Saturday, March 1, 2008

An Essential Question

I recently read a study about the "widow effect," a curious but very real phenomenon that doctors have long been aware of. When a husband or wife dies, there's a greater likelihood that the surviving spouse will pass away soon afterward. It is not hard to imagine that when two lives have been intertwined for a long time, the surviving partner loses not only the emotional will to live, but also the daily habits of self care. For some, grief trumps survival.

However, my thoughts turned in another direction after reading this study. I thought about the "death in life" that some caretakers of partners with long term debilitating illness speak about as their world slowly shrinks to fit within the dimensions of the sick room. Caretakers I have talked to poignantly describe the impact it has when partner turns into patient and caresses get exchanged for sponge baths, lively conversation for medical updates, and future dreams for waking nightmares.

How does the caretaker not only juggle daily practicalities -- shopping, chauffeuring, working, finances, child care -- but also deal with the snarl of conflicting emotions? Cherishing the memory, hating the reality; yearning for release, fearing further deterioration; love and obligation; commitment and escape; loneliness and guilt.

When I was at my worst, housebound with my daily battle with pain, Richard (my partner and caretaker) and I, both exhausted from the struggle to carry on, would sometimes just sit together in silence . There was nothing more we could do and nothing left to be said. In silence, when the words we hurled at our fears ran dry, we could feel a connection, one that survived in a calmer universe where pain had lesser authority. For a moment, my caretaker could suspend his vigilance, and I could feel whole.

We ricocheted between this silence and frenzied, fear-saturated conversations that consisted of endless questions we kept firing into the unknown in the hope that one would reveal a promising direction. What medication should I try? What specialist should I see next - an orthopedist, an immunologist, another neurologist, a gynecologist, a uro-gynecologist? Should I try acupuncture again, or maybe massage?

One day, following one of these silent respites, we stumbled upon an essential question. We asked, "What is the most important thing we can do for each other?"

Our answers rose to the top of the emotional heap in an instant. I wanted Richard to tell me that he had faith that I would recover. He wanted me to let him know whenever I felt even the slightest relief from the pain.

This was a way to swaddle our terrible fear in love and reassurance, and quiet it, for a while. So much was beyond our control, but this we could do for each other, happily, easily. This was a new beginning for us. It made the load we each carried a little bit lighter.


Dreaming again said...

My husband and I both struggle with significant health issues. I blog about them ...on a semi frequent basis. My blog was intended to be about our health struggles, but it has turned into a life blog.

My issues are many ...lupus, myasthenia gravis, insulin resistance, fibromyalgia, asthma ...yada yada yada ...

my husbands are severe ... post polio syndrome with SEVERE scoliosis ... 98 lbs, and degeneration of the scoliosis, displaced spinal cord, crushing of the nerves ... and well ... a decreased life expectancy.

The ying and yang of our health issues and how we deal with them we have managed to make our family work (we have 2 boys, 16 and 18) sometimes look like jagged lines ... and sometimes looks like nothing short of poetry or a great work of art.

The bottom line ... between the noise of the pain and the silence of the joy of being together ... we work together to make things work. Somehow.

Barbara Kivowitz said...

Dreaming Again - your comment is beautiful. To turn health struggles into life struggles and to turn that into a work of art is a profound path. I am sorry you and your husband have these health issues. I wish you both strength and many,many wonderful times together.

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