When I was a young idealist, I believed marriage is forever, no matter what. I grew up. My first marriage was never a particularly strong one. We were both stubborn, so we made it last for 16 years, but in the end we had too many fundamental differences in our definitions of marriage, family, and parenting. Divorce was the truth at that point, and honestly, we're all happier and healthier now.
Well, healthier emotionally, anyway. I'm not well physically. Coincidentally, neither are my first husband's second wife and my second husband's first wife. All three of us are intelligent, strong-willed women, hard working, generous, eager to do good in the world.
I know why I'm sick. I ignored my physical needs for decades, eschewed exercise, enjoyed too many of the fancy foods I was making for other people's special events. I worked too hard, slept too little, and developed the ability to completely ignore physical warnings. I'd get home from work and discover a blistering burn on my arm or a knife cut that had already scabbed over. I lived with a ruptured gallbladder for weeks and was just lucky that it was discovered before it killed me. As I settle in to my late 50s, I'm working hard to listen to my body's warning signs. I hate it, but I can do it. Slowing down is counter-intuitive. Oh well.
Lynn is wiser and has taken better care of herself all along. She was a very positive influence on Matt's health when they joined forces around Y2K. Then all of a sudden she has a kidney disease. She's getting dialysis and chemo drugs and all sorts of unpleasant treatments. (Find her blog at LynnsJourney.com.) She maintains a positive outlook, continues to find joy in everyday life, and won't stop having a positive influence on everyone she touches until she's six feet under, and maybe not even then.
Kay is the worst off of the three of us. She has dystonia, a neurological disorder that causes spasms, loss of muscle use, and a great deal of pain. She also has dysphagia, maybe as part of the dystonia, maybe something else entirely. She has increasing difficulty swallowing, and is painfully thin already. She can barely speak, and her ability to write and/or type is so impaired that communicating is increasingly difficult.
Kay has worked hard all her life. She was active in supporting pregnant teens who chose against abortion. Starting as mostly an artist, she became proficient at home repairs and is a master gardener. She excels at everything she takes on. She owns a cute little shop in downtown Hillsboro, the Artfull Garden, where she sells lovely yard accessories and teaches (or taught) all the clever projects most of us wish we knew how to do.
Kay is precariously balanced on the fence between the rich relationships Lynn and I enjoy, many of which she has also cultivated over the years, and the lonely, discouraging existence of so many of my homeless friends. She doesn't have a lot of family left, and being a strong, proud woman, she doesn't always seek support. Thankfully, she has been so active in the community that there are people eager to lend a hand as needed. Still, without the ability to consume enough nourishment, her days may be very limited.
What would you do in her circumstances? What if you didn't have any health insurance? What if family and friends were few and far away? What if your will to live was losing the battle against discouragement, pain, and physical weakness? What would any of us do?
My heart goes out to Lynn and to Kay, even as I await the latest test results from my own doctors. And my heart aches knowing that we are not alone, that thousands of people all around us are in similar struggles, often hidden under positive attitudes and reputations as hard workers. My aunt continued working full time through her breast cancer treatments -- many of us had no idea she even HAD cancer.
You probably know several people who are suffering. Why are we not more aware? Is it a lack of caring? Is it our embarrassment at being seen as weak? I believe it is mostly a case of eyes half-opened. If we decide to really look, to really connect, to reach out to the people we love and constantly remind them that we want to be there for them, we will start to be more aware of weaknesses, illnesses, discouragement, worries, loneliness. And as we become aware, we are empowered. We can dissipate the gloom in a single phone call or greeting card. We can remind one another that the deepest value of our existence is our connection to one another. We can make soup.
I've had the privilege of being married to two outstanding men. And they have been blessed with supportive women who care deeply and live richly. These are only a tiny sampling of the amazing people who have touched my life and who warrant my prayers, thoughts, and love.
Susie Snortum is passionate about improving society's compassion for meeting basic human needs -- food, shelter, clean water, and dignity.