Compassion and Caregiving

Compassion and caregiving go hand in hand. Many of us hit a wall at some point and start to suffer compassion fatigue. This happens when we get overwhelmed by daily duties and forget to take care of ourselves. But this fatigue also has a flip side. I call it compassion aptitude.

Compassion and Caregiving

For me, compassion aptitude is a skill you build over time while serving as a #caregiver. Your capacity to care for others may increase even if you’re not trying to build strength in that area. After exercising compassion for years, it’s much harder to ignore the suffering of other people. You find yourself with a reservoir of empathy that extends to others — even total strangers. It happened to me at  the 2018 Super Bowl parade.

This was a remarkable day in Philly history since the #Eagles football franchise hadn’t won a Super Bowl in nearly 60 years of play. It was a special day for me because my late father, and other family members, were lifetime #Eagles fans. In 2005, when the Eagles also played in the Super Bowl, my old Philly neighbors spilled into the streets every time the team scored a touchdown. It was one of the most enjoyable days during my years of living there. The Eagles could not defeat the New England Patriots in 2005. But 2018 was completely different.

At the 2018 #Eagles Super Bowl Parade

The Super Bowl parade was a crowded affair that gave me many chances to use compassion aptitude on the streets. The first opportunity occurred as I left my house. While locking the door, I noticed two young African-American men standing on the corner looking at their phones. I didn’t recognize them so I asked if they were lost. It turned out they were from Dallas, Texas and had flown in just for the celebration. They were hoping to catch an Uber to the parade route. Unfortunately, I knew that wouldn’t happen.

Millions of visitors had jammed the city and the East-West streets were blocked off along Broad Street. Uber drivers would not be able to pick the guys up. They were clean-cut, polite, and adventurous. As kids they had also endured years of name-calling from Dallas Cowboys fans. I was worried about them getting lost or not finding the parade route, so I offered to give them a ride. In the car, we had a lively conversation and I was really happy we met. I parked a few blocks from the subway and we all walked to Broad Street together before parting. I hope they had a safe and happy time in Philadelphia.

The subway delivered me to South Philly where I found a viewing spot on the steps of a row house. The owner was a classic, tough South Philly woman who was there to see the parade with her family. She explained to everyone on the steps — including me — that the building belonged to her and we could stay unless her kids asked for our spots. We all wanted to stay — the two Asian ladies, the African-American lady, and me (white as Mr. Clean, but with less muscle). We appreciated being there.

Compassion on Philly’s mean streets

A few minutes later, another woman arrived at the steps with two little kids in tow. One of the kids started climbing up the steep stair rail in a risky way. The building owner told him he had to get down because he could fall and get hurt. Shortly afterwards, the kid started climbing again. The owner repeated that he had to get down. She wasn’t mean but she said he’d have to leave if he climbed on the rail again. The child’s mother then started screaming at the building owner and things turned ugly between them. Their conversation got loud, then it got racial. Then it got threatening. I couldn’t believe the insults I was hearing.

The streets were jammed with people and these two women were both posturing for a fight. Something inside of me went off — my compassion super power? I went over to the railing and put myself between the women and said, “Look around. There isn’t going to be a fight here. Everyone is here to have a good time. Look at all the kids here. You can’t talk like that in front of the children.” They stared hard at me, but both got a little calmer. The raging mother shouted her final insult and took her children away into the crowd. The building owner sat down and swallowed her adrenaline. I just stood there, with my toes and fingers freezing, hoping the parade would soon begin.

the Vince Lombardi Trophy at Last

The team finally arrived and the crowd roared for them. I got to see Nick Foles and the Vince Lombardi trophy and many other things I never expected to see. Years of caregiving prepared me well for the event — better than many seasons of watching football. I realized that my compassion aptitude is like a quarterback’s throwing arm. It’s very strong, very accurate, and should not be underestimated.

My Meditation on Birds and Healing

My meditation on birds and healing starts with two childhood memories: robins pulling worms from our backyard and my father shouting plays to the #Philadelphia Eagles as they ran across our TV screen.  I grew up in the hard core football territory of Pennsylvania. We lived halfway between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Philadelphia Eagles, but were raised to love the #Birds.

My meditation on Birds and Healing

Through many seasons of heartache and disappointment, my father stayed loyal to his team. He made his daughters learn the rules of football so we could understand why his Birds were so good/bad/full of potential. Despite his coaching, I still loved real birds more than the ones on TV. Many seasons of football games with Dad never prepared me for the experience of seeing a live eagle. In fact, I never thought much about what his team’s name meant until I landed in the Poconos years later. Eagles nest in this region. You don’t see them often, but their magical visits stick to your memory like hair to duct tape.

Real eagles are majestic and predatory. If I were a squirrel in their path, I’d be running awfully fast. While I love the sight of these wild birds I’m more drawn to those that won’t eat you for dinner. I’m cheering for the Eagles during this weekend of #Super Bowl madness, but it’s a bittersweet bird season for me. Last week I lost my beloved cockatiel, Duda. The twitch of his wings is no longer part of my life’s soundtrack.

Pets and Healing

When Duda entered my house, he was a scrawny creature purchased from the pet department of Woolworth’s. I bought him to be a companion for a young boy from Mexico who was a guest in our house while he was learning English. He was far from his home and family. I thought the bird might be a healing antidote to the loneliness he felt.

My meditation on birds and healing


Like most love stories, this one had a strange twist. The bird who came to help our guest heal his homesickness ended up staying for 28 years! While I was a full-time caregiver for my mother, the cockatiel was a critical member of the household care team. Mom and Duda were keenly interested in each other, yet also rivals for the attention of the many helpers who visited us. Aides loved to whistle to the bird, but they also fawned over my mother. Each built a strong fan base using their own peculiar charms.

The bird’s cage sat in the kitchen right outside my mother’s bedroom door. He kept a watchful eye on her to make sure she was safe and not stealing his admirers. Mom liked the sound of his chirps and the way he imitated our laughter as if he understood the punchline of each joke. But sometimes Duda got testy or talkative at odd hours when Mom wanted to sleep. Suddenly the bird become her arch enemy. Despite these occasional temperamental differences, Mom and the bird bonded. They had a healing effect on each other.

Unfortunately, this winning team has dissolved over the past few months. My mother’s need for high level care forced us to move her to a skilled nursing facility. Then just last week, Duda left us to go to the Great Bird Spirit in the sky. His departure came three months after my mother’s — and twenty-eight years after his arrival!

Here’s to the #Underdogs!

Even as I reflect on their absence, I believe that we had something good going on in our home all these years. The estimated life span of a cockatiel is 16-25 years. Duda surpassed that by a good margin. People with my mother’s dementia diagnosis (cortico-basal degeneration), are given a life expectancy of 5-7 years. Mom is now ten years into her journey with this disease. The survival rate for good football teams is much less predictable. My father did not live to see his Eagles play in the 2004 Super Bowl (which they lost) and he’d probably be surprised to see these #underdogs playing in the national extravaganza tonight.

Naturally, I’ll be rooting for the #Philadelphia Eagles because Dad did — but also because I’m a lifetime lover of birds in any form. It’s strange how we get attached to these sports teams full of players whose lives are so different from our own. But they become powerful symbols of the strange loyalties that add meaning and excitement to our lives. Like Duda and my mother, the #Eagles are real underdogs who have exceeded all predictions and inspired lots of fan love along the way. I hope the many #Underdogs among us find strength to soar above the hardships of illness and caregiving. Long may our great birds fly!