October 7, 2017
“I’m tired of living this half-life!” I blurt this out while washing dishes a few days ago. As soon as I say it, I’m both glad and a little surprised. It’s been stuck inside of me for weeks, and now I finally say what is in my heart. I’d been holding back, not wanting to hurt Michael, but now my own pain guides me forward. He takes this in without arguing or resistance. He skips a beat and then says, “Well, what would make it 55%? I mean, we’re at 50% now, so what would make it 55?” So here is the man I love – the ever practical and grounded Taurus, asking how we can take this impossible situation and make it better.
For this situation is impossible. Michael is on chemotherapy for a rare and ultimately fatal disease, and he’s on it for at least another year. And now I have to skip a beat. But the truth is, there’s really nothing that either one of us can do to change these numbers. It is a half-life! We can’t do most of the things we used to do. The only time that we go “out” together is when we go to the hospital. The rest of the time we sit around a lot – on the couch in the living room, downstairs watching TV, or lying in bed together for a brief time before Michael goes into what has become “his bedroom” to sleep.
And, no, we don’t sleep together any longer. It’s just another in the long line of losses we’ve had to endure. Michael’s drugs have made it hard for him to sleep and he will be up for many hours doing all kinds of things to pass the time. There are nights when he pees often and copiously. There are nights when he stays up reading until midnight or later. There are nights when he’s just plain restless. I found that when we tried to continue to sleep together, I didn’t sleep. And I mean, not much at all.
I realize that this is one of our patterns at work: We’re both really sensitive but in different ways and my tendency is to disregard my own feelings in order to take care of him. But I have to tell the truth and I’m finding that I’m very sensitive to what I describe as his “toxicity.” He hates that I call him “toxic” but I can actually feel it. I feel it oozing off of him after his chemo days and for several days afterwards. And there’s an underlying toxicity that just never goes away. He’s not well. He doesn’t look well or sound well or act well. Though his attitude is still positive most of the time, his body is sick.
He objected to my calling him “sick” last week and I said, “But that’s what you are!” He thought about it and decided he is “ill,” not sick. So, ok, he’s ill. Regardless, I feel it profoundly and there doesn’t seem to be a way for me not to feel it. And what it means for me is that I really need to protect my energy, especially at night when I’m trying to sleep.
For Michael’s lack of sleep profoundly affects my own. I put off separating our beds as long as I could and then I realized that though it might hurt him, it is also an act of self-preservation. This is actually a huge realization. It requires me to put my own needs before his – a very difficult pattern for me to break for it engenders guilt. But now I know that through this long process my job is to take care of myself as well as to take care of him. It felt selfish at the time and it still feels selfish occasionally, but I know it is the right thing, the only thing that will allow me to rest. And I desperately need to rest.
I look to symbols to explain my life to me, and one of the ways I understand these symbols is through the use of tarot cards. In both of my last tarot readings, Michael showed up as the 10 of Wands card. It’s a picture of the back of a man carrying ten heavy wands over his shoulder, clearly suffering under the burden of this. In fact, “burden” is the generally accepted meaning for this card. In the summer reading, the burden was in the position of my environment. In this newest reading, the burden was underneath me, below me, always there. When I first saw this card appear, my thought was, “ah, this is Michael,” and he saw it too.
But it is also me. It is a symbol of my taking on a responsibility, and being burdened by it, by the inevitable lack of sleep in this new reality of ours. Burdened by Michael’s illness, by the huge and unrelenting changes in our daily lives, by the extra work and worry that being a caregiver entails.
A friend of mine recently quoted Ken Wilber to me. He is a philosopher whose wife died after five years of cancer treatment. In his book about this time he tells of a woman who had both a terminal illness and was also a caregiver. She told Ken that, “I would have to say that it so much harder to be a support person. As the person with cancer I had many moments of sheer beauty and clarity and grace and reordering of priorities in life, a new appreciation of the beauty of life. But as a support person that’s really hard to find. It was really hard for me to hang in there all the time, to choose to be there, to not feel I was walking on eggshells all the time around the person. It’s an emotional roller coaster for the support person, and I could only come back to the one thing that really matters: love, just love him/her.”
I’m not saying this to evoke pity. In spite of a strong and easy pull toward feeling victimized, I believe that this is my spiritual practice right now, and that as much as Michael, I have chosen this caregiver path for the growth of my soul. But the words of this unknown woman allow me to fully realize what this change in our life circumstances has done to me as well as to Michael. It has changed virtually everything and I often feel that we are living a “half life.”
And as hard as all of this is, I’ve also been struck by how ordinary it all is. Caregiving, dying and death are so ordinary. It’s not that it shouldn’t be honored, for honoring it is paramount to living this life fully. But people die all the time! Some die of illness, some of accident, some of old age. But it happens all the time, and it is happening to each of us.
Birth and death are really the most true events in this life. And birth and death are so sacred because they show us the place we all come from and the place we all are going. We witness these passages from and to the Mystery with bated breath, with breaths held in wonder and awe. For we know we are witnessing something that is so beyond us that all we can really do is go down on our knees in gratitude –gratitude for the tiny immensities shown to us in each coming and going. And then we come back to love. Just love.