January 11, 2012

In Sickness and In Health, part 2

Yesterday I told you about a woman's unique family where she and her new husband are committed to caring for her ex-husband, who suffered a traumatic brain injury. Marriage takes a turn - and a toll - when disability is involved.

When I was 12, my mother married my stepfather. It was just about a year later when he was diagnosed with cancer. Illness changes everything. In a few years time, my stepdad turned from a strong, independent man to someone who needed help getting out of his chair and into the bathroom. With his vulnerability came a humble, trusting side of him that I hadn't seen. And it changed his relationships with us. All of a sudden I saw my mom and Keith's romance alter into a completely different form of intimacy. She was there to change his bandages, help with his catheter, and help take care of him in ways we imagine our parents only taking care of us as babies.
My relationship with him also changed. Instead of thinking of him as an annoying stepfather who ruined my life, I saw him as a human in need. I realized that even though I was young I was still someone who could offer him help and support.
In his final days, he lay on a gurney next to the queen-sized bed in my parents' bedroom. I would hear the syncopated beep of his heart monitor and would often walk by the room when he slept during the day, just to make sure I could still hear him breathing. I knew he was dying and wanted nothing more than for him to be happy in his final days. And most certainly, I didn't want him to be alone.
When I look back, I realize that his illness, his death, his dying taught me what true love is. I saw him in his most weak state and he trusted me to care for him. And my mother still misses him dearly, speaking of him as if he just died a few days ago.

I have a few friends who are in similar situations, married to disabled spouses. I call these women "hero wives" because frankly, I don't understand how they do everything. But they don't really like that term. In their minds, they aren't "heroes," they're just wives living up to the vows they made. They understand life is hard. Sometimes it's unfair. Sometimes the fairytale takes a detour on the way to the castle. Still, I have to wonder if I would be nearly as strong if I were in their spots.

For instance, meet my dear friend, Dana Ritter Brown, who I've known since my early days of working in television news. Dana met her husband, Mike, a few years ago online and quickly realized that their friendship was turning into a legit long-distance love. While Dana isn't busy covering news at The White House and Michael isn't busy working from his home office, the two are living the lives of two seemingly typical American lovebirds. They juggle their time between making home-cooked meals, enjoying quiet Saturday mornings, and spending time with their two dogs, Brokaw and Princess. They are grateful for their home and family and are unceasing in their faith to God.
But their lives are also often dictated by what they've come to call the "third partner" in their marriage - disability.
Mike has been in a wheelchair since he was in an accident at 17 years old. Dana, who is able-bodied, would claim she's handicapped by her perfectionism and desire to be moving nonstop. Together they face daily challenges that come with limited mobility. And both Dana and Mike continually share their experiences and challenges on their blog, A Love Like This Life. Truthfully, I often wonder how the two of them have time to chronicle their lives in the midst of such busy lives.

They typically begin their days early - sometimes at 4am - just to make sure that Mike's body is in full working order before both begin their workdays. Some days are easier than others. Dana sometimes breaks down, revealing how angry she is that her husband can't lift himself up when he falls from his chair and how she wishes disability would just take a day off. Mike shares how he hates feeling like a burden and shares how he's learned to accept his fate and has learned to live a life filled with gratitude.

These two are amazing examples to me of what love truly is. They are the ultimate givers to one another. And frankly, I feel like they're giving love to me and everyone else in the world by sharing their stories.

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