Brain Drain

This post describes, in part, the effects of a degenerative neurological condition called Huntington’s Disease. Any negative behavior on the part of my wife should be attributed to that condition. Any negative behavior on the part of myself should be attributed to my need for God’s ongoing grace.

If you would like to read our story from the beginning, you can start here: How We Got Here…

Janet seems to have made peace with the security cameras. In addition, she has accepted the need to wear the medical alert buttons. So much so, in fact, that she is now reminding me that she needs to exchange pendant for wrist strap or vice versa.

Emotionally, Janet is continuing to grow calmer – even when Frannie gets angry with her for not using her walker. Just today, after weeks of wanting to be left alone, she told me that she was lonely and that she loved me.

Unfortunately for all the gains in other areas, Janet still resists using the walker. This resistance is troubling because, when standing, she is constantly weaving back and forth. But perhaps that it is her final act of defiance to the disease that is killing her. I have the growing conviction that Janet will not be one who slowly fades away. Rather, in the words of Dylan Thomas, she will:

“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

From my Janet, I would expect nothing else…

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First used in the UK at the end of World War II, the term “brain drain” described the flight of European scientists and technologists to North America – typically the US. For example, much of the early US space program was populated by German expatriates who got their start building V2 rockets for the Nazis. Following the first successful launch of a V2 (that landed in London to devastating effect), Werhner Von Braun was heard to comment to a colleague, “The rocket worked perfectly, except for landing on the wrong planet.”

The point is that while the desire to leave a war-torn continent is more than understandable, the effect of this brain drain was to deny European economies access to some of their brightest minds, just at the time when they were most needed.

On the support forums I follow, I see an analogous problem – at the end of their personal “war” against a particular chronic terminal illness (i.e., as soon as their loved one succumbs), the caregiver often leaves the support forum.

Again, this desire is an understandable reaction: after all, people can be exhausted from years or even decades of caregiving. Alternatively, with their loved one dead, perhaps they feel like they no longer belong, or maybe they feel like they have nothing more to contribute. However, regardless of the reason, the choice to leave does have consequences.

The most drastic consequence for the former caregiver is that simply dropping everything and “retiring” can kill you. As a case in point, consider the life of General Daniel “Chappie” James.

Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James Jr.
Gen. Daniel “Chappie” James Jr. (U.S. Air Force photo)
Known for a deep and abiding patriotism that manifested itself in exemplary service to the nation, in 1975 he became the first African-American to reach the rank of four-star general in the United States military. His career spanned from World War II (when he helped teach some of the famed Tuskegee Airmen to fly) through Vietnam. He retired January 31st, 1978 after 35 years of honorable service, at the age of 58. Just three weeks later, he died of a heart attack on February 25th. The consensus at the time was that retirement killed him. As a result of his untimely death, the Air Force instituted a mandatory training program for all retiring senior NCOs and officers to teach them how to be retired.

But, short of death, there are other problems as well: the person leaving could be abandoning a source of support just at the time when they are going to need it most. The type of support you need might change (ever so slightly) but the need doesn’t go away. Others may have a different opinion, but to my mind, caring for a loved one with any sort of chronic terminal illness initiates you into a family with ties that outlast everything, including death – maybe, especially death.

So even though my Janet is currently still alive, I had to confront this same issue as I compiled these blog posts into a book. Specifically, I had to decide what to do about the fact that the story didn’t seem to have an ending yet. In fact, a couple publishers asked me rather pointedly about that narrative “problem.” Specifically, they wanted to know how I could publish a book with no ending?

To answer that question for the publishers (and the readers too) I wrote this in the book’s Epilogue:

… such an ending (Janet’s death) would be, in a sense, totally arbitrary in that it won’t really be the end of the story. In that respect, I am reminded of the war-time words of Winston Churchill: “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

Indeed, as long as anyone remains alive with this sort of disease, there will never really be an end because the world is like a still pond and each life that God drops into it produces ripples. These ripples, in turn, interact and produce unseen effects long after the lives that created the ripples have passed from human memory…

So given all that, how do you specify an “end” that isn’t totally arbitrary?

Like the television signals carrying the original live broadcasts of “I Love Lucy” and “The Honeymooners” out into the universe, the ripples of Janet’s life will continue to expand outward causing new, ever more distant effects. This is why, for myself, I have made the decision to keep writing after Janet’s death and to continue for as long as God gives me the words to say, the strength to type and the eye sight to find the keys (I do not touch type – I’m more of an advanced hunt-and-peck kinda guy).

Finally, I would be remiss if I failed to point out that the loss of participation also impacts the groups themselves in a very predictable way: loss of expertise and knowledge. When someone new joins, they have a few common questions that boil down to some pretty basic concerns:

  • What happens now?
  • What’s going to be the impact on my loved one?
  • How bad will it get?
  • I’m afraid. Is this survivable?
  • What happens to my family?
  • What happens to me?

Only someone who has been through the entire experience can answer all those questions. Only someone who has been through and seen the worst, can with authority say to another, “Yes, you can do this.”

And then moving beyond those basics, there are the hundreds (of thousands) of everyday questions about how to do this, or that. So remember experience brings wisdom, wisdom imbues credibility, credibility instills confidence, and confidence is transformative.

A recurring theme of my writing is that our everyday experiences are preparation for what’s coming. The things that you have endured have been to prepare you for the future. Now is your time.

In Christ, Amen ☩

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A prayer for when you feel drained…

“Blessed are You, Lord God, King of the Universe. It is right that I should at all times and in all circumstances bless You for the help You give, the salvation You provide and comfort with which you surround us. But today I want to bless you especially for the opportunity to share with and comfort those who are just starting on the road that I have been treading. Please show me how to give them hope and share with them a measure of the strength that you have given me. Amen.”

3 Replies to “Brain Drain”

  1. AMEN! AMEN! AMEN! My husband and I were just recently discussing that after the person with HD has died, the family doesn’t seem to have the energy to continue with support groups, fundraisers, conferences, etc. I can totally understand their exhaustion and need to move away from it all. But like you said, in doing that we lose all their wisdom and experience that might help us who are still walking and stumbling along that path! I appreciate that you have committed to continuing to write for us and I pray you have the strength to follow through with it. I imagine that it won’t be easy but will certainly be most appreciated by all of us who follow your blog!

    1. Great read. I lost my wife to HD in 2014 after 14 years of this disease. I also raised our two young children during this time and worked a full-time job. She was 43 years old when she passed at home and I was 44. She always lived with me. I wasn’t prepared for not being needed 24/7 and having no life of my own. 20 years of kids and caregiving coming to an abrupt end made for a very difficult 3 years of adjusting. Luckily I found cycling and that became my passion. I also met someone special through cycling. I’ve had a tough journey, but life is great today.

  2. My journey is not with Huntingtons but dementia. My husband is currently on hospice (has been for 3.5 years.) I already feel compelled to help those at the beginning of the journey.
    No one knows for sure what “after” will bring. But I feel that God is using the disease to teach me something enduring. Where I go from here, only He knows!
    Very well written, by the way 😊

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