Every life has its challenges. Those that my husband and I have overcome together have been some of the toughest, starting with the day we received our genetic diagnosis for our two precious sons some 27 years ago.
I believe it’s no coincidence that we live in Colorado, allowing us the splendor of living among some of the highest peaks in the world. Our life has forced us to become involuntary hypothetical mountain climbers when it comes to facing and overcoming those challenges, so being in Colorado makes it ever-so-convenient. In climbing terms, we could be considered what are called Alpinists, those who practice many different types of climbing, due to the fact that we’ve scaled mountains, boulders and sheer cliffs, all requiring a different skill-set. I know very little about real mountain climbing, sport climbing, bouldering or even free solo climbing—in reality I’ve never (and never will) do any of these. I am way too cautious to attempt such a feat….besides, my vertigo wouldn’t like it. My husband, Chris, might like to try, but I suspect he has many other things he’d like to try before that.
I clearly remember the day 27 years ago, when that diagnosis was laid in our laps. It was like Chris and I were standing at the base of a sheer cliff, looking up and wondering how we would ever begin; if we would have the strength to make it even halfway; or if we would cascade to our deaths? How could we take step one when our grief was so immense? Even if we took the first step together, how could we manage to stay in tandem? Would we have what it took to climb as a team? Could we finish together and still love each other at the summit?
Just as John Gray suggested in the ethereal Venus and Mars scenario from his book, Chris and I did not follow the same path when it came to the actual grieving process. We were each very different in our phases of grief and our behavior as a result. There are parts of the actual stages that I don’t remember well, or choose not to remember well (leave it to selective memory retention). We are quick to remind each other about some of the more memorable days, grimacing at the memories, while simultaneously bidding them a fond adieu.
In my own journey of grief, whenever I felt angry, I would find myself crying over the smallest thing, like when Joe bit me for the first time—he was only one. I questioned whether this boy that was born from my womb actually loved his Mother. It seemed so vindictive at the time. I blamed the gene. Crying was my way of showing anger.
It was easy to get through denial since I was engrossed in my corporate job working 60 hours a week, while a caregiver took on the role of moment-by-moment--a role I would later take on full time as a corporate-Mom-goes-stay-at-home.
I waffled between anger and denial for a few years, throwing in some bargaining tactics. I was convinced that if I spent enough money, if I toted the boys to enough therapy appointments or “Mom and me” classes, that they would somehow be cured. We wrote checks with the promise of a cure and banked on those organizations’ success to help us tackle that unattainable sheer cliff. Suffice it to say that the bargaining tactics didn’t erase one single genetic footprint or cure our sons.
Day after day, week after week, month after month, somehow Chris and I kept going. Some days it was like scaling a small foothill with occasional boulders and a gradual slope—other days it was excruciating mini steps up a wall that pointed in a backward direction. During those more difficult days, I was alone. I was forced to use my fingertips to try and place the next foothold or hook in order to lift myself up. Chris could not be with me. I was far ahead of the place where he was and there was no way for me to help him catch up. He was physically on a more gradual track. I had to move ahead at a faster pace since I was with the boys in what I like to call the full-emersion program. Chris was on the part-time track, working full-time outside the home.
His progress through anger and denial were so much slower than mine. Little things seemed to set him off, like when a tool wouldn’t cooperate just so, he’d yell and curse. He’d blow off my frustration by saying things like, “Oh, he’ll (one of the boys) get over it”. I knew they wouldn’t, and I knew this was his own denial showing through. I also noticed his lack of acceptance (denial) in the way he would respond to others about the way our son did this or that in public. His anger was outward and palpable, unlike my own. He never cried like I did.
There were evenings when he would return home from a long day, only to hear me complain non-stop as I broke into tears of exhaustion. He was often at a loss for words, and emotionally unsure about how to feel. I believe he was at a loss on how to support me, too, which made it even more difficult as a couple. He couldn’t be in the same phase as me when it came to emotions. In his defense, and in hindsight, he did an amazing job based on the tools he had to offer. Somehow I made it through to acceptance and I thank God every day that I made it.
For Chris, on the other hand, like many men I know, he was not as transparent in his feelings. Small things would incite a larger-than-deserved angry spell. His temper was much shorter, and frustration was sitting just on the surface of any activity. Sometimes, the words flowed out of his mouth in angry phrases, causing me to question his love for our precious sons. Then,there were times where his utter silence caused me to wonder how I would cope. I was in no condition to help him cope when I was struggling myself. It was a very difficult time with no real end in sight. We just kept climbing and climbing, pausing at times for emotional gridlock, then going on almost at a turtle’s pace.
As a couple, we teetered between an attempt to comfort each other in our shared grief, and resisting a pull that forced us to back away from any constant reminders of our inevitable reality.
Then, years into the grieving, one real day of helplessness came to pass.
Chris arrived home as usual. I had dinner ready, so we sat down to eat as a family. The boys finished at their usual lightning speed and left the table. Chris and I reviewed the moments of the day, pausing in between bites. Silently, Chris placed his fork on his plate, took a drink of water, and dropped his head.
I asked, “What’s the matter?”
He raised his head and I saw tears in his eyes that I had not seen in years. My heart sank into my stomach. I stopped eating, too. Chris sat for a moment in silence, collected himself, then he began to speak. He was ready for me to help him. I was afraid I wouldn’t be there to hoist him up when he needed it most.
He talked about his real fears for us, for the boys and for our life. The words poured out slowly and steadily, telling me that he had been thinking about these things for quite some time. It had been roughly five years since our diagnosis.
The most excruciating thing for me was to not be able to take the pain away for him. This was the one man I dearly loved. I wanted desperately to hand him a pill or an antidote that would help him speed ahead to the place of acceptance where I was. I needed him to be beside me….but, it wasn’t possible. That’s not the way grief works.
As he spoke, I realized exactly where Chris was on our journey up this mountain. He was following the same exact path I had taken, but now I knew without looking down where he was—I recognized the signs from my own experience. He wasn’t lost….just taking it at a slower pace than I was. I was able to see signs of where he had been…..I also knew where he was headed. Seeing these things allowed me to ask him some important questions that I had already resolved in my own mind. I was able to offer some comfort knowing that he, too, would make it through. We hugged and I held him in my arms. He was on the trajectory of acceptance.
There is no time since that I could point to that was more poignant in our marriage or that would define our future together. Prior to that time I often wondered if we would be able to get on the same path or wavelength—if we would even make it. I questioned whether we would be able to support each other in our climb and our journey. I know had real hope that we could.
Over the next several years (yes, years) we came together on many things, including decisions, day-to-day approaches, discipline and what our future looked like. It was so liberating…that mountain became a clearly marked path that contained two lanes wide enough for both of us. Yes, there were still boulders to dodge and some steep slopes, but the sheer cliffs had disappeared.
We haven’t reached the summit yet, but acceptance is a part of our every day life now. There has been no tougher climb than the one we have traversed together, and I wouldn’t have made it without him, nor he without me. It’s been the best lesson ever…learning to climb, and the best partner to do it with. I think we are prepared now to take on whatever obstacles come our way; foothills, high peaks, sheer cliffs or gradual slopes….hand-in-hand.