An Uber-Caregiver Takes a Break

Getting injured forced Mary Pipher to learn to take as well as give

by Mary Pipher
resting illustration
Photograph: Gary Taxali

As I was finishing my ninth book, my right hand stopped working. It hurt to write in my journal or use a keyboard. I gobbled ibuprofen and ignored the hot jabs of pain radiating up my arm. After all, I was on a tight deadline.

When I began waking up with tears on my cheeks, I broke down and saw a physical therapist. He diagnosed a thumb-joint problem, caused by overuse. He told me, “No more handwriting or keyboarding for now. I’m afraid you’ll need an operation.”

I made an appointment for hand surgery, but while I waited, I was useless. I no longer could wield scissors or a can opener. It hurt to snap my jeans, deadhead roses or pull on my swim cap. It was excruciating to turn the ignition key in my car.

My identity was in crisis. As a girl, I was often called a good little helper. All my life, I had been the onion chopper, the baby changer, the strawberry picker. Now I couldn’t tie my own shoes. This left me asking, Who am I when I stop being useful?

At first, I was panicky about finishing my book, but I found a graduate student to help, and I sat by her side as she added my revisions. I ordered a signature stamp and began using voice-activated software, which was extraordinarily frustrating. (I’d say “Venus,” and it would transcribe “penis.”) But the software allowed me to e-mail, so I just learned to proofread carefully.

I taught my husband, Jim, to cook basic recipes, and soon we were eating healthy, albeit simple, meals. I resigned myself to letting things slide at home. Who really needed a pretty garden or a sparkly clean kitchen? I tried to be what Jim calls a class act. My hand would hurt no matter what, so I might as well behave in a dignified and cheerful way.

But inside, my spirit crumbled.

Despair is often a crucible for growth. When our problems are too big to tackle, we must grow bigger. I could no longer be a human doing, so I became more of a human being. Of necessity, I freed myself from being driven and became someone who simply appreciated what happens next. I read a book a day and invited my friends for long visits.

Most important, I, the über-caregiver, learned to allow others to care for me. Jim clipped my fingernails. My daughter brought me soup and books. My friends offered to drive me places or came by with apple crisps and chicken potpies. Often they’d stay and weed my garden while we chatted. People showed solidarity by signing get-well cards with their nondominant hands. Their writing was as bad as mine!

This time leading up to surgery was surprisingly social. I felt loved. I also realized how much people relish opportunities to help. In fact, my lifetime of taking charge had denied others the pleasure of selflessness. I now allowed them their turn.

When I told my friend Lynda about the positive effects of my disability, she replied, “I think I’ll smash my right thumb.”

Finally, I had the surgery, and my hand is now healing in a bright-green cast. My doctor told me that with physical therapy I should be back to normal in a few months.

I felt ambivalent when I heard his prognosis. My health crisis forced me to replace old habits with fresher ones. It slowed me down and changed the dynamics in almost every relationship I had. My being useless had been very useful after all. 

MARY PIPHER is the author of Reviving Opheliaand, most recently, The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture.

Next: Sandwich Generation: The 'Fair Share' Dilemma

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First published in the June 2013 issue

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