosper the work of our hands.
O prosper the work of our hands.

May it be so for the millions of caregivers out there from coast to coast! And may all of us honor them, not only this week, but throughout the year.

After all—we will all, one day, be in their hands—as I find myself today.

Thank you, Judith. Thank you.

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  1. Martin Davis says:

    I had the privilege to meet Ben once for lunch in Occoquan, Va – a small, tourist-oriented town filled with niche restaurants along the banks of the Occoquan River. It was a beautiful, sunny spring day and we dined al fresco. I was moving through some real difficulties in those days. Ben lifted my spirits that day, just as he has done for so many others over his life.

    I’m saddened to hear of this change in his life, and I hope that perhaps I can return the favor and add a little hope in his life. So, Ben: yes, may be in the hands of caregivers today, and for many days to come. But you are hardly bound by your body. Your spirit looms as large as ever. May we all come together and lift Ben’s today.

    I challenge Read the Spirit readers to shower Ben with cards and letters. If you don’t know his address – shower this comment section with your words of support and love for a man who has given so much. Will you help me help Ben and his wife?

    And Ben – I owe you lunch. This time, we’ll eat at a wheel-chair friendly restaurant.

    • Benjamin Pratt says:

      Martin, Thank you for this gracious and encouraging reply to my column. I still remember with fondness our lunch and the warmth and energy of our exchange. I’m confident my surgery will heal my deformities and I shall emerge from the wheelchair with vim and vigor and an eagerness to walk–no more running in my life and unfortunately no more basketball. Bocce is going to be my game of choice. When spring finally comes, I will eagerly welcome your invitation to an outside lunch. Thank you.