Monday, January 7, 2008

A Story About Trauma: Harry & Adele

This is a true story. All identifying information has been changed to protect confidentiality.

Harry fell, again, the second time in two months. He is in severe pain and can't walk.

Eight weeks ago he was blown over by a fierce wind and got badly bruised. He developed infections in both legs, probably from skin lacerations, and his doctor wanted him to remain immobile. He stayed in his armchair, watching Patriots football games, eating take-out Chinese food, and falling asleep to the 11:00 news.

He is 82, bald, overweight, and one of the most benign spirits his daughter, Sarah, knows. He tries to do good. When his mother was in a nursing home, he brought bagels for the staff every time he visited. He gives to many charities, often anonymously. He is the family communications hub -- celebrating good news, commiserating with tales of heartache, and trying to repair rifts. He is a light in his daughter's life.

Adele, Harry's wife, is 80, has the puckered skin and raspy voice of a dedicated smoker, and has succumbed to old age as if it were a gift delivering her a rare form of freedom. She sees Harry as unbearably controlling. While they live together, she has cut him out of her world as cleanly as one might excise a splinter from a finger, permitting only brief exchanges of necessary information.

Adele tries to do good. She is an ardent helper -- babysitting grandchildren, visiting ailing aunts and uncles, feeding people. When her daughter Sarah was in the thick of dealing with recently diagnosed fibromyalgia and uninterested in eating, Adele would make quarts of her favorite soup. Freeze them. Then ship them overnight to Sarah. She was unable to stare Sarah's illness in the face. Long distance soup became her get well card. Sarah feels the love in her mother's efforts and has learned to respond to that love and not get entangled in the snares that lie beneath.

Helping is not he same as doing good. Lodged in Adele's core is a sponge that soaks up the approval she receives, converts it into a facsimile of self esteem and then leaks out the leftover drops in the form of helping. The help arrives disfigured by her hunger for recognition. Harry has enough solid goodness lodged in his essence that even his belabored cautions about driving safely and staying warm come out shining.

Yesterday, Harry fell again while trying to get up out of his chair. He is in the hospital, and the family is waiting for the doctor's report on his condition. Adele is at home, planning on visiting him later tonight. Sarah can't imagine what the two of them will talk about when Adele visits.

Harry and Adele's story is a sad one. They were once two beautiful, young people who laughed, worked together, had children. Somewhere along the way the lights went out. In the dark, they stopped talking and started detaching. And now that they are both in their 80's and illness has inserted itself into their relationship, Sarah, their daughter, is afraid that her mother's helping and her father's goodness just won't be enough.


Terry at Counting Sheep said...

Do you think they still love each other, though?

Barbara Kivowitz said...

Great question Terry. I think they still have the habit of love, but have stopped being in love decades ago. Maybe that's enough.....

Terry at Counting Sheep said...

What a great description - the habit of love.