February 17, 2017
NBC’s series This Is Us has captivated me ever since I gasped at the end of the first episode. If you know me, I don’t gasp easily. I’m a difficult person to excite when you’re talking about television shows. But I really enjoy watching This Is Us. I love the writing, the characters and the small but mighty revelations in each episode. It’s like there’s a little drop of magic in every script. But that’s not why I’m writing this post. I’m writing because Tuesday night’s episode really hit home with me and probably for a lot of other viewers too. I mentioned that I’ve been a faithful viewer since the first season of the show. But it was only last Tuesday that the realization screamed at me.
Randall is a caregiver. A burnt out caregiver, at that.
In an effort to build a relationship with his estranged biological father, William, Randall Pearson moved him into his home. It’s a home that includes his wife Beth, their two daughters, and most recently, his brother Kevin. William has cancer and is currently in hospice. In Tuesday’s episode, Beth had her own family crisis: her mother, who lives in another state, fell and broke her hip. And so while Beth prepared to travel, Randall found himself further crushed under the weight of responsibilities, and not having enough of himself to go around. His nervous breakdown at the end of the episode really encompassed all of the emotions that so many caregivers experience. Sadness, grief, guilt, anger, and feelings of failure. I think Randall’s character is special because he’s an overachiever. He wants to please everyone and he doesn’t like to appear needy.
Tuesday night I watched Randall make impossible decisions about how to prioritize the needs of his family and his still emerging career. At 36-years-old, Randall’s age, you might imagine yourself knee deep into your career, possibly starting or raising a family, and just enjoying your life. Being a caregiver often means that your choices are all costly and that no matter what choice you make, someone or something will suffer. I saw parts of my own life play out in those scenes. My life, and my friends’ lives. I remember being just a few weeks into a new job and having to ask for time off because my father was admitted to the hospital and was giving the nurses a difficult time as they treated him. And I could tell you one hundred more stories of friends who have made life changing sacrifices in order to care for their parents.
We’re the original Millennials. We’re the last-ish crop of babies born to the Baby Boomers. We overcrowded public school classrooms, at some of the same schools that now sit dark and vacant, closed due to low enrollment. I remember when we had a Beta Max machine. But I came of age during the dot com boom, and learned to type efficiently thanks to AOL chat and Instant Messenger. We’re in deep relationships — with our smartphones, but we struggle internally with sharing our lives publicly. Because, unlike our younger siblings and cousins, we have a notion of privacy that they never will. We grew up playing with toys, and they’ve grown up playing with smart phones, constantly connected to everyone they know. We’re in our thirties now. Our parents are aging into retirement and discovering new ailments and more reasons for us to remain in close proximity to them, sometimes in the same household. I think most of us expected to care for our parents, but we didn’t expect to have to do it so soon.
Randall has grown up in what appears to be a middle class family, and now lives what I’d argue is an upper middle class lifestyle. His biological father did not. William, for as brilliant and passionate as he is, is a poor black man from an urban environment. He hasn’t had access to the kind of life or preventative medical care that may have potentially helped him live longer. It’s a situation that mirrors the lives of many people of color. And it’s something that needs to be addressed when we talk about the caregiving process, because people cannot pour from empty cups.
Randall, like many of us, faces a tough and uncertain journey. For all of his money and his resources, he still struggles to find answers. That’s the reality of caregiving. I’m waiting to see how Randall’s story unfolds. And I’m most certainly rooting for him, just as I’m rooting for you. Continue to do your best, and remember to practice self care.
Randall is us.