Miss A, our English teacher, was a down-to-earth, unsentimental woman in her early thirties whose sardonic wit could crush the spirit of the largest offensive lineman on the high school football team.
On this particular afternoon, Miss A asked us to write an essay on an abstract noun such as Faith, Hope, Charity, Happiness, and the like.
We could choose any abstract noun we wanted except Love, because, she told us, she would have to throw up after she read the essay and before she put a failing grade on it.
Perhaps she wasn’t saying that teenagers were incapable of love. After all, she was a literature teacher and had been well exposed to Romeo and Juliet.
Instead, she might have expected from us rhapsodic words of purple passion unclouded by experience, maturity, or cynicism.
What a person comes to know about love is that it is hard work.
Falling in love is the easy part. Taking the love of your parents and relatives for granted is the easy part. Maintaining that love and living with it is the hard part. Losing that love is the hardest part of all.
The internet makes it easy to deal with people remotely, to say things to strangers that would never be said in a face-to-face encounter. It is easy to be infatuated with someone you meet online. You close the chat box, move onto something else, and resume your relationship at a time of your choosing.
The real world isn’t quite as tidy. You’re attracted to someone and then they open their mouth and disenchant you. They have a habit that annoys you. Sometimes they actually get on your nerves. The reality of dealing with someone you care for isn’t always as pleasant as the daydream.
At some point, you meet someone whose good points outweigh your objections. You want to make a life with that person. You are eager for it to work. You quickly find that compromise is necessary. You have to bend.
If you aren’t willing to bend, you run the risk of losing your love or willing them to a life of misery. Always forcing them to bend to you is an unloving thing to do.
Compromise is hard, even when times are good. When times are bad, and patience is at a premium, love can feel like a ball and chain. You want to run, but your love and commitments won’t let you. You promise them and your heart that you will stay true, no matter what, but you didn’t know that the “no matter what” could be so painful.
Suppose you do work through the hard parts. You are on an even keel with your partner. There are occasional strains, but you have developed a rhythm and harmony with them. You can settle comfortably into a life together. You and your partner are happy. Not always happy, but mostly happy. You know you can survive the bad parts because you’ve done it before.
Then one day it happens. Something comes along and changes things. It can happen abruptly. With a shock, your whole world is stopped.
Perhaps it doesn’t come abruptly. Perhaps it comes like a thief, silently moving in and you don’t even realize it. You wonder why your partner doesn’t want to do the things they did before. They seem to be slowing down. Perhaps they are ill, so the doctors prescribe pills. You wait for a turnaround. You wait and see your partner fading in front of you. You wait for a tipping point where things start to get better. You go to the doctor’s office, asking for help. They send you away with false assurances.
You watch your partner weaken. You wait for the recovery you were told was sure to come.
You lose hope in the doctor and call for an ambulance. In the emergency room they give you bad news, but even that isn’t as urgent as your loved one’s immediate need: to eat, to drink, to swallow, to urinate, to walk again.
How did you get to this point? Why didn’t you see it coming? Were you that blind and stupid?
Days pass in the hospital. There is no improvement. The bad news that they gave you in the emergency room has become the Big Event. It’s the thing behind the pain, the inability to swallow, all the other ailments that you just attributed to infection, palsy, arthritis, spinal degeneration, old age, pneumonia, or something else.
The hospital arranges home hospice for your loved one. The word “hospice” should fill you with horror, but your loved one is so happy to be going home after thirteen days in the hospital that you still think recovery is possible. After all, it’s happened before. Other patients have recovered. Why not yours?
You realize that the home hospice is going to turn your home upside down. You don’t care because you are willing to make whatever adjustments need to be made in order to accommodate your loved one and the nurses who come and go like angels. You are grateful that they are there. You can breathe easier. Your loved one is not only in good hands, but in compassionate hands as well.
Perhaps you are like me and have no training in healthcare. My ignorance made me disbelieve what I was seeing. I could still survive on delusions. Healers, however, can’t deal with delusions. Science is the foundation of their profession, and science is knowledge unadulterated by wishful thinking. The nurses were disclosing things to me that had been unspoken.
“I don’t want you climbing the stairs too often,” one hospice nurse told me. “Not with your hip.” I had ignored the pain in my left hip ever since my husband’s illness. I thought I was dealing well with it and I couldn’t be bothered to worry about myself.
Then there were the nurses who walked into our sick room and told me just by looking at him that my husband had sleep apnea. I had missed that too. He did have trouble sleeping and he snored once in a while, but I was taken aback. Have I been so insensible to this?
My husband spent a very bad night on the first night of hospice. He muttered and groaned in his sleep and was all over the bed. His hands plucked at his clothes, the bed sheets, the medical apparatuses attached to him. The registered nurse walked in and said he had “terminal agitation” and increased his pain medication.
It was then that I fully realized that my husband was dying. I asked, “How long?” and she quickly answered, “Not long.”
That day, the nurses were finally able to calm him, but he never really gained consciousness after that. I helped to administer some of the drugs and reposition him to make him more comfortable, but he and I never spoke to each other again. There was a gap in time before the arrival of the next hospice nurse, so I sat next to him in her absence in the quiet of the sick room, doing nothing but sitting, administering his drugs, and writing. I did speak softly to him, convinced by the hospice nurses that we could not be certain that the dying couldn’t hear us talking. They assured me that the dignity of the dying must always be maintained, and that communicating while treating the patient was the humane and decent thing to do.
Did I say that hospice nurses are angels? Let me repeat myself. Angels come in nurses’ guise. It is a calling, like the ministry or missionary work, and it is God’s work. They came to me as well in the guise of a nurse, social worker, bereavement counselor, and preacher, comforting me, giving me strength, and urging me to action. Did I have any final plans? No? Well, maybe I should make some.
The next day, the registered nurse said that it was a matter of hours. When I mentioned leaving to take care of the business mentioned the day before, the hospice nurse told me not to go far. I decided not to go at all, but to stay by his bed. The hospice nurse put a few of his cherished belongings in front of him so he could see them. We played a couple of his favorite movies on the television in front of the sickbed. We administered comfort when we could.
The pauses between gasps for air grew longer. Then there was no breath at all. The hospice nurse waited five minutes and then checked for a pulse.
The registered nurse arrived and it was all over. I kissed my husband’s cooling lips as the undertakers carried him out.
There is nothing unique in this story. As I walk through the cemetery, I see all ages in the garden of death, so lovely with its budding trees, singing birds, and quiet walkways. I see broken hearts just as mine is broken. Maybe you too have suffered a loss. You have. You will. As long as you love, you experience loss, just as I have. As one of the hospice nurses reminds me, “Grief is the price of love.”
Now I think I am ready to write Miss A’s essay about Love.
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