Recently I have been spending many hours on the phone to my Canadian sister, who is losing her husband. He starts chemotherapy tomorrow which may extend the time he has left, but not indefinitely.
We are thrown into these roles, sometimes, whether we are competent or not. I am the only person she can speak to at the moment, and so I sit and listen.
She and I married very similar men and had similar relationships with them: clever, capable, dominant chaps just like our father. He gets to do all the thinking and deciding – she gets never to need to think or decide. Both benefit, as long as nothing changes too swiftly or too radically. I believe this may be what is meant by co-dependency. The only difference between us is that I chose, eventually, to break out and she succeeded in staying married.
But now things are changing for the two of them. He is too tired and sick to control her every action and she can’t even begin to think her way through this new set of problems undirected. For example she is afraid that, having insisted on driving them both to the hospital – a long, complicated drive that terrifies her, down motorways she has always been able to avoid in the past – her husband will then be kept in overnight and she will be stranded. She is not permitted to stay overnight in the hospital. She has no credit card and has probably never had to book a hotel room for herself. She has not been able to memorise the route home. She has no sense of direction and cannot remember whether to turn left or right at the hospital gates. She has never understood how GPS works.
The thing is – all those things that worry her, worry me too. It is many years since I ventured onto the M25 and I see no point in doing so as long as there is an alternative. Yes, if one of my cats were to be – for some unthinkable reason – stranded somewhere north of the Watford Gap and the only way to rescue it was via the M25, I would set forth to circumnavigate that mind-boggling stretch of motorway. Even if I managed not to cause a fifteen-car pile-up the stress would wipe me out for a week.
But there is an alternative: anywhere on the far side of London – I take the train. That’s the thing – there is nearly always an alternative – you just have to bend your creativity towards it. So, I have suggested searching on the internet for volunteer hospital drivers – who would simply drive both of them to chemotherapy sessions and drive either her or both of them back. I have suggested asking their kindly next-door-neighbour, Mike, to give her a discreet lesson in the workings of GPS. I have suggested that she starts a notebook and writes in it any ‘how to’ information she manages to glean during this interim period so that when she is, eventually, on her own she has at least some data to hand. I have suggested packing a small bag, enough for an overnight stay in a hotel, and stowing it it in the car – just in case.
The thing with creativity is, it’s not an exclusive force. Whilst you can, if you are lucky, direct the whole of it towards whatever floats your boat – in my case writing, in her case arts and crafts – you can, and are sometimes forced to, redirect it for a variety of other purposes. You don’t realise how powerful creativity is – and you are – until you experience that. So – something is broken and husband is no longer available to tell you what to do – you have to run through the options – could I fix this? with what might I fix it? what other sort of person might fix it? who can I ask for advice? is there any way I can avoid using it altogether? is there something else I could use instead? Nothing is insoluble.
My sister hasn’t nearly got to that stage yet, but she will. You find yourself adrift in the middle of an ocean – the big ship has sunk and no sign of a lifeboat. In theory, you could give up and let yourself sink down, down, down to Davy Jones’ locker. I am sure some people have done just that, but you’d need to be pretty passive-aggressive to do it. Most people would swim or attempt to stay afloat because like all animals they were born with a powerful urge to survive.
Life on your own is like this: you learn through making a series of mistakes but there’s no one to sigh and tap their feet at you. Sometimes it’s a painless, enjoyable process. Sometimes it’s more like being a cow in a field with a new electric fence: the electric fence is gonna teach you. Sooner or later your brain will kick into gear and the great creativity-divert will begin. Disadvantage: less energy to devote to your overwhelming interest in life. Advantage: at least, a kind of independence.