In Sickness and in Health

This little phrase that’s tucked into wedding vows carries little meaning when you are young and standing in front of the officiant with your beloved. And yet, it’s a solemn promise to love and support your spouse, no matter what.

I’ve married twice now, both times to men who seemed healthy enough at the time. Little did I know then that my ability to love and embrace uncertainty would be tested over and over again.

My first husband has Type I Diabetes. His blood sugar levels seemed to ricochet from one extreme to the other on a regular basis. Low blood sugar caused him to be disoriented, irritable, and non-cooperative. Over the course of our 13-year marriage, I could tell by looking at him that he was crashing, and it became critically important that I take responsible action to give him something sugary to eat before he’d become unconscious. When it was really low, I’d have to force him to take something, which was extremely scary because he would fight me. I became very frustrated and resentful at having this level of responsibility for him. Calling the paramedics in the middle of the night to come and revive him became a monthly thing.

This was more than I was really prepared to handle at that time. His chronic illness, limited sense of self-responsibility, and the stress it put on our whole family was one of the reasons (not the only one) that we divorced. I didn’t like who I’d become with him – controlling, fearful, angry – I felt incapable of keeping my promise to love him in sickness and in health. I was drowning in all the difficult emotions that kept swamping me, making it impossible to breathe.

We’ve been divorced for over 20 years now, and have become good friends. He recently was hospitalized for Ketoacidosis, which occurs when the blood sugar levels are too high for a prolonged period of time. My daughter and I, along with family and friends, hovered over his bedside to be with him. It was not known if he would survive for the first few days. What was once my responsibility to watch over him has now been assumed by our daughter. He is recovering, slowly, which is a blessing for all of us.

A Second Chance at the Same Lesson

And, guess what? When I married a second time, I chose a man with Type II Diabetes and a whole host of other significant health issues. You’d think I would have the sense to not do that, right? That it would be on my list of minimum requirements for my next life partner – to be healthy and vital, along with open-hearted and all the rest of that good stuff. I loved him wholeheartedly and my heart told me to marry him and make the promise to love him in sickness and health. Again.

And, here I am, calling the paramedics in the middle of the night, being by his side for numerous medical procedures, supporting him through 3+ years on dialysis. I’ve stepped forward to donate a kidney to him twice, and both times it just hasn’t worked out. Just recently, the transplant center informed him that his health is not good enough for him to be on the transplant list. Devastating news, especially for him, but for me as well.

The difference this time is that I’m older and wiser. I know how to deepen into the source of Love to support us both when things are hard. I have let go of taking over-responsibility for him, his choices, his decisions. His illness is HIS to manage and I’m here to love and support him while he does that. I’m here to enjoy him and be with him, right now as he is – in sickness – until one of us is taken from this earth.

I wrestle with the fear that he’ll be taken from me at any time. I ask for support when I’m feeling sad as one freedom after another is taken from him, and therefore, from us. We loved to travel, and now we mostly travel between home, work, and doctor’s appointments. I see him struggle to keep food down, to get a good night’s sleep, to walk, to get out of a chair. His body seems to be 20 years older than his mind and spirit.

Despite all his ailments, he’s strong emotionally and mentally. He never complains. He’s my rock.

What are the questions I don’t want to ask?

“What will happen to me when I lose the presence of this otherness that is so precious to me? Who will I be when I lose him? How will I possibly go on alone?” Seeing these questions on the page strikes me as extremely selfish. And then, I remember to be kind to myself as I admit that I’m simply afraid, for him, and for me.

How can I possibly prepare myself for the absence of this beloved who is an essential part of who I am?

My husband and I just finished watching Game of Thrones together (yes, we were very late to the party!). One of the statements that the characters of Winterfell said often was “Winter is coming.” Every time I heard that line, it struck a chill in my heart. It sounded that note of fear of an experience that is just over the horizon – a time of hardship, of barrenness, a time that you might not survive. The invitation is to be mindful of the preparations that you’d be wise to make in order to make it through the long winter. For THIS winter, if it were a matter of storing food or making sure the roof was sound, that would be easy. But the preparations my heart must make are for the unknown, for something I’ve never experienced. I’m not certain that I know how to do that.

What is the long winter you face when you are living with someone who has a life-threatening illness? How do you prepare for the winter of your grief, for longing for what was, for your aloneness?

What is the Soul lesson that I’m here to learn?

My best answer so far is to be present in the moment, be grateful, and (this is the biggest challenge) to restrain my relentless mind from creating negative, painful, frightening future fantasies about a grief I can’t possibly prepare for. This tendency to use my imagination robs me of the ability to be present and fully inhabit the moments of tenderness, deep loving, connection, and the blessings we now share.

The training to discipline my mind to keep choosing to stay in the present seems to be the only way to stay in Love, to stay at peace, to be here now, for the good we share together. And to trust that the Divine will be there to support us both through whatever lies ahead.

I never dreamed that my sweet promise to love “in sickness and in health” would deliver such tough life lessons or require these strenuous disciplines. When I was inevitably drawn to becoming a grief coach, how could I possibly see that these lessons – as I learn them for myself – would become the curriculum that enables me to even more authentically help others?

My belief that the Universe wisely chooses what is best for me has been stretched. Yet when I allow myself to be lifted up above the immediate circumstances, I see glimpses of that mystery. And, for this moment, I am content.

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