“Perhaps the gods are kind to us, by making
life more disagreeable as we grow older.”-Sigmund Freud
She came for a checkup on her arthritis. When I met her, she was in constant pain; unable to cope with even the easiest of chores. Her husband and soul mate of fifty years was there every minute; every second; helping with whatever he could and drying her tears when there was nothing else that he could do to help.
I see these scenes often. A lifetime of compatible companionship blends two human beings into one. Even the most trivial of needs are anticipated. It is never a chore to go out of your way.
She improved. Within months she was back to as normal as a woman her age can be. I could tell that he was satisfied with her recovery when he stopped coming with her for her visits.
Years ago, she made a special appointment to see me. She looked tired and a bit nervous. I read the history that the nurse had obtained.
“Husband died recently. Having trouble sleeping.”
Talk to me. What happened to him?
“It wasn’t one thing. First his heart. Then his bowels locked up. They found a cancer when they opened him up. After that it was one thing after another…”
It must have been hard on you.
I could tell that she was surprised to hear me say this. It seemed clear that no one had thought of her needs at a time when the patient soaked up all the attention.
“It was hard. Towards the end he could do nothing for himself. I got little sleep. I could not leave the house for more than a few minutes.”
A few seconds of silence.
“It was tough.”
Something in the way she told me about her ordeal caught my attention.
Tell me more. What happened at the end?
“He could not turn in bed by himself. I had to feed him, but half the time he could not swallow. I had to be at his bedside all the time.”
I am impressed. How did you manage? I should hire you as a nurse.
She smiled. But still, I sensed some discomfort. As if all had not been said.
When my father died… My mother was in much the same situation you were in. But he kept struggling, as if he did not want to leave her alone.
I noticed that she perked up. She sat up straight. She wanted to hear this story.
My mom and my sister finally went to his bedside and sat on the bed; close to him. They told him it was OK to let go; that mom was fine and that we would look after her. Within a few minutes his breathing slowed down. Soon after he died in peace.
“I did the same thing,” she blurted out.
“I talked to him. I told him it was so hard for him. I asked him if he really wanted to go on living with all the pain and trouble breathing.”
She stopped talking for a few seconds. She was waiting for any kind of reaction from me. I chose to remain silent; she needed to figure this out by herself.
“I told him that I would be OK. That he had done more than enough for me when I was sick. That he should stop fighting.”
There. I could see the relief in her features. For a few weeks she had carried this guilt; this feeling of responsibility that maybe she had pushed him into this decision because it was getting to be too hard on her.
I do not think that my mom did anything wrong. My dad was the caretaker. Although she carried the household on her shoulders, she did so quietly and behind the scenes. He always felt that he was the one who provided for everyone and fixed everything. I do not think that he ever realized how strong and independent she was. I think that he was afraid to die.
She was eager to jump in.
“My husband too. He worked awfully hard; was always a good provider. He would do anything for us. But there was so much that he never got to hear or see…”
I had gotten her to acknowledge that maybe her marriage was not as one-sided as she had allowed herself to think. I spoke some more.
I know that it was hard for my mom. But I know that it had to be a relief for her to have him die in peace, and to be able to once again be able to take care of herself.
“I know what you’re saying. It is hard to be alone after all these years. But my health was going downhill. And he understood.”
I know he did. He was a good man. He was crazy about you.
A few tears. I could tell that she was at peace.
Stay on the same medicine. It is OK to feel alone and overwhelmed at times. Let me know if you have trouble sleeping, or if you lose your appetite. I think that you will do well.
She smiled. I stood to give her a hug. She smiled again.
She walked out to the waiting room, more alone than she had ever been, but free of guilt and second thoughts. She walked straight ahead and with purpose. She was a survivor.