We are living in an unfinished space here in Alabama, and that comes with challenges. We entered a season of renovation when we arrived in July, and we’ve accomplished a great deal in just a few weeks. (And by ‘we’, I mean my husband, who has done the lion’s share of the work.)

We tore out the entire kitchen, and we’re finishing a new one now. Extensive plumbing and electrical work has been required. Any cooking beyond the toaster-oven variety has been impossible, which means we’ve been eating lots of apples and salads. Plus, we’ve opened our topsy-turvy home (and our hearts) to a kitten, who perceives the unfinished space as her personal playground.

Living in our ‘incomplete’ house means a constant acceptance of things as they are, not things as they will be or as we wish they were. And in this season, the lessons I learned as a caregiver at L’Arche DC* have stood me in good stead. Assistants at L’Arche learn pretty quickly that the work of giving care is never done.

At some point, all caregivers face an inability to ‘complete’ the task of caring for another person. This is a difficult truth, one that routine checklists and Medicaid regulations would have us forget. When we as assistants would mark down our checklists, it was tempting to believe that we had ‘finished’ what needed to be done. In one sense, yes; in another sense, maybe not.

At L’Arche, I came to see that you could sign every paper and miss the spirit of real caregiving completely. You could do everything you were required to do and miss the most important part of being there. The balancing act of L’Arche was (and is) doing all the mandated things while retaining the sense that relationships — in all their incomplete, frustrating, incomparable beauty — are what matter most.


I admit it: I love finishing things. I love to check off boxes, initial documents, and complete every item on my to-do list. If I had my way, I’d have no lag time or learning curve; I’d wave a magic wand that would allow me to have a finished kitchen, drive stick-shift perfectly, and write the next bestseller.

But caring for people at L’Arche showed me the fallacy of these ‘arrival fantasies’. Helping people brush their teeth every day, driving them along the same route to work … these ordinary tasks of everyday life have treasures contained within. (True, it takes time and patience to uncover them, but what real treasure doesn’t require determination to acquire?)

Too often, our thinking is that when we finish everything on our lists, when everything’s done, then we’ll be happy. Then we’ll take the time to look around and appreciate it all. But today, sitting in my unfinished living room, typing these imperfect words, I find, paradoxically, a feeling of completion. I am doing what I was made to do, however imperfectly, and it is enough.

Inevitably, I’ll lose sight of that sufficiency. Invariably, I’ll get down on myself for not being ‘more productive’ or ‘farther along’ in my work and life. But then I’ll remember a man who showed me that some tasks — the tasks of true connection — should stand ‘unfinished’.

My friend Gene passed away a year ago this August, and, like many others whose lives he touched, I’m still not done caring for him. Whenever I tell his stories or recall his presence, I am doing the work of honoring, of remembering. This work of love is never finished, because love is never over.

And in that ever-incomplete work, I am made whole.


What (or who) helps you to focus on what matters most?

Join the conversation in the comments!

*L’Arche is a faith-based, worldwide non-profit organization that creates homes where people with and without intellectual disabilities share life together. I spent 5 years serving the DC community in various caregiving roles.

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  1. Tara August 27, 2012 at 4:06 PM - Reply

    So true, so beautiful… such an awesome reason to stay in the moment and appreciate the journey. We never know which moment of our life’s work will impact us the most (although I’m beginning to think it’s the most ordinary and unexpected that have the biggest impact). Congratulations on little Bootsie. Nothing like a little animal friend to make a house, finished or not, into a home. Wishing you all the best!

    • Caroline McGraw August 27, 2012 at 4:35 PM - Reply

      Thank you, Tara! And I totally agree – the most ordinary and expected can prove the most powerful. Thinking of you in your healing; thank you for sharing your stories. I always love reading your posts and seeing your beautiful photographs.

  2. mary Shapiro August 28, 2012 at 2:36 AM - Reply

    Hi from a most beautiful island under a waxing full moon! Even though the moon isn’t “complete” it is still breath taking! If only I was as happy and great-full and non-judgemental of my parents (who I am currently care-taking). Mom, a life long caregiver since her dad died at 13 and she cared for her siblings, then became an LPN, then Mom of her own 3, then Home Health Aide and hospice worker. This life long Care giver now is called to be a care-receiver. And Dad, the adored late baby boy, the communication professor who has always been on the podium, literally looked up to is supposed to suddenly become a Care Giver? (Good luck with THAT 🙂

    Still, my folks / this challenge is teaching me: one day at a time. (really, that”s all she knows). forgive. rest. smile. greet again (as if the 1st greeting of the day). hug. sing. Love (even when they don’t love you). Even my vitamins had a teaching for me this morning:

    Live in the Here and Wow.

    Thanks for YOUR wisdom Carolyn. It fits my life and I’ll pass it on.

    • Caroline McGraw August 28, 2012 at 3:45 PM - Reply

      Live in the here and wow … that’s great! I’m so glad the post connected with your experience, Mary. Sending big hugs and lots of encouragement your way.

  3. Cindy August 28, 2012 at 4:12 AM - Reply

    Caroline, your post is just what I needed. We are in the middle of a construction project ourselves-we are building an apartment in our basement for our 22 year old son Matthew and 2 other boys with autism. They will have 24 hour supervision staffed by a company with great employees that have provided after-school care for Matthew. The project is so consuming that I have to stop occasionally to remind myself to be with my son, even though I’m spending nearly all my waking hours doing this for him. I’ve been thinking for a year how great it will be when it’s done (the entire house has been torn up). With projects (and with people) that are unfinished (or seem to be), it’s common to fall into the “someday when it’s done” perspective and not enjoy the now. Matthew is certainly not “finished” but I can enjoy and appreciate him for what he is right now. And for that matter, none of us are complete. We are all changing beings that, although incomplete are growing and becoming more than what we have been.

    Incidentally, I have 2 toddler grandsons who are having as much fun in their perceived personal playground as Bootsie is in hers. They run around with tools “fixing things” and think they’re helping grandpa. When they come it’s sometimes a circus here and I think I just need to relax and enjoy it. Next time I see one of them with a screwdriver I’ll think of your kitten and just laugh. Thank you!

    • Caroline McGraw August 28, 2012 at 3:48 PM - Reply

      Sounds like we have a lot in common in this season of change and construction, Cindy! Our kitten particularly likes to curl up into piles of supplies (piping, tools, etc) and then leap out to ‘pounce’. 🙂

      Congratulations on what I’d imagine will be a wonderful space for Matthew and the other young men as well. And what a freeing insight: that we’re all works in progress.

  4. Gregory Lease August 28, 2012 at 4:46 AM - Reply

    Hi Caroline,
    Wonderful post. In all of life, completion is nearly impossible in anything that really matters, which are our relationships with ourselves and others. Perfection is a lofty idea, but the fact is that this side of heaven none of us is going to experience it. But learning how to love “what is” can bring us the peace and empowerment that we think can only come with perfect completion. I’m not sure if you are familiar with her work, but Byron Katie has written much on this subject, starting with her book Loving What Is. When we stop fighting what really is, we find that it’s quite OK for things to not be as we might like them to be. And we get to toss out the “shoulds,” which only eliminates that which does not exist anyway!

    I wish I was closer than 3000 miles from you; I’d gladly lend a hand with the renovations. I’ve been there lots of times, renovating a home, renovating my mind and heart. It’s often not as easy as it looks, but somehow the excitement of the “new” draws us through the difficulty into rejoicing.


    • Caroline McGraw August 28, 2012 at 4:25 PM - Reply

      Thank you so much, Greg! That’s a wonderfully kind offer that I wish we could take you up on. And yes, Byron Katie’s life and work definitely connects – her series of powerful questions is a great start when I’m feeling ‘stuck’ in a situation or a series of ‘shoulds’.

  5. Marlana August 28, 2012 at 10:40 PM - Reply

    I really enjoyed reading this. It reminds me of my brother. He always gets joy out of the simplest things. I have tried to incorporate that into my life when I can.

    • Caroline McGraw August 29, 2012 at 1:02 PM - Reply

      Thank you, Marlana! And what a beautiful gift that your brother has given you, and that you both give to the world: that of joy in simple things.

  6. […] At some point, all caregivers face an inability to 'complete' the task of caring for another person. This is a difficult truth, one that routine checklists and Medicaid regulations would have us forget.  […]

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