Personal Choices, Private Pain

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET
  • Lee Woodruff Co-author, 'In an Instant', Author, 'Perfectly Imperfect', Author, 'Those We Love Most'

It's old news now, Elizabeth Edwards' brave fight against a recurrence of cancer; the couple's decision to continue with the campaign, despite her diagnosis. And when the headlines blared across America, I was mildly surprised by the debate. Should he or shouldn't he run? Was it wrong for them to continue on the campaign path they had been on?

While the Edwards' choice and what happened with our family are very different in some ways, there are many similarities. My husband, Bob Woodruff, was hit by an IED while covering the war in Iraq for ABC News. Elizabeth Edwards is being attacked by an invisible bomb of cancerous cells from inside of her own body.

The decisions about whether or not to work, to change the rhythm of family life, to press on with a goal or dream, these are all highly personal decisions, individual to each family. Until you find yourself in this situation, you can't possibly presume to know what feels right. And a decision this important cannot be made without the consent of the patient. In this case, Elizabeth Edwards, or my Bob, the person whose life has been changed sometimes unalterably and whose condition ripples out into the fabric of the family, changing the dynamics on many obvious and unseen levels.

After Bob woke up from a 36-day coma and began a slow, painstaking recovery from a traumatic brain injury, his welfare was paramount. When Bob was first injured, the entire framework of our family life became dismantled. Our world went from a bustling family of six to a home where the needs of an injured and healing father came first almost every time. In this way, by focusing on Bob, we all had a role in his healing, from the oldest to the youngest. But the balance and the architecture of our day-to-day life was wobbling badly. My five-year-old twins, who were the boisterous voices of the household, had to learn to tiptoe when their father was resting. My 12-year-old, Cathryn, called other parents to help her with math as her father lay unable to do simple calculations. My pathetic old world math skills were of no help. And our son Mack, accustomed to Saturday morning drives to soccer practice with his Dad, slipped out of the house with other rides.

In the middle of this upended family was me, the caregiver. Exhausted and sometimes despairing, I desperately searched for some skeins of our former life to knit back a semblance of normalcy for the children and for me.

"Stick to the routine as much as possible," was the best advice child experts gave me during the time Bob lay in a coma and in the early weeks beyond his waking. Those were the days when my breath caught in my throat every time he rose, wobbling from the bed with his missing skull and bulky plastic protective helmet.

Being a caregiver, like huge tracts of motherhood, is a thankless job for most of the time. It is a job borne of love and its qualifications are exhausting: a firm hand, tenderness, practicality, endurance and often selflessness. Needless to say, like motherhood, this can be a draining business. There are legions of unsung caregivers throughout this nation, silently ministering to the needs of the sick and injured, pasting smiles on their faces as they carry in a tray, lift a loved one out of bed or empty the bag of urine attached to a catheter. Illness and injury is not for the faint of heart. You must be prepared for the scents and sounds, the sweat and tears. Hope and despair tilt at odd angles like a see-saw. Many days dreaming of normalcy is the best one can hope for.

When I returned to work in October, nine months after Bob was injured, he had passed many milestones, but he was still fragile. Knowing how much I had given of myself over the past months, he practically pushed me out of the door. I was relieved. I was tired of monitoring his every move, growing anxious and more nervous watching the little things, anticipating what he couldn't do as much as what he could. He was as relieved as I was, as he harbored so much guilt for having circumscribed my life.

Going back to work added familiar but welcome stresses to my day. And there was a schedule to keep once again, but it felt like reclaiming my old life. Bob wanted me to work. He wanted me to do what it was I wanted to do. And I wanted life to feel normal. I wanted my familiar routine.

He understood that I needed a sphere to operate in which gave back to me in a way that caregiving and motherhood didn't. If caregiving drained my battery, then my work fed some need to be "contributing," which had become even more heightened in the wake of Bob's life-changing injury. My faith in what I could "count on" in life had been shaken badly. Moreover, I needed to know I could count on myself, if anything ever happened to Bob again.

I needed a world where there was no therapy or doctor speak, no supplying Bob the occasional lost word or waiting for the possible depression they had predicted would subsume him.

I needed to turn to something that gave back to me, so that I could, in turn, give back to Bob.

More than anything, my decision to work again and remove myself from Bob's side for parts of the day was what was "normal" to the family. Our kids were used to me being on the phone and computer at home, or heading into New York for a day of meetings. This must mean Bob was getting better if Mom was putting on makeup and walking to the train station.

To my children, it sent the biggest possible message that as a family, maybe we were still down, but we were not out. Surely something must be on the mend if Mom had her cell phone glued to her ear and had gotten in 40 minutes of emails before waking them for school.

With Bob heading off to New York for a day of therapy and me in my home office, we were showing the kids, wordlessly, that what had been so horribly and suddenly upended was now slowly regaining its balance.

Like the rest of the world, we were stunned and saddened to read that Elizabeth Edwards' cancer had returned. And we were also dismayed that in that moment, they had to defend their decision to stay in the race.

While the campaign arena is the most public of stages, I see a brave couple summoning their energy for the battle on two fronts; outwardly united to fulfill their dream of the presidency and inwardly united to fight the cancer attacking from within. It is not up to us to deny them these most private of choices. That kind of love and support can move mountains, create energy, rally the troops to move forward. And most importantly, as I know from experience, it has the power to heal.