Elizabeth Edwards died yesterday. She was prepared, had her family and friends around her, and had made all her good-byes. I didn't know her personally but I knew her situation. She put a face on the woman who was left by her husband after a terrible diagnosis.
Of all the parts of traditional marriage vows, the "in sickness and in health" seems to me to be the touchiest. When men promise to stay under those conditions, they rarely know what they are talking about. Most haven't been caretakers, don't have that nurturing mothering instinct that women seem to have, and have not been periodically assaulted by their bodies with normal occurrences like pregnancy and menstruation.
I was a woman like Elizabeth Edwards - a professional woman who had managed a career and family, with a good income and personal health. I ran and played tennis and did sit-ups with my toddler sitting on my belly. I hiked with my baby in a Snuggly. That was my baseline when I was diagnosed with lupus at 35.
The diagnosis hit like a brick. I already knew that I was ill, because my ability to run and play tennis and even walk had been compromised and I was in pain daily. But the knowledge that I had a disease that wasn't going to go away...whole new ballgame. My dearly beloved didn't crack a book to learn about the diagnosis or what to expect, or to learn what living with chronic illness could be. That means the good and the bad were unknowns for him. I tried to put pamphlets and information in his hands, to no avail. Without a more objective guide, his perspective came from day to day changes and challenges.
Long story short, we were divorced within two years. Long sad story.
When your man leaves you before you get a chance to even adjust to the new circumstances, you are viewed with sympathy and pity, like Elizabeth Edwards in the vast public eye. She held it together and kept a wonderful dignity and calm-no public bashing of John, a wise acceptance of the fact that he would continue to be the father of her children and their caretaker after she was gone, and still a public presence that didn't give in to tragedy and hurt.
In my practice and in my life, I have seen the abandoned women often, and yet I can name only a few men in the same situation. Many, many times a man with chronic illness was accompanied by the woman in his life, who often knew more about his disease than he did. She was inevitably a positive force, helping with his care when necessary, picking up the financial slack by working harder or returning to the workforce, making a way for the children to continue a relationship with the sick parent. I do not fault these women; it is the way it should be, in my view. But the dichotomy sickens me. For someone to say "you are not the woman I married, you are weaker, less attractive, less able to give to me, less able to earn"-juvenile and sickening. And all too common. Makes me want to say "Suck it up, little boys, the world isn't your playground every day of your life. Grow a pair and hang in."
Peace. If you can.