Have you ever felt like you needed to run away? I have been told that for someone in my situation it is a natural feeling. My opportunity came a few weeks ago when I was invited to attend the wedding reception of my best friend's daughter in New York, across the country from my home in Los Angeles.
Leaving home took forethought and planning. My youngest son and I finely tuned our exchange of places -- he flew in from the East Coast the same day that I flew out. We coordinated to ensure that someone would be at home to supervise and assist my husband Dan, who is disabled after suffering a stroke 23 months ago. I was emotionally and physically exhausted after being Dan's primary caretaker since his stroke -- a job that entailed being responsible for everything -- monitoring his fragile health, managing the family and our home, and assuming all the previously shared responsibilities. Having devoted myself entirely to his care for an extended period of time it was inevitable that I would lose a part of myself. We were totally entwined and I was focusing all my energy on Dan. That left very little space for me.
I am not well-suited for the Momma/Poppa lifestyle, the one where one spends all of one's time in the same arena as one's spouse (like the immigrant candy store owners in Flushing, New York where I grew up), but that's how we've existed since Dan's stroke. Before the stroke we were each fiercely independent professionals, with disparate interests. While we pursued separate leisure interests we were great partners and supported one another absolutely. When Dan wasn't at work as an executive for the world's largest executive search firm he enjoyed bike riding, fishing, driving his cars, having coffee with friends, reading magazines and books and doing killer Sudoku. I was an educator who after many years of public school and university teaching was elected to and served my community for eight years as a school board member. When not working I loved to dance, be a spectator at dance events or read mysteries. We both loved to attend our sons' sporting and musical events.
That all changed on August 30, 2010 when a stroke robbed him of his independence and his ability to do the things he loved. It left him totally dependent upon others just to survive. He was also not able to be the partner upon whom I depended for 40 years. As Dan worked to rebuild his life, he needed a lot of assistance -- someone to be an advocate, an assistant and a driver - all of which I became.
As the stroke survivor Dan has been supported and assisted by a cadre of people -- therapists, doctors, friends and family. They have been essential elements in his recovery process and have made a difference in his life. Besides medical knowledge, they provided him with companionship, friendship and encouragement. In the aftermath of the stroke we found that our couple social contacts decreased and we attributed it to several things -- some people chose not to include us because it reminded them of their own mortality, and for others they just didn't know what to do since Dan is so different.
As time passed the visits and calls have occurred with less frequency and that increased our social isolation. When visitors did come, they came for Dan. I was always happy when people did visit as I know it meant a lot to Dan. It is only natural that there was less focus on the caretaker, and my overwhelming sense of loss has not been addressed. The grief of the loss of my partner is still so pervasive that it often leaves me with a profound sadness that impedes my moving forward.
By June 2012, after almost two years of caretaking I desperately felt that I needed to get away. I needed to be independent of the massive responsibilities at home, to be able to walk and travel at my own pace, to engage in activities I enjoyed and to reconnect with long time friends. The reception in New York was my excuse and I made the most of the few days I was there. I traveled by subway and bus and traversed the city using that network. I reconnected with a few old friends and family and was energized by our talks. I attended a dance performance in the park, visited two museums and the Bronx Zoo, and attended the wedding reception.
When I got back on the plane to return to L.A. after my brief visit I realized that I had not been running away from something -- I had been running toward the places and the people who would help me recharge and rebuild myself. It was time to begin my own recovery process and this trip helped me to do so.
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