So it’s winter in Minnesota. That means it’s cold. It’s dark. In a month, we’ll all have cabin fever. For the next 5 minutes, embrace winter with me (or at least tolerate it) as I use one of it’s hallmarks – the snowflake – to describe those people in our lives we are lucky enough to call “friends.”
Did you know that each snowflake that falls to the ground is different and unique based upon the qualities of its initial dust particle and the varying micro-atmospheric conditions that each one goes through on its way to the earth?
Kind of like people, right? Each designed by nature (how we are born) and molded by nurture (the environment we grow up in). Indulge me as I use this snowflakes as people analogy to talk about friends. Your friends.
If each of your friends is like a snowflake, then you know that at times, you can be surrounded by them (a blizzard), or desperately seeking one (during mid-July heat and humidity). Like the light and airy snowflakes produced during the – 0° days, you know some friends blow in and out of your life at the slightest disturbance. And like the heavy, wet flurries that fall near the freezing point, you know how these snowflakes stick to your windshield while you’re driving. And won’t. Go. Away.
Snowflakes that stick
One of our Firefly Guides, Carmen*, had several of the latter type of snowflakes (friends) in her life when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Friends who became caregivers that stuck – deliberately – to her because they knew she was too independent to ask for help.
“(A friend) picked me up from surgery in my car and took me home, then proceeded to ‘steal’ my car and car keys so that I couldn’t drive for the full week that my doctor had prescribed,” laughs Carmen while retelling the incident. “She knew that I would find a way to get in my car and get things done when I should be recovering from surgery. There was nothing I could do BUT ask for help.”
“I think Carmen probably thought, ‘Oh F***, I’m going to have to ask people for help.’,” Carmen’s friend Julia* shares. “She probably could have shut everyone out of her life, but we (her friends) didn’t let her.”
Those friends stuck together with her like heavy, wet snowflakes. “My friends just did things for me. They didn’t wait for me to ask,” Carmen admits. “One would call and say, ‘I am going to the grocery store. You can tell me what you want or I can pick up what I think you need.’ and I learned to tell them what to pick up for me.” Julia agrees wholeheartedly and adds, “I had to treat Carmen like a 4 year old sometimes,” She laughs. “I would give her a choice like ‘Would you like me to rake your yard or cook some meals?’ Refusing the help wasn’t even an option.”
While there was some laughter during the interview, Julia apologizes for the onslaught of tears when she describes how her relationship and feelings about Carmen have evolved since her experience as caregiver. “I always admired Carmen’s fortitude, but the single word that now describes Carmen is intrepid. There is nothing that will stop her,” shares Julia, her voice filled with emotion. “My respect, admiration, and love for Carmen have only grown as a result of being a caregiver.”
Carmen’s appreciation for her friends has intensified as well. She shares the wisdom gleaned from her experience: “I realized that I could ask for help and not be perceived as weak. That (caregiving) is a two-way street: it allowed me to get the help I needed—although I didn’t take full advantage of all the help I could have had—and brought my friends into my experience and gave them joy.”
For over four decades, Jane* and Karen* have been friends. When Karen started treatment for breast cancer, Jane became one of her primary caregivers. “My husband passed away and my stepchildren are not close,” Karen shares, “so my two good friends—Jane being one of them—have been my two angels that have taken care of me.”
And they are all in when it comes to caregiving. “I am in situations I could never have imagined,” Jane divulges. “I have seen Karen with her shirt off after surgeries and I’ve stripped her drain tubes. I’ve helped her write her healthcare directive and living will,” states Jane. And Karen agrees, “I have gone topless in front of Jane more times than I can count, and she hasn’t blanched at my surgical scars once.”
Their relationship has changed over the course of Karen’s treatment. And how could it not when sharing such intimate experiences? “I have this incredible sense of trust in Jane and this implicit gratitude for her commitment to be with me at my very worst or when I am feeling utterly defeated.” Adds Jane, “We definitely appreciate each other more.”
Karen lives in the south year-round, coming to Minnesota for her oncology care while Jane visits as a snowbird during the coldest part of Minnesota’s winter. This distance has been a blessing and a curse when it comes to helping Karen. “Caregiving is exhausting! Family and friend fatigue is real,” admits Jane. She continues, “When Karen goes back home—yeah, it gives me a break—but then I worry about her. She’s all alone down there. I want her to move back to Minnesota so she has us to help her.”
Jane encourages other caregivers to “make sure you own tank doesn’t go empty.” Jane rotates caregiving with another friend so that she can take care of herself both physically – she does pilates – and emotionally – by spending time with her husband and family.
Caregiving has been incredibly sobering for Jane. “It is so difficult to watch Karen struggle with the realization that, ‘I think I have met what will ultimately end my life.’.”
Are you a heavy, wet snowflake in the life of a friend who has cancer? Caregiving can take a toll on your physical, mental, and emotional health. In next week’s blog post, we complete our series on caregiving by sharing relevant research, local organizations, and national resources that offer support for those who choose or find themselves in the role of caregiving.
*Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.
Written by Amy Tix, Firefly Sisterhood’s Communications Manager, who strives to be that heavy, wet snowflake for her friends during the difficult times in their lives. “Thank you Carmen, Julia, Jane, and Karen for the reminder!”