Years ago, my wife Jo and I took a course to learn how to use computers. Jo is a natural techie. She learned quickly. As a Luddite, I struggled mightily. If it had been an earlier era, I would have spent half my time standing at the back of the class. I continue to have an adversarial relationship to the computer.
I create fatal errors regularly. Computers make me feel helpless. I get furious, shout obscenities, pound the desk and turn to Jo, imploring her to rescue me. This has become ritualistic behavior in the conduct of our affairs.
One day in a rage, shouting obscenities, my fist raised menacingly at the computer, I pleaded Jo for help. Another fatal error! With mock innocence, she said “I hope you die first.” What was she was talking about? She gave me a hug and said, “If I were not here to rescue you from your computer woes, you’d be a danger to yourself and the entire community.” At least we’ll not have that issue to deal with.
In the last couple of months, the sense of uncertainty has weighed heavily upon us both. The timeline given me at my diagnosis has now passed and I continue to live functionally although the disease process continues. The extra time, a gift on the one hand, means living in limbo and has produced some unnerving thoughts and feelings for both of us. At times, it feels like we’re walking a minefield, fearful of what the next step will bring.
It came up one morning at breakfast. I’d been aware of this earlier, but in that conversation the painful reality became clearer to me: living with someone who is dying, but who nevertheless remains functional and is getting by, can be oppressive. You’re always waiting for that second shoe to drop.
The conversation that morning laid bare the complications of how love works and how protracted illness puts us in impossible situations: forced to manage totally opposite sentiments. Jo was able to articulate the cutting edge of her pain: “I don’t want to lose you. At the same time, I want it to be over.”
I suspect for many this is the inevitable conflict for couples who love each other. I was glad it was in the open. If such feelings are left dormant, they become even more excruciating.
As we found our way through the tears and the hurt of the dilemma, it seemed to me that for both of us our hearts and minds opened some, as if the conversation itself was an attempt to find a place to accommodate such an impossible set of conflicting emotions.
We sat for a couple of hours, easily free associating to our present circumstances.
How to live with some equanimity in a “now” with all its contradictions and paradoxes pulling us in all directions while not retreating into the past or fleeing into a future; there are no antidotes for the pain of loss. There is, however, no better anodyne I know of other than just telling someone where and how bad it hurts, especially a loved one if they can manage it. This is admittedly easier for some people than others. But it can be learned.
There are people who’d tell you that since you really can’t do anything about the inevitability of matters such as mortality, except follow the doctor’s advice and put one’s estate in order: to talk about it is only a waste of time. I would say that no one can do anything about the weather either, but that has never kept anybody from discussing it.
As I look back on the conversation, although it hadn’t occurred to me then, we were talking about the “now”, and just how this “now” had been feeling for both of us. We wanted this whole thing to be over as passionately as we did not want this whole thing to be over. We just wished the pain of it to go away. It’s been my experience that when people are deeply hurting, one of the most difficult things can be is to articulate what hurts, just where it hurts and how badly. It can happen to people who are normally close. It may happen either because one doesn’t want to burden the other or they feel they would be exposing themselves as weak or out of control.
One other observation about this: Even spouses and partners, who may have enjoyed warm and intimate relationships over long periods of times, when learning the loss of one of them is imminent, are immobilized by shock. Neither of us is sure what to say or what to do. Our relationship slowly changed, but not at first. Trauma stymies its victims; Intense emotional pain contracted us at first–– we wanted to draw back into ourselves. Hesitatingly, the conversations began.
We slowly opened into the pain, and together we held the hurt to the light. The pain didn’t disappear, but neither was it as intimidating. The intolerable weight of it mitigated, making it more manageable. We discovered in these conversations an unexpected deepening of intimacy.
In loving relationships loss of one partner is always a mutual concern. Each, however, has his or her own distinctive issues. I became clearer about the particularly difficult burden for Jo, the surviving partner. The burden falls to her, or to say it crudely, she’s left to clean up after it’s over. My death gets me a ticket out, but I leave a lot behind for her to do in its wake (no pun intended). It’s not only the agony of mourning, but, at the same time the piddling and crazy-making calls dealing with insurance agents, the MVA, credit cards, and other agencies.
Jo and I said what needed to be said for the moment. We went about leaving that “now” behind for the moment; she prepared to go back to her artwork, and I went to my computer to write, hopefully, without incident.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality including The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.