Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Marriage in the Pressure Cooker

I have been thinking about marriage. Since our marriage is now in its 18th year, it is different from a new marriage. Living in the aftermath of Katie’s cancer and her passing, the marriage has changed and weathered a great deal.

It seems to me that in marriage, there is me, and there is you, and then there is “us.” Me plus you equals “us,” and me plus you plus our children equals another “us;” in our case, “the four of us,” and now, after Katie's passing, “the three of us.”

From what I’ve observed, some couples never move from "me" and "you" to become “us.” While lots of people can rub along just fine this way, when enormous stress or life-shattering events occur, it’s very helpful to have “us” as a place of refuge.

When we moved into Ronald McDonald House (RMcDH) to be near Children’s Hospital, we moved from a 3-bedroom, 2.5 bath home into a one-room, one-bath space. We shared a communal kitchen & pantry, living room, computer room, etc. with other families. David, Katie, Gregg & I all slept in the same room, the room where we also lounged, watched TV, used our computer, prepared and administered medication and got dressed. We could hear each other’s breathing in the night; we could hear when someone got up to use the bathroom. We could also hear other families walking down the hallway.

For the most part, the families we met were surprisingly happy, considering the circumstances we were all facing. All of the families were at RMcDH because one of their children had a life-threatening illness, and usually it was cancer. Most of us had given up the comforts of home; siblings had either left their regular school& moved to a new one near the hospital, or stayed where they were, which involved splitting up the family. Some parents had given up their jobs in order to be available as full-time caregiver to the patient; for those families, this meant a big disruption in income, and sometimes, financial & insurance worries. All of us were unsure of how (and when) this situation was going to end. We were together in a land of uncertainty, all in the same wagon, doing the best that we could for our families.

I remember a night when, in the wee hours, Katie woke up and found that her feeding tube had leaked formula into her bed. She awakened Gregg & me, and we changed her sheets (David slept through it, lights and all). As we were putting the fresh sheets on her bed, I heard screaming and swearing in the hallway outside of our door. I also heard banging and crashing sounds. I went to the door and peeked through the peephole, but couldn’t see anything. A few seconds later, a flash of bare fanny crossed my field of vision: the back of a person who was running down the hall, clutching what looked like a bedspread. My immediate thought was, “Oh, that poor lady. The stress has got to her, and she has cracked; totally understandable.” In other words, I assumed she was one of the residents of the House, the parent of a critically sick child, like us.

The next day, we learned that she was, in fact, a lady who had a mental illness & lived nearby, who was mistakenly let into RMcDH by a newly-hired security guard. She tore several of the handmade art quilts off of the walls and broke some of the furniture in the common area before she was stopped. I felt compassion for her, but the part that struck me funny later was that I thought her behavior was perfectly reasonable, under the circumstances. I thought she was one of us!

During that time of unprecedented stress, we grew in compassion toward ourselves and others. You couldn’t help it; your heart just opened as you witnessed the suffering of your fellow beings. We didn’t turn into saints, but we did grow. It’s not just about me getting what I want; that’s finished, in one sense, forever. I didn’t get what I wanted, and in this case, I never will; I will never get to see or hold Katie again, until I die. Learning to accept that is an ongoing process, & it is maturing my heart.

There are statistics that people often quote about the breaking up of families after the death of a child (and other life-altering events). I can understand why families fall apart, just as I can easily see why people engage in over-eating, gambling, drinking, affairs, over-work…anything that can numb the senses is understandable, when the pain is so debilitating and consuming that you want to do anything to make it stop. But of course, those behaviors do not stop the pain; it is still waiting for us, when we have finished distracting ourselves, and perhaps such behavior has even added damage to the situation.

However, it can play out another way: stress can forge greater strength in a family. It can bring out better qualities than we knew we had. We suffered, we disagreed, we were fatigued, we misunderstood, we fell short…but we did our best under the circumstances, for Katie and for one another. We laugh at ourselves, and at life, more freely now. We have more empathy for others; we talk more. We give more leeway, more “benefit of the doubt” to one another. Gregg, David, Katie and I are now “us,” more profoundly than ever, as are Gregg, David and I, as are Gregg & I. Our bonds were forged & became stronger in the furnace of adversity. That is one blessing for which to be thankful, in the midst of this pain and unspeakable loss.

You can also find this posting over at Hopeful Parents.


Lakeland Jo said...

as ever- a great and insightful post

Busy Bee Suz said...

This is beautifully written Karen. I can see how something like this in a family can make or break you.
I am happy to know that you and yours are an US. we are stronger aligned together.

Oh, and I know plenty of the Me & you marriages, that never become the US. They are not happy...even on the good days, they don't seem to be happy.

Jennifer Stumpf said...

I'm awestruck, Karen, at your luminescent prose. What a gift you have, how wise you are, how much you care for others to know they are not alone. What a huge gift you are offering, to all of us, struggling along in whatever way. I am happy to be one of the "us" marriages. I couldn't function otherwise. So glad you are, too.

Gannet Girl said...

I got such a chuckle out of your assumption that the naked lady in the hallway was "one of us." That's exactly what it's like, isn't it? -- calm and self-possessed on the outside, a touch (or more) of madness on the inside. Not that I am always so calm and self-possessed on the outside!

Karen and Joe said...

Thank you for this. It helped me a lot today. Our family which was once considered a model of closeness is emotionally at sea, trying to find stability again. Another difficult and unwelcome by-product of our loss. Thanks for all your insights today.

Karla said...

I really appreciate what you wrote. I Never understood how a marriage could survive a child's illness and then end after treatment...that is, until I/we went through it. The biggest part for my family is we all delt with it differently. It took a lot of work and patience and communication to get to where we are today.

christine said...

Hello dear one, we just arrived back from Cameroon, Africa and 2 weeks there working with Thirst Relief international. I received your blog posting about meeting Paula while there and couldn't seem to get to write back. I then got an email from Paula about meeting you and how much that meant to her--meeting another of the people in the story from how Sarah's passing there has so deeply affected her life--someone who was outside of it all, and it still continues for her as she meets others who come.
I am so touched--more than you know, that you would go and see this place. I feel like somehow, I got to be there this summer. Every day, I think of this place where my precious girl lost her life and want to be there to visit it and just be still. Only one time so far have I been there for the week of the celebration the wonderful people there held for her and for us. I will go again--in the future as God allows and provides. But---somehow, you being there and seeing it through a mother's eyes who has lost her only daughter--means more to me than you will ever know. Thank you...and this comes with much love.


Dawn~^i^Brandon^i^, Jordan, and Seth's mom said...