Caring is a Work of Heart

A Special Story

Caregiving is a gift of love, and what better way to celebrate Valentine’s Day than read about a story of life-long commitment, and faith. A story of how end-of-life and the love around it, is supposed to be.

This story is special to me, as Helen and Don are my mother and father-in-law. They are my family and I love them as my parents, their children and spouses as my siblings, and their grandchildren as my nieces and nephews. Don passed away in February of 2018, just two months before the passing of my mother Nancy.

Caregiving is rewarding, however for many of us who are or have been caregivers, there is so much pain, stress, worry, guilt, responsibility, confusion and often issues with family, professionals, and finances. My personal journey was fraught with many of these issues and so are many of the caregivers I connect with. This is why I am so passionate about supporting and appreciating caregivers.

However, with Don and Helen’s caregiving and end-of-life journey, these challenges did not rise to the top of their experience. Their experience was about support from family and friends, proper planning, FUN, love and the ability to celebrate Don’s Earthly life as he passed on to his Heavenly Life.

The Beauty in this Experience

I want to share some of the beauty of this experience, from my perspective with you:

Don and Helen Pauly met at Kolacky Days in a beer garden in Montgomery, MN and were married for over 57 years. They lived on a small farm outside of Cold Spring, Minnesota. They raised eight children and have been blessed with 17 grandchildren. Their daughter and son in-laws came from a variety of backgrounds and religions, and their grandchildren were a mix of biological, adopted, and a step-grandchild. Acceptance, unconditional love, and never-ending support are what we all experienced with Don and Helen. Devout Catholics, their faith carried them through the “good times and bad, for better and for worse, until death do us part”.

Hard work was a part of their life. Don worked for Electrolux/Frigidaire in St. Cloud for 49 years, Helen worked several jobs, at home caring for her family along with additional work in the area. Much of their diet consisted of the food they grew in their garden, and the animals raised on their farm. Daily chores were required of their children, as was church on Sunday, and respect for others. Don and Helen set high-expectations on how their children should live their lives, and they have risen to these expectations which is evident in the legacy of their children and grandchildren today as they positively impact the world today.

A Diagnosis

In 2008, Don was diagnosed with multiple myeloma and soon after contracted the H1N1 virus, pneumonia, and suffered the effects of heart disease. The medical team at St. Cloud Hospital called him the “Miracle Man” as he stabilized and lived 10 additional years with his loving Helen and family.

In April of 2017, Don was diagnosed with plasmablastic non-Hodgkin lymphoma and was given 4 months to live without treatment. He lived 10 months and passed away peacefully sleeping next to his bride, Helen.

There were many doctor appointments, often with not-so-good news. The reality Don and Helen both had to face was that their time together was limited.

When I asked Helen about this burden she said, “The work and appointments wasn’t the hard part. The hardest part was we knew we were living on borrowed time.”

Helen managed his health care, took him to places to socialize with family and friends, and this was so valuable for Don. Don made sure he went to coffee to see his friends as long as he could. He made a point of seeing his uncles and aunts his last year. During his in-patient chemotherapy at St. Cloud hospital, he befriended the staff, particularly the nurses, connecting on how he might know them through family members and farmers in the area including Cold Spring, Richmond, St. Nicholas, Albany, Holdingford, and many more. Don could talk to anyone and they loved him, with his dry sense-of-humor and a twinkle in his eyes. Helen made sure these positive connections happened during Don’s last year.

Christmas Gift from Don and Helen

Don and Helen gave us a beautiful gift for Christmas 2017, when Don was still with us on Earth. A video, featuring the two of them sitting in their backyard, about their life, how they met, what they are most proud of, what they would like to be for a day. It was amazing and we all cried when we watched. To give you some perspective on the love and respect they shared, some quotes:

  • “Helen made me what I am today”. Note, Helen responded with, “I did?” and then they both laughed at the joke – and for those that know the Pauly’s know there are a lot of internal jokes and laughing at their own jokes.
  • Don said about Helen, “She is a keeper, she smiles, and she bends her elbow.” They both laughed at this, and we don’t get the joke, but I am sure they did.
  • Don said, “She took good care of me over the last 10 years.”
  • Don said, “It could be better, but it could be worse. We said to our kids, work hard and behave yourselves”.
  • When they were both asked what they were most proud of, it was their children. “They have raised their families well. They have kept their faith. We couldn’t ask for anything more”.

As I interviewed my mother-in-law, Helen, it was apparent to me that there is something about her caregiving journey that was different than for so many others. Don and Helen laid a foundation of love and support for their children, and their children gave it back to them. This foundation made all the difference during Don’s end-of-life and Helen’s caregiving experience.

And to all of us who have not experienced such a wonderful experience in our caregiving journey, which includes me with my mom, know that as long as you are living, here with your loved ones, whether you are the caregiver or the one being cared for, your perspective, attitude, and love will make a difference as we all pass from this Earthly world to our Heavenly world.

Helen’s Advice to Caregivers

Helen wanted to share some advice to caregivers as their loved one’s approach end-of-life, to not wait too long to consider hospice support. So many are afraid to use hospice services as this may feel like admitting it is the end of the journey. However, the goal of hospice is to maintain and improve the quality of life for someone whose illness or condition is unlikely to be cured. They offer individualized care plans, provide help for the caregiver, and may provide additional care such as faith ministry, massage, music therapy, medical support and medicine disbursement; hospice can provide the additional help for the patient, so they are more comfortable, and allow caregivers and loved ones to appreciate and enjoy their time together.

Thank you, Helen Pauly, for being a caregiver.