Monday, September 29, 2014

Sympathetic Joy

I’d see her around town occasionally, this woman who had once attended church with me. At the diner or the market, we’d bump into each other and exchange a few pleasant words. We’d ask about the kids—we had sons of a similar age—and talk about our church ministries. Somewhere in these brief exchanges over a decade of years, I’d learned that her husband suffered from bipolar disorder. I murmured sympathetic words; I knew what that was like. We’d part ways after a few moments, each of us going back to a challenging life. I seldom thought about her between our sporadic conversations.

I saw her again on Saturday, this woman of my acquaintance, sorting for buried treasure at the church rummage sale. We spoke, of course, making the same cursory comments we’d been making for years. Nice to see you. Beautiful day. How are your kids?

And then she said the unexpected, totally out of keeping with the little I knew about her: “I’m getting a divorce.”

I got it. Standing there with a covered casserole dish in my hand, balancing the cookie sheets I was holding for my daughter as she tried on a pair of jeans, I got it. Years of care-giving, arguments with a spouse that often lacked reason, raising a family on a shoe-string budget, doling out money to medical professionals who could offer no real hope all took their tolls.

I fixed my face into what I hoped was an appropriate expression of compassion and touched her hand. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “I know what it’s like.”

She knew my words were not empty. She nodded. “Of course you would.” We said a few more words, promised to pray for one another, and went back to our days.

As she turned down another aisle, I tried to find the words to describe what I was feeling. Empathy? Concern? Nothing seemed to fit. As my daughter returned with her 50 cent jeans and we continued on our rare day out, I shelved the thought for later on.

I took my thought out again the next day and looked it over. I turned to my thesaurus and the internet to try and pin down the words that would say it. I finally settled on a Buddhist philosophy: sympathetic joy.

Part of me was glad for this dear woman, glad that she would now be free of the demands of care-giving, relieved of senseless arguments and messy clean-ups and the burdens that come with being the Well Spouse. I pictured her in a small, sunny apartment somewhere, time healing the wounds caused by the illness of a spouse. I admired her courage, because I knew what it must have taken for her to reach this point. Dreams are not easily relinquished.

But along with the joy was the sympathy. Divorce meant the loss of the future she had planned as a bride, holiday dinners with an empty chair, grandchildren visiting on alternate weekends. I remembered the last thing she had said to me before we again parted ways: “It just got too hard.”

I know hard. I know exactly what hard tastes and smells and sounds and feels like. Being the Well Spouse is a solitary endeavor. We do what we do for the most part alone. Often our families do not understand or see it all. And sometimes the immediate family of the Ill Spouse would rather pretend the situation did not exist, casting the burden of an ill adult child onto the one unwittingly who said “I do.” It is easy to go blithely about when you do not hear the night demons screaming.

I prayed for her today, my fellow Well Spouse. I pray she has peace in her decision. I pray her adult children support her. I pray her church supports her.

And as I prayed, I was forced to again ask myself the hard question: Why do I stay? Why do I sacrifice so much for what seems to be a never-ending cycle, with one ailment after another plaguing my husband? Why do I live always waiting for the other shoe to drop? I am often exhausted by the burdens placed on my shoulders. There is no longer light at the end of an incredibly long tunnel.

Do I lack the courage to leave? I do not think so. I have seen myself become, these last fifteen years, a woman of daunting courage. Do I fear reprisal? My own children would understand. There is no one else whose opinion would matter to me. Do I think God would punish me? I believe that God, having created me, knows the limits of my body and my soul. I think He would be saddened, but I do not believe in a vengeful God.

So, then, why?

It’s a complex question. After 37 years, so much of me is tied up with my husband that it is sometimes hard to separate. My Well Spouse acquaintance commented that she no longer knew which things belonged originally to her and which to her husband.  It is more than just possessions that are shared. A lifetime is not easily dissected. Routines established are not quickly disbanded. Hope dies hard.

These are all reasons for staying. But the real reason is simple: I stay because I can. Despite my considerable vision problems, I am well and healthy.  I can still find joy in teaching and in writing. I can still laugh with girlfriends and have the kids over for supper and watch a movie with Ron. Our life has been bent, but not destroyed. If I have had to change my plans of a little retirement house at the beach where I can write all day, so be it. It is the price of the Well Spouse. I can still spin my dreams, however fragile they sometimes seem.

But I can recognize my own fragility as well. I can no longer work 60 hours a week and retain a bounce in my step and a twinkle in my eye. I cannot function solely on gallons of tea and the “someday I will write my novel” mantra. I’ve put that dream off for too long. I may need someday, let’s just face it, to come to the same decision as the woman at the rummage sale. The thought is always with me, a dark cloud over the head of a comic strip character. It may never rain, but the dark cloud still dangles above.

I recall the words of a former pastor, spoken at the very beginning of my journey as the Well Spouse. He took my hands in his and said, “Linda, I know that you will do everything in your power to help Ron. But if, at some point in time, years from now, you find that you can no longer do this, I will understand. I will not rebuke you.”

I can only pray that, should that overhead dark cloud descend, I will not rebuke myself.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

How I Learned to Read

It seemed like magic. Somehow, the squiggles and lines on pages made up words, and words made up stories. The little Golden Books my grandmother bought me from the supermarket were filled with such lines and squiggles. Sometimes, I could convince my grandmother or my mom to read to me from The Little Poky Puppy or the Gingerbread Man. Mostly, though, I sat with my treasured books on my own, trying to figure out the code that would make the stories come to life. I matched the pictures with words I’d heard and tried to guess. Was this word here, the one with the line at the top, tree? And the one with the letter that looped down low, was that word yellow? I made a game of it. When I was in the market with my mother, I would point to the signs I saw and say words out loud: Sale! Fish! Bread! And a lot of times I would be right and someone standing near would say to my mother, “Your daughter’s very bright.” My mother would nod in the distracted ways of young moms and say, “Yes, she is.”

But she thought I was only matching pictures to words. She didn’t know that every ounce of my brain was given over to working out the coded system adults seemed to know so well.

Now my parents were not really avid readers. Dad read the newspaper every night and Mom read movie magazines on the weekends or at the beach. They would read to me if I asked, but it wasn’t a nightly routine. We had books in our home, big, thick ones that rested on the bookcase my father had built by the side of the fireplace. But no one ever took one of the books down and opened them up. I had, of course, my little collection of Golden Books. Almost every week, my grandmother added a new one.

But, young as I was, I knew that they weren’t REAL books, not the kind with the thick sides and the shiny covers that came off.

Then, the Christmas just before I turned four, Santa Claus brought me a real book. It was shiny, not made of cheap cardboard. It had a cover that slipped off and brightly colored drawings and—most wondrous of all!—words! Not just one or two words on each page, like some of my little Golden Books, but lines and lines of words. I held the book tightly to me even as my brother and I unwrapped the other gifts under the tree. And when my mother went into the kitchen to make breakfast and my brother played with his new Erector set, I asked my father to read the magical book to me.

“I will go into the zoo,” my father read, “I want to see it. Yes, I do.” I clung to the words, following along with my finger as he read each one off. And I was hooked. The creature that might have been a dog or a bear wanted to belong to the zoo! After my father finished reading it and before my mother called us for breakfast, I turned the words over in my head, pointing out each one to myself. After breakfast dishes were done, I asked my mother to read it to me. She obliged. Then I asked my brother, who gave a half-hearted attempt at the words. Then I asked my father again. Finally, my mother said, “Play with something else, Linda.”

But I wasn’t playing. I was learning to read.

As the afternoon wore on and dark fell, we bundled up and drove in Dad’s gray Plymouth to my grandmother’s house. I carried my wondrous book with the creature who might have been a dog but was probably a bear. There, while my mother and grandmother got Christmas dinner ready, I showed my grandfather my new book. He read it to me. Again. And again. Until at last it was time to eat.

I could hardly sit still to eat my turkey. I knew I was on the very verge of something wonderful, something life-changing, something so important that I as yet had no words for it. All through the main course and the apple pie, I longed to get back to my book.

But the adults did not understand. There were more presents under my grandparents’ tree, more toys and clothes and items to delight. There were no more books.

Later on, as the sounds of the Lawrence Welk Christmas show filled the living room and the Lennon sisters sang “Jingle Bell Rock,” I crawled up onto  my grandfather’s lap. “I will read to you,” I said.
“Alright then,” he said and scooped me up close.

And I opened the book, the amazing book with the creature that might have been a dog or a bear or something entirely new, and I read the story to him. “Yes, this is where I want to be! The circus is the place for me!”
My grandfather was astounded. He called to my mother. “Betty, this child has learned to read.” My mother, dishtowel in hand and weary from Christmas, said, “Oh, Daddy, we’ve been reading that book to her all day. She’s just memorized the words.”

My grandfather shook his head. “No, Betty. She can read it.” And he made me read it again for my mother.
Backwards, from last page to first.

And I didn’t miss a word.

My parents stared at me for a moment. My mother stroked my head. “Sometimes,” she said, “this one just astounds me.”

I wasn’t sure what the word meant. But I knew I would find out. I knew that, somehow, a door had opened for me on that Christmas Day, beckoning me into a world of delight and wonder.

I had learned to read.

Monday, September 1, 2014

9th Hour

The Ninth Hour
We arrived at the hospital later than we had planned, closer to 9:00 than to 8:30. We’d missed the Callowhill Exit off I-95 North and ended up all the way on Lehigh, working our way through Kensington and finally to Broad Street.

“We’ll make it on time,” my daughter assured me as I sneaked a peek at my watch.

“More time to pray,” I said. But, truthfully, I was concerned. I wanted to see my husband before they took him for the abalation, wanted to hold his hand and kiss him one more time. Ron’s condition had deteriorated since Thursday, when his blood-pressure bottomed out during his scheduled ketamine treatment. Since then, his heart had been in AFib, and the blood thinners were not working. I wanted to be optimistic—I made a career of it—but I couldn’t help but wonder if this was finally the end of the story.

Friends had assured me for the last two days that I had done all I could for my husband, being a model wife and care-giver to my ill spouse. “You have nothing to feel guilty about,” they all said. I needed to hear it. I’d only lately come to the realization myself. Negative influences had, for years, blamed me for Ron’s various maladies and even though I knew the accusations were not true, some of the barbs stuck. In the last few months, though, I had finally crawled out from under the burden of guilt that I had carried for 14 years.

“Ron has been ill for a long time,” friends told me. “It’s been hard.  It might be time to let go.”

“Might” and “will be” are two different statements. As much as I’d longed over the years to come to a  page marked, “The End”, I had always seen it as an end to Ron’s illness, not his life.

“Dad’ll be okay,” my daughter said as she maneuvered us towards Hahnemann Hospital. They were the same words she had said the night of her father’s accident. “He won’t leave us without a fight.” I nodded my head in agreement, remembering how Ron, ill and in pain, had nonetheless danced with his daughter on her wedding day in June. It had been hard, I knew. Perhaps, I forced myself to admit, he was tired of fighting.

We got to the hospital shortly before 9AM and found a space in the Feinstein lot, a blessing to two gals who hated city parking. It was a short walk to the hospital entrance, each of us carrying a tote bag of yarn projects. We’d logged enough hours in waiting rooms to know the drill of unexpected complications.

“Everyone we know is praying,” Bonnie reminded me as we ascended to the 20th floor. We counted off four churches and one synagogue where people were gathered this morning, more than 200 persons. Bonnie and I had made phone calls to prayer chains at 8PM last night, when information from Hahnemann informed us of Ron’s deteriorating condition and the need for the heart procedure.

I’d been to 2056 before, but hospitals are a rabbit warren of mazes; it took us a few minutes to find Ron’s room. He was sleeping when we entered, hooked to various wires and monitors. It was an all-too familiar sight.

“He looks better,” I said as I touched his cheek. “His color has improved.” Bonnie took her father’s hand. Ron’s eyes opened.

“Hi, “  I said. “We made it. Even though Bonnie got us lost.”

“Not lost,” said my daughter. “Delayed. But I made up for it by speeding.”

Just then, two white-coated figures entered the room. “Ah, you made it on time,” said Dr. Fletcher, a man I had met on Friday. “We’re getting him ready for the procedure now.” He bent over the telemetry machine to read the tape. “Hmmm” he said. He looked up and smiled.

“What?” I asked.

“Well,” said Dr. Fletcher,” it appears that Mr. Cobourn’s heart has converted to normal rhythm. The blood thinners must have worked.”

Bonnie and I grinned at each other. “We had everyone we know praying,” we said. “His heart had a lot of help.”

Dr. Fletcher smiled. “Perhaps the blood thinners AND prayer did the trick. Well, I’ll go call the OR and cancel.”  He and his white-coated companion left.

“I feel better,” said Ron.

“A lot of prayer,” I said. The three of us chatted for a few minutes. Ron was anxious for some breakfast now that there would be no surgery.

Dr. Fletcher poked his head back into the room. “I checked the tape again,” he said. “When did you ladies say all the prayer happened?”

“Around 8 last evening,” we said.

Dr. Fletcher grinned. “His heart rhythm began to convert around 9PM.”

The power of prayer is never to be underestimated. “God still has a plan for you,” I told my husband. Bonnie began to send out happy texts to our prayer warriors.

“Well, my plan,” he said, “is to eat.”

We still have issues to solve. The blood thinner lowers Ron’s blood pressure, but his heart might need the help. And while the ketamine treatments seem to help the pain issues, they affect his blood pressure, too.
But these are issues for another day.

Because, thanks to God, there will be another day.