The Lessons of Vulnerability Go Both Ways

A teen boy broke his leg recently, had surgery, and three weeks later is still bedridden. He wanted to tell me something, he said seriously.

I am his primary caregiver, as the phrase goes, which is to say his father and his nurse. As I was shutting the curtains to keep the afternoon sun from overheating his room, he told me what the experience had taught him: Being unable to get around; being shut out by thoughtlessly-designed facilities (like his school); being in pain and at the mercy of others—it was frightening, he said.

The lessons of infirmity are not easily forgotten. I have been lucky and had only a couple of injuries that left me this vulnerable, but I have served as nurse before, which is instructive too.

My mother, who raised me alone, was so sick a couple of times she could not rise from bed for days. I emptied bedpans, fed her, and took care of the animals and house. I was so young I had no idea what was wrong, which is to say I was scared and felt small and weak. I remember praying to God she would not die and abandon me.

Later, in the army, I had to help a friend after an accident, even wash his hair, since he could not raise his arms. The military is good on these lessons. The body is a wonderful machine, but things happen to it. So what. There is no shame in its processes, and no point in embarrassment at its repair and maintenance. I also remember the lessons of the NCO, who must make sure his troops are fed and cared for before himself, and those of Army diving, where our lives were often literally in each other’s hands, in the midst of forces bigger than any people.

Parenthood in general is an unending lesson in humility, generosity, and service.

But caring for my son has reminded me to be wholehearted. To be efficient and precise—in part because physics requires it, but also to minimize discomfort and preserve dignity. To find rhythms over time and learn to share responsibilities between patient and caregiver. To remember that hurt is not the only hurt. Neither is the fear of more hurt. That the problems do not stop at the full urinal, the water bottle fallen on the floor, the battle between hunger and nausea. Hurt is also being left alone in a room, to be forgotten, to not be checked on.

Caregivers must take a point, not laugh against feelings, not fail to anticipate or grant reasonable requests. In short, we must temporarily set down our own problems and worries and reach both hands over the railing. It is, in a sense, to become vulnerable in return.

What I am trying to describe is an active process, which some live as vocation. One gives in deed, not just word, to show someone they are safe, that trust is still a viable option. What happens in vulnerability is one of the most sacred measures of human interaction, what we seek in partners and close family, which surpasses all other forms of friendship.

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.