Charlie: In the frantic pace of daily life, we often forget much about what originally drew us together and focus more on the business, rather than the experience of sharing our lives. We notice what’s not working but not what is. If something isn’t a problem we tend to ignore it, scanning over the content of our lives until we come to something that is a “concern” since that is what we’ve learned to give our attention to. We may have gotten into the habit of taking what is working for granted. Then we focus instead on what is problematic, associating our relationship with problems, and respond accordingly by de-investing our time, energy, and attention.
Remembering to remember what we appreciate about each other isn’t always easy to do when we’ve got so many other spinning plates that continually require our attention, but it is possible. With practice it becomes easier. Sometimes we can find this motivation within ourselves. At other times, a gift in the form of a crisis provides it for us.
For much of our relationship, I, Charlie, was less interested in intimacy than I was in other things like building my career, making money, establishing myself in the world, and doing what I needed to do to be successful. Although I was telling myself that I was doing it all for my family, the truth is that a major part of my motivation was ego-driven because I wanted recognition and wealth to feel powerful and important. In 1991, Linda was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer and told that she may not have long to live. Although I had been through a few other personal crises in my life, nothing hit me like this one did. As Linda’s surgeon gave us the news, I felt myself overwhelmed with a kind of terror that I had never known.
That night we went back home and lay silently in bed together, not yet able to comprehend the horror of the news that we had just heard. Suddenly, my feelings burst through with the realization that I could lose Linda, without her ever really knowing how much I loved her. Like a drowning man whose life is flashing in front of him, I saw how much of the time I had not extended myself to Linda, how I had been more preoccupied with the business of our lives than with her feelings or her needs. I realized how I had held her responsible for being the one to initiate intimacy and indulged in my old pattern of being distant, even when I knew that she wanted contact. It was true that I wasn’t overtly hostile or even neglectful, but I hadn’t shared my heart with Linda as much as I could, as much as might have really made a difference in her life. And now I might be losing her forever.
The grief overwhelmed me. I prayed every day for one thing and one thing only; to be given the time to express my love to Linda in all the ways that I hadn’t before. To give her so much love that it wouldn’t matter to either one of us whether she recovered or not from this dreaded disease. To give her an experience of being loved was so compelling that nothing else, even life itself could compete with it. I wanted to do this for myself, to redeem my guilt, but I also wanted to do it for Linda because I had finally awakened to the truth of how deep my love was for her and how painful it felt to withhold it.
During the nine months of treatment that followed which included surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, I had lots of opportunities to give to Linda: holding her and wiping her forehead as she vomited night after night during the chemotherapy treatments, caressing her as she cried at the loss of her precious hair, day by day until it was all gone. Driving her to the hospital and holding her hand as the red toxic medicine dripped into her arm, and getting the kids off to school and handling their other needs. I did the shopping, took care of the business, and paid the bills. I was working more, sleeping less than I ever had before, yet I had more energy than I knew what to do with.
It was both the most joyous and demanding time of my life. I had been given what I most wanted: the opportunity to continually show my love to Linda by serving her needs. I felt gratitude for every day that we had together, twenty-four more hours to give to my beloved. I didn’t know how much time we had together. We lived each day as though it really could be the last, knowing that I didn’t have a moment to waste being distracted, not a minute to lose taking Linda for granted. The more I gave the more grateful I felt, the more energized I felt, and the more love I felt.
In time, the crisis passed and normalcy was restored. Linda’s strength slowly began to return, she had more energy for work and our lives were no longer completely dominated by concern about cancer. She made it through that critical first year without a recurrence, then through the second, third fourth, and so on. We have had many years together, years that neither of us believed we would have. Although in many ways things appear on the surface to look the way they did BC (before cancer) the substance of our lives together couldn’t be more different.
The terror that I experienced anticipating Linda’s loss is gone now. It’s not that I don’t care how much more time we have together; I cherish each day that is given to us. Because we’ve shared such a deep connection in the time of cancer and following it, I no longer feel unfinished with anything in our relationship. I’ve found that I have to live in a way that allows me to feel at the end of each day that if this were the last that we spent together, that it would be O.K. There is no unfinished business, no resentment, no dishonesty, and no question about how much I love Linda. There is a kind of intimacy that we now share that is much deeper than anything that we experienced in the past, the intimacy that emerges naturally in the presence of a full heart.
Although Linda no longer requires the kind of care that I provided for her during her treatment, I have learned to care for her in a subtle, more sensitive, less dramatic way. We are partners in caring now in a way that our relationship has become a work of art.
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