As we transition from Breast Cancer Awareness to National Family Caregiver Month, I want to explore the distinction between caregiver and LovePartner.
When someone we love faces a potentially life-ending illness, we start on our LovePartner journey. It is true that when we feel immense loss, we change. There is a duality of our existence. We are present to help, care, and support our loved ones, sometimes engaging in acts we could never have imagined. At the same time, we stand on the precipice of the abyss, seeing the end of our time with them. Our hearts and soul are breaking. We are a caregiver and a LovePartner.
The Actual Dance, the play, and now the book presents the story of my journey with Susan, my wife then of 34 years. She was diagnosed with stage 3, triple-negative breast cancer. She was 54 years old, and her mother had died from metastasized breast cancer. I figured the outcome was inevitable.
I was scared to death. I could not imagine how I would accompany Susan through this disease to what I was sure would be an inevitable ending. As her prognosis became increasingly grim, I started to sense that her exit from this world would take half of my soul with her.
The process is commonly known as “anticipatory grief.” Getting ready. And then, Susan survives. I am the luckiest man in the world. I can’t understand what it would have been like if she had not survived. Indeed, I’ve been reminded of that by several well-known psychiatrists and social workers in no uncertain terms. What I do know is what it was like when I was screwing up every ounce of emotional courage I could find to be present and ready and to support her at that last breath.
Susan was the opposite. Her purpose was to “beat this thing.” Should wouldn’t allow anyone near her to express a hint of doubt. So on top of having my doubts – hell, I was convinced she would not beat that thing – I had to be able to bury that fear so deep that not even Susan would have a scent of it.
That emotional combat – suppressing my worst fears so deep that it wouldn’t show to the person who knew me best – took its toll. It became buried so deep inside me that I couldn’t even recognize it for what it was. It took 11 years to begin to pop-its head up. Over time, through theatrical improv training, tiny bits of that deep emotional scar began to open into my full awareness.
I have come to understand that the caregiver, typically a family caregiver, is a duality. We give care to our failing partner, and our heart is breaking. We exist and behave and see the world as unique in each persona. In the play are scenes of me as a caregiver. I held a small semi-circular metal pan in front of Susan for her to throw up, and when I emptied small plastic bulbs attached to the sides where the breast had been taken and filled with red liquids during the healing process. I am giving care. I am a caregiver.
And my heart is breaking. I am afraid inside. I end up creating a place – it is an escape similar to an out-of-body experience, and indeed, it might have been one. I would exit this world and enter a different dimension in time and space to experience ecstatic preparations for the inevitable transition—a place of existential love and beauty and peace.
The LovePartner side of the Family Caregiver is not visible to others. My insight is that this part, this journey, became a gift, a chance to merge our souls for one last great goodbye. As hard as it is and as much as we never want that day to come, the gift of being present, providing comfort and holding hearts together is the ultimate gift of the LovePartner.