Today, I am working with a title from one world and an event in another. The title comes from a hymn we sang in my church when I was a little boy. The whole line, adapted to today’s question is, “O Master…help me bear the strain of toil, the fret of care.” The event is the current movie, Amour, which has been nominated for five academy awards. If you have seen it, you know why the expression, “the fret of care” came to my mind.
Spoiler Alert: I’m going to talk about what happens in the movie. Some people would rather find out at the movie what happens. I am not one of those. I am more likely to go to a movie to see what I know is going to happen.
Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emanuelle Riva) are in their 80s, creaky but happy. They appear to have had a full and satisfying life and that life goes on. One morning at the breakfast table, Anne has a stroke and their life becomes more stressful. Then she has another, with which they cope as best they can. Then another, a more serious one, and they simply run out of coping resources.
Georges agreed to honor her urgent request that she not be placed in a care center of any kind, but she said that and he agreed to it after the first stroke. Now there is no chance to renegotiate the agreement, so Georges sticks with it. He gives himself full time to caring for Anne, which she appreciates in the beginning, but as she sees him start to slide, she urges him to live a life of his own. Get out, see friends, go to concerts. He won’t do that.
The guilt Anne feels as the proximate cause of Georges’s dutiful despondency weighs on her, but there is nothing she can do about it. She seems to feel a despair about her own life, but I think it may be more the grinding sense of guilt about what she is doing to her dear husband. He has trapped her in her guilt and it is more than she can bear. That’s how I saw the story.
The movie meant a lot to me because I had done a lot of thinking about it before. It took my wife, Marilyn, about two years to die after her cancer was diagnosed. During a fair amount of that time, there wasn’t much her body could do, but her mind was a sharp as ever. I wrote some essays during that time and we read them together. She liked them. She wanted to be the woman in those essays, she said. She was, actually. I modeled the woman after her. And she was grateful that I was trying to be the man in those essays.
Here are a few of the things she liked. They were written in the winter of 2003, the year she died in August.
The principal responsibility of the partner as caregiver is to see to it that care is provided. Some things can be done only by the partner. Others can be done by family and friends, but it is the partner’s job, always, to see to it that they are done. Not that they are done “his way,” but that they are done to the satisfaction of the recipient.
The caregiver’s principal job is not to provide all the services his partner needs. He can’t possibly do that, for one thing. But also, he should not because it will cost him more resources than he has, or than he has access to.
Committing to the work when the caregiver does not have adequate resources is more likely to produce denial than adaptation. I can always say I have more resources than I have, meaning that I surely must have more than I know about. I can always say that the cost to me is acceptable, when everyone who knows me can see how my life is distorted by the burden I am, at the same time, bearing and denying. And by slow and steady steps, I become, under those pressures, a husband less and less familiar to his wife, a man less sought after by his friends; a man who would rather live an impossibly shrunken life than claim a life of his own and find the resources to live it.
In any case, however the caregiver justifies his choices, his job is to do gladly, as he is able, the services he does for her. And to do generously what he cannot do gladly. And to block, in any case, any appearance of unwillingness to do what needs to be done. Unwillingness hurts. Joyless duty hurts. And if he feels that way about the tasks that have fallen to his lot, he should find a way to keep it to himself.
For every point about the caregiver, there was a point about the receiver of those services. Marilyn said she “aspired” to them, but in fact, I formulated them by writing down what I saw her doing. Maybe I’ll write about that side of the relationship some time.
You can see, in any case, why I found the movie so attractive. It is a beautifully written and sparely filmed story. It’s beautiful and it’s worth thinking about.
 The OED says there is a meaning that has a transferred sense of “slow and gradual destructive action, as of frost, rust, disease, chemical corrosives, friction, the waves, etc.” That’s the kind of “fret of care” I was thinking of.