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Jeannette George – Live Deeply

I’m CSPC Caring Ministry Coordinator Jeannette George, and this is how I’m living deeply. 

“My relationship with my mother was not a good one. I loved her, I know she loved me- but she had so much stuff that she carried around inside. I don’t think she fully understood what freedom in Christ was. Mom knew He forgave her for things in her past but didn’t live in that forgiveness, couldn’t accept it. Her husband abandoned her, so she moved here from Cleveland, Ohio back in 2005. It hadn’t been a great life, but Mom was leaving the only life she’d known for over 60 years. In Knoxville, she had no friends, no community, no church, nothing. She was diabetic, battling COPD, and suffering the energy sap of a heart that was slowly failing. Mom hadn’t taken good care of herself- ate her cares away sometimes. But her struggles were also deeper than that: baggage and bondage from childhood, three failed marriages, mental health issues. I was still a relatively young mom of four kids when we moved her here. My husband Tim and I hadn’t expected to become caregivers for her so soon. The hardest part was knowing that God was calling us to do it but not being prepared. Like I said, things were already strained between Mom and me. What made this all even more challenging was her premise going into it: ‘I’m your mother, you should do this for me.’ Her expectation was that she was coming to live with us and we were going to basically be providing all care for her. It took a while for her to realize that her life wasn’t over, that it was just going to be different. But eventually, thanks to some significant voices from CSPC helping her (and us!) along her journey, she got it. Mom started to realize, ‘Oh, life’s not over. I can find a job. I can support myself and live on my own. I can have my own checkbook. I can make my own decisions.’ She became a cashier at the Turkey Creek Target when it first opened. The work brought her joy that you could see all over her face. After going to CSPC for a while, she moved to Oak Ridge, where she found a church she loved and a group of friends in her apartment community. She was just thriving in life.

As well as everything was going for Mom, what never went away -and actually only got worse- were her physical struggles. She would work for six hours, come home exhausted, and sleep for 12 hours. What we found out was that she had a heart defect. Her valves were not the size that they needed to be for proper blood flow and oxygen flow. Her cardiologist did open heart surgery and replaced two valves, but she wasn’t getting better. Still exhausted, shortness of breath, fatigue. So we took her to Vanderbilt for tests. They discovered that even though her valves were replaced, her heart was just worn out. There was nothing more they could do- she wouldn’t have survived any more surgeries because of all her other ailments. It was a bitter blow. Things had been going so well. Now the life she’d come to know was basically over, and she was angry because that wasn’t what she signed up for. She was like, ‘You’re telling me there’s really nothing you can do for my life, and I have less than two years to live?!’ But it was through her facing death that God ultimately redeemed our relationship- slowly, gradually. I remember having conversations with her: ‘You know, Mom, we’re all dying. You just know you’re dying. But it’s through this stuff that we share our life experiences and faith with people. Even in our death, we have a purpose.’ God was at work in her. She listened, and her heart really softened. It was sweet and beautiful. Mom decided to enter hospice, where she spent her last year of life, and she used that time to make amends. I mean, the witness for Jesus was huge. She went back and asked forgiveness from her siblings for past hurts. Mom was the oldest of 13 children, three of whom were already gone. But she wanted to talk to all who were still living before she died. By that time, her words were garbled, but watching her face when her brothers and sisters forgave her and talked to her about how much they loved her was sacred. Mom was in her early 70s at this point, and it had taken her whole life, but God was finally granting her the ability to walk in His love and forgiveness. She finished well.

God used the end of Mom’s life, especially the last month, to reconcile our relationship. She’d always been very self-focused, in a way that was deeply hurtful to me. But that last month, she changed. Mom intentionally turned from, ‘Let me tell you about my day, Jeannette,’ to, ‘Tell me about your day, Jeannette.’ I’ll never forget the Monday before she died. She’d been in a nursing home for almost a month. I came in that day because they had called me a few times over the weekend- Mom was restless, not sleeping well, and just really struggling. That day the doctors told me, ‘We’ve done some testing, and we have some results. Your mom’s kidneys are stopping. Her body is shutting down. She probably won’t make it through the weekend.’ What? It felt like I’d been sucker- punched. I knew this would be the outcome, but you’re never expecting to hear it. And Mom didn’t know. I regained a little composure and walked into her room, still trying to wipe the tears from my eyes. She had been watching TV and was lying there almost lifeless in the bed. But as I walked in, she turned and looked at me, and in this tender, sweet voice, asked, ‘Are you okay? Do you want to come over here and tell me about it?’ And I just thought, ‘Oh, my word. She SEES me. This woman who has so often seen THROUGH me finally SEES me.’ I couldn’t tell her the bad news from the doctors. I just said, ‘You know, it’s just been a really hard, emotional day. But I’m glad to see you.’ And I was. She listened. She cared. No entitlement, no expectation. I was just glad I was there. 

Mom died in November of 2014. Just over a year later, Tim was diagnosed with stage four cancer. Not what I thought I’d ever hear- not when he was still so young. There just aren’t words for the devastation. But there wasn’t much time to process- the immediate need was to figure out what our lives were going to look like. Different relationship, but I was pressed into the same caregiving role again. The daily tasks of looking after physical concerns, maintaining medication schedules, helping make decisions, and so much more were back. Caregiving can feel so isolating- there are times when you just feel like you’re battling this thing alone, even though you aren’t. Tim and I had a wonderful marriage, and I had a great circle of support, but that feeling of ‘No one else really gets this’ is just unavoidable sometimes: My husband was going to die, and I would probably be the last person he saw. I really wanted to honor his wishes. Tim was very private- didn’t want people around except for his kids and grandkids. He would only let a few people from church come around (fewer than five, and never more than one at a time). So it was a challenge to manage that while also trying to making sure I was in a healthy enough place emotionally to care for him. But God provided. Those final nine months of his life -his entire battle with cancer- were hard, but filled with a lot of sweetness, too. Tim knew that when his story was over, he was going to be eternally with the Lord, so he was at peace with dying. That lessened my burden. Tim also made all his own decisions those final days- I was almost just along for the ride. As a caregiver, you want to have all this control, but realize you have zero. So I had to trust God’s sovereign control and love for us. And part of that means that when we go through the hardest things, we have to trust that we’re not alone. That’s what gives us the peace that surpasses all understanding. Even the hardest stuff is part of His purpose and plan. I had to remind myself of that when my role went from daughter and wife to caregiver. This is hard stuff. Nobody wants to feel alone. And no one who’s following Christ is. 

Serving as CSPC’s caring coordinator allows me to put my life experiences to work for others. I know the heartache, the difficulty, the challenges people are going through- caregivers, especially. I want to make sure they’re seen and heard in situations that can feel lonely and isolating. An example of that is something we did in April. James challenges us to be innovative in our ministries, to ask, ‘What can I do differently?’ I asked: In my own role as a caregiver, what were the things that I longed for? And what were the things that brought me hope, peace, and comfort? Yes, being with my loved one who was suffering helped meet some of those needs. But also, when the people in my life showed up just to be with me, it made such a difference. They didn’t have to say anything or even bring me anything. Their presence was just what my soul needed, so that I knew I wasn’t alone. So I ended up organizing a lunch for caregivers in our church. Caregiving is a 24/7 job with no end in sight, so the goal was to have this truly safe place where they could be acknowledged and honored as caregivers, but also as people. It was to honor them and acknowledge them in the midst of their ‘hard.’ And that is what I think our staff did so beautifully- caregivers came and looked into the faces of people who were there to love, support, and encourage them. There was not an agenda, and they were told that when they came. This was for our staff to love and honor them- to listen, to talk, sit in silence, cry with them, or pray with them. And it was beautiful. As soon as everybody gathered, you couldn’t keep anybody quiet. But there weren’t tears. There was talking and laughter and truly joy just being in a room with so many others who cared. No one even had to put words to what they were going through. They knew they were seen and understood. One attendee said in an email afterward that it was great to be in the presence of ‘the warriors’ (because that’s what caregivers are: warriors). It was just confirmation that you don’t have to ‘do’ anything, you just need to be there. That’s the power of the ministry of presence.” 

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