Both of my parents are hearing-impaired. Growing up, I had different chores from other kids. My friends had to take out the trash or help wash dishes; I had to translate for my parents at the bank or make phone calls for them. I was lucky enough to grow up with two parents who loved me, treated me well, and gave me every advantage they could. As for Will, he wasn't so lucky. He came of age with an alcoholic for a father. Now, more than 20 years later, Will is finding himself responsible for a man he had tried to cut out of his life.
When Will first came to talk to me, he referred to himself as his father's "caretaker," although he claims he meant to say "caregiver." I'm not sure if the word choice was as unintentional as he seems to think. "Caretaker" is a word I usually associate with someone who cares for an old country estate, or for a garden. "Caregiver" is a word for someone who is responsible for the care of a person. Considering the relationship—or lack thereof—Will and his dad have had throughout the years, I don't find it surprising that Will talks about caring for his dad the way some people talk about weeding a garden or cleaning out storm drains. Plain and simple, it's his obligation, and not his desire.
I also don't consider myself a caregiver, but not for the same reason as Will. And we're not the only ones who don't like the term--a recent survey in "Today's Caregiver" magazine showed that some 70 percent of their readers responded negatively to the word "caregiver." To me, "caregiving" indicates helping people who may not be able to help themselves. My parents survived just fine before I was born, and they've survived just fine since my younger sister and I left the nest. If pressed, I might say that I "help out" my parents. But for some reason the word "caregiving" doesn't fit.
My parents spent many years taking care of my basic needs, and now, I'm returning the favor in a smaller way. I see translating for them as a quick way to help make things go more smoothly, not as any huge burden.
The Fifth Commandment is "honor thy father and thy mother." This word "honor" can mean different things to different people. I see interpreting for my parents as a simple way to honor them, to show respect for them, to help them, and to be a dutiful daughter. This commandment says that it is our job, our godly obligation, to attend to our parents. Just as my mother helped me learn to walk, I help her to communicate. They once helped me, and now I help them. It's a way of coming full circle, an age-old narrative. Parents care for children, and then the children grow up to care for their parents. That is why families are the backbone of our society. They guarantee that someone always has a support network.
As I listened to him more and more, I realized I don't know how—or even if—the Fifth Commandment applies to Will's situation. Sure, we should honor our parents, but what happens if they don't also honor us? I had parents who raised me well. Will had an alcoholic father who was mostly checked out of his son's life. Should Will have to be the better person and honor someone who never honored him? Or is his father's cancer a kind of karmic retribution? Part of why I've always bristled against the word "caregiver" is that a caregiver can be any number of people, like a live-in nurse or a kindly neighbor. I see family as being on an entirely separate level. Where love exists, there is no giving or taking.
Meanwhile, though, no one person is able to do everything. Will is feeling strained by the money, time, and focus that his father's illness requires, not to mention the existing tension in their relationship. Where Will has an endless list of tasks to complete, I have a list of ways my family can supplement each other. For example, my father is great with money and balancing the checkbook. I'm not. So he helps me do my taxes and gives me advice about my finances. I don't see that as a form of caregiving—I see it as my dad being my dad. To me, that's what family is all about--each person contributing in their own way and helping each other when they can.
If I had to define my role around my parents, it would simply be "daughter." I'm honoring them, as the Fifth Commandment instructs me to do. If anything, we're all caring for each other, the way a family was intended to work. The reason Will's family isn't working the same way is because he has to be the child and the parent.
From the Book of Exodus, the Fifth Commandment is about honoring thy parents. But from the Book of Matthew, there's another appropriate verse: "love thy neighbor." With this in mind, I realize that there's more that I can—and should—do for Will than hash out what to name his caretaking/giving duties. The truth is, I can never fully understand Will or his father or their relationship to each other. Even though he and I may feel very differently about our parents, our opinions are the result of different experiences and backgrounds. But what I can do is love Will for the person he has become, despite the difficulties he endured in the past. What I can do is find the things we have in common, and become his caregiver—or caretaker, or friend--whatever he needs, whenever he needs it.