Sympathetic Joy


Sympathetic Joy

I’d see her around town occasionally, this woman who had once attended church with me. At the diner or the market, we’d bump into each other and exchange a few pleasant words. We’d ask about the kids—we had sons of a similar age—and talk about our church ministries. Somewhere in these brief exchanges over a decade of years, I’d learned that her husband suffered from bipolar disorder. I murmured sympathetic words; I knew what that was like. We’d part ways after a few moments, each of us going back to a challenging life. I seldom thought about her between our sporadic conversations.

I saw her again on Saturday, this woman of my acquaintance, sorting for buried treasure at the church rummage sale. We spoke, of course, making the same cursory comments we’d been making for years. Nice to see you. Beautiful day. How are your kids?

And then she said the unexpected, totally out of keeping with the little I knew about her: “I’m getting a divorce.”

I got it. Standing there with a covered casserole dish in my hand, balancing the cookie sheets I was holding for my daughter as she tried on a pair of jeans, I got it. Years of caregiving, arguments with a spouse that often lacked reason, raising a family on a shoe-string budget, doling out money to medical professionals who could offer no real hope all took their tolls.

I fixed my face into what I hoped was an appropriate expression of compassion and touched her hand. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “I know what it’s like.”

She knew my words were not empty. She nodded. “Of course you would.” We said a few more words, promised to pray for one another, and went back to our days.

As she turned down another aisle, I tried to find the words to describe what I was feeling. Empathy? Concern? Nothing seemed to fit. As my daughter returned with her 50 cent jeans and we continued on our rare day out, I shelved the thought for later on.

I took my thought out again the next day and looked it over. I turned to my thesaurus and the internet to try and pin down the words that would say it. I finally settled on a Buddhist philosophy: sympathetic joy.

Part of me was glad for this dear woman, glad that she would now be free of the demands of care-giving, relieved of senseless arguments and messy clean-ups and the burdens that come with being the Well Spouse. I pictured her in a small, sunny apartment somewhere, time healing the wounds caused by the illness of a spouse. I admired her courage, because I knew what it must have taken for her to reach this point. Dreams are not easily relinquished.

But along with the joy was the sympathy. Divorce meant the loss of the future she had planned as a bride, holiday dinners with an empty chair, grandchildren visiting on alternate weekends. I remembered the last thing she had said to me before we again parted ways: “It just got too hard.”

I know hard. I know exactly what hard tastes and smells and sounds and feels like. Being the Well Spouse is a solitary endeavor. We do what we do for the most part alone. Often our families do not understand or see it all. And sometimes the immediate family of the Ill Spouse would rather pretend the situation did not exist, casting the burden of an ill adult child onto the one unwittingly who said “I do.” It is easy to go blithely about when you do not hear the night demons screaming.

I prayed for her today, my fellow Well Spouse. I pray she has peace in her decision. I pray her adult children support her. I pray her church supports her.

And as I prayed, I was forced to again ask myself the hard question: Why do I stay? Why do I sacrifice so much for what seems to be a never-ending cycle, with one ailment after another plaguing my husband? Why do I live always waiting for the other shoe to drop? I am often exhausted by the burdens placed on my shoulders. There is no longer light at the end of an incredibly long tunnel.

Do I lack the courage to leave? I do not think so. I have seen myself become, these last fifteen years, a woman of daunting courage. Do I fear reprisal? My own children would understand. There is no one else whose opinion would matter to me. Do I think God would punish me? I believe that God, having created me, knows the limits of my body and my soul. I think He would be saddened, but I do not believe in a vengeful God.

So, then, why?

It’s a complex question. After 37 years, so much of me is tied up with my husband that it is sometimes hard to separate. My Well Spouse acquaintance commented that she no longer knew which things belonged originally to her and which to her husband.  It is more than just possessions that are shared. A lifetime is not easily dissected. Routines established are not quickly disbanded. Hope dies hard.

These are all reasons for staying. But the real reason is simple: I stay because I can. Despite my considerable vision problems, I am well and healthy.  I can still find joy in teaching and in writing. I can still laugh with girlfriends and have the kids over for supper and watch a movie with Ron. Our life has been bent, but not destroyed. If I have had to change my plans of a little retirement house at the beach where I can write all day, so be it. It is the price of the Well Spouse. I can still spin my dreams, however fragile they sometimes seem.

But I can recognize my own fragility as well. I can no longer work 60 hours a week and retain a bounce in my step and a twinkle in my eye. I cannot function solely on gallons of tea and the “someday I will write my novel” mantra. I’ve put that dream off for too long. I may need someday, let’s just face it, to come to the same decision as the woman at the rummage sale. The thought is always with me, a dark cloud over the head of a comic strip character. It may never rain, but the dark cloud still dangles above.

I recall the words of a former pastor, spoken at the very beginning of my journey as the Well Spouse. He took my hands in his and said, “Linda, I know that you will do everything in your power to help Ron. But if, at some point in time, years from now, you find that you can no longer do this, I will understand. I will not rebuke you.”

I can only pray that, should that overhead dark cloud descend, I will not rebuke myself

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