Wednesday, February 09, 2005

The Five Hardest Things

Let’s just say you’re like me-you just turned 50. The kids are grown and not in the federal penitentiary, you’re relatively debt free. All the issues you had with your parents and all the mistakes they made raising you are resolved for the most part. You may not be in love with your job, but you can tolerate it most of the time.

All the petty jealousy’s and power struggles that occurred early in your relationship have been resolved and even though there are certain acts and words and phrases that can still push your buttons for the most part you rarely have a fight and when you do it lasts for minutes, not hours.

You’re beginning to think about retirement, maybe starting a business. You’re starting to do the household chores during the week so you can spend the weekends walking in the woods or birding.

Then you find out your husband, partner, the love of your life has lung cancer.

There’s a television commercial for an SUV, I can’t remember which one. The driver takes the vehicle to the edge of a cliff. He stands at the end of the earth and there is nothing there but darkness and stars. I’m at the edge of that cliff, but there are no stars. The first hardest thing is realizing that you have no future.

Try to imagine it. You have built a life. Two weeks after you turned 20 you met a male person you could have a conversation with who wasn’t gay. Somehow you swallowed a barbed hook that’s still pulls at your stomach, heart and head. He tried to break up with you twice but you wouldn’t let him. Well, once you wouldn’t let him quoting from his very own Little Red Book, the second time he changed his mind. You got married and had babies. You worked hard and had fights and made love all over the place. Making up for a lack of experience you explored “The Joy of Sex” bending down the corners of the pages so you could “practice.” You christened every room in every apartment and every piece of furniture in every room, the stairs, and the floors. When you went on vacation the first thing you would do when you got on the highway (since the car seat was facing backwards in tback seat) was whip out his penis and start your trip with a bang while passing truck drivers got a birds eye view. You made love in the woods up against the trees, under the bushes at the Wolverton Inn, giggling as people walked by. In front of a giant mirror in a room over a drag show in New Hope.

This man was so strong he could have crushed you, could have snapped your neck with practically no effort, but he used his strength to hug you, to hold you, to love you more than anyone else in the whole world had ever loved you. You were safer than you’d ever been and that made you feel free. He used his strength to work hard and fix cars and build bookcases and put up sheet rock and change light fixtures and change babies and help you wallpaper.

All those things he would do, but he would also read you poetry even if you don’t like the kind that rhymes. He would talk to you about politics and literature and how to make wine. He would make you breakfast and goat curry even though you don’t like goat curry. He would argue with you about the nature of World War II for 13 years and then admit that you were right.

Now when he lays there drifting in and out of sleep saying that he’s too tired to think, dragging himself down the stairs to drink a milkshake laced with Prosure you find it hard to take a breath. You wish you were the one who was sick and when he says, “No, you don’t wish that honey,” it hurts so much your head could explode all over the walls. Someone who saved your life, who helped make your life, who held you up through years of depression and mental pain is suffering more than he ever has in his life. To not be able to fix this by sheer force of will; to not be able to meld your body into his and drag him through this is the way you’ve always done everything-together- is intolerable. The second hardest thing is being powerless.

<>We live in a time when “family values” are trumpeted to justify oppression and robbery.
We have something called the Family Leave Act that is supposed to cover situations like this. When a family member is seriously ill you are supposed to be able to take time off to care for them. Unfortunately the act doesn’t say what you’re supposed to do for money. If you’re lucky, the person who gets sick is a teacher who has 45 sick days instead of 7 like you do, so for 45 days he gets full salary. After that it’s 50 percent on short term disability. So instead of being supportive and nurturing, you get to worry about money and paperwork and picking up all the slack of the household shores while working full time. He wants you to be with him and you can’t. Financial and time pressure, these are the third hardest things.

Once if you had a bad day at work or your kids screwed up again you could come home and blow of steam. You could go out to dinner or go for a walk or have a few glasses of wine and tumble into bed to release the tension. Now there’s no one to talk to rant at or run away with. There is no fun. No fun in June, July, August, September, November, December, January, now it’s February. There was only worry-wondering what the problem was, what it would mean. Then there was the discovery; the worst possible discovery. Now there’s limbo – suspended animation with no end in sight. The first deadline is 2 weeks away. A CT scan. Did it work? If the answer is yes, “prophylactic cranial radiation,” then a month or 2 later, another CT scan. Repeat, repeat, repeat. If the answer is no…Uncertainty, this is the fourth hardest thing.

People ask you how you are. They tell you they are praying for you even though you don’t believe in prayer or god. They tell you they were so sorry to hear about it. You wonder if they really mean it or are secretly glad that something came to break that bond that no one else seemed to have. You went everywhere together-meetings, movies, walking the dog, to the supermarket, flea-marketing. You didn’t want to go anywhere alone. Not you and not him. “Come with me,” he would say. “Take a ride with me.” And even if you were in the middle of cleaning the house or weren’t planning on going out you would change your clothes-“Do I have to wear a bra?” and comb your hair and go because he wanted you to go with him.

People ask you how you are and you say “OK.” You have to go to work and you have to do your job and you have to pay bills and do the laundry and go to the store. You have to get up every morning and get through every second of every day. You cry in the shower and you cry in the car and you cry in the middle of the night. All your memories play in your head when you’re alone. You wish you had made him buy a video camera so you could have captured his smile, his walk, and the way he crossed his legs and held his pipe. Panic overcomes you in the middle of the day when he used to call to see if you needed anything from the supermarket or what you wanted for dinner. There are days when he never calls. The days after chemotherapy when he lays on the couch all day too weak to pick up the phone you realize that this could be the way your life is from now on: no one calling for any reason at all. How do you express these feelings to a stranger? Who can listen to this tidal wave of pain?

What if someone shows up in your inbox one day with a message that he heard about your husband being sick and to let him know how things are going? What if it’s someone you haven’t seen in 12 years but you can talk to like you just saw him yesterday? What if it’s someone you’ve known for 30 years who loves you? What if one day you send a small message back-“I’m scared,” you say because you are terrified and alone. And he answers back, “Call me, anytime.” I suppose you should say, “No thank you, that wouldn’t be proper.” I suppose you should shred your brain, your body and your heart with your nails; beat your head against the wall until you can’t think anymore; cry every night until your eyes are purple slits and your head throbs. I suppose you should enshrine your loneliness in a near-crypt, surrounded with bouquets of lilies.

To have the chance to be human again, to have fun again, to love again. That is the fifth hardest thing.