In the past couple of years I’ve been caught up in the health journeys of two people I love — a sister, and my husband of 33 years. We’ve dwelled in valleys of fear and pain, managed to reach some welcome plateaus, and dared to aim toward that gleam on the horizon: the restoration of reasonably good health. During these trials, I’ve come to accept the hard truth that nothing lasts, and that life is all about letting go and moving on. And I recognize that the weight in my heart isn’t just worry. It’s grief. Not the huge and terrible grief of death itself, but small, poignant sorrows that accumulate as health declines and losses mount. Tempting as it is, I won’t succumb to this undertow. If I did, how far would I sink? Instead, I keep my eye on that gleam of hope.
Through these journeys, I’ve learned a few things — or refreshed my insights — about myself and others.
I cannot force people to do what they don’t want to do.
This applies to my sister, who continues to smoke after a bout with lung cancer. It applies to my husband, whose kidneys failed from longtime diabetes; he wants to eat more and get stronger, but his appetite flags. I’ve begged and berated the smoker; I’ve cajoled and encouraged the reluctant eater. Now I try to focus on what I can do.
I’m okay, warts and all.
Some days I’ll smile. Some days I’ll snap. Some dinners I fix for my husband’s restrictive diet will wind up churning down the garbage disposal. Others will rate a second helping. Whether I step lively or plod wearily, I’ll try to take solace in what I’ve accomplished. And be glad when the sun brings another day.
No matter how miserable we are, someone else
Occasionally it takes a new experience to drive that knowledge home. Passing through an ER hallway one evening, looking for a nurse to ease my husband’s pain, I encountered a young man pounding his fists into his temples and screaming, “I killed my mom! I killed my mom!” From bits of conversation I overheard from others, I learned he’d crashed a car — and would pay a heavy price the rest of his life. I went back to my husband’s room, and when a nurse did arrive, I was able to greet her with gratitude, not grumbling. And I raised a prayer for a boy distraught with guilt and grief.
You can’t judge a person by her smile — or lack of one.
When a hospital’s at full capacity, some patients are placed in a holding area waiting for a room to come available. That happened to my spouse recently, and though I was weary and overwrought, I tried to relax. My nerves were hardly soothed by the approach of a nurse, who shuffled and slouched and spoke not a word. Yet within seconds, she’d provided warm blankets, a steaming cup of coffee, and peppermints from her pocket. Though a smile never crossed her face, her parting words (the only ones she uttered) gave comfort: “It’s gonna get better.”
Cell-phone chatterers are people too.
He hadn’t quit talking since he came in, a guy in a Budweiser T-shirt, aiming at his listeners a steady blast of opinions. As I sat in ICU, surrounded by exhausted people trying to sleep, I saw a woman shoot a baleful look at The Voice That Wouldn’t Die. Her glare struck home. He snapped his phone shut, leaned forward and barked, “You got a problem, ma’am?” Before she could react, he threw up his hands, slunk down in his seat, and muttered, “I’m just trying not to go crazy. Trying not to go crazy.” The lady nodded and shut her eyes. If he made another call, we didn’t hear him.
Take comfort in the kindness of strangers.
One evening, after a particularly tedious hospital visit, the car keys I was clutching slipped from my hand and fell through a grate down the elevator shaft. Riding down with me was a woman in ponytail and sweatpants. She could have blown me off with a “Sorry, hope you find ’em!”— and gone on her merry way. Instead she wandered down corridors with me till we found a maintenance man, waited while he rounded up people and equipment, and watched with interest while he fished the keys from a gloomy pit. Nearly two hours later, when we parted ways, I asked her why she bothered to stay. “I’d want somebody to do that for me,” she said. “And I got to see the happy ending.”
Ah, the happy ending. Don’t we all love those. But these days I look ahead to beginnings. It’s not easy — I yearn for “the way we were.” But forward I go. That way lies sanity and, I dare to hope, new kinds of joy.