Whenever I thought about my golden years, I pictured them something like those old Geritol commercials where the husband and wife stroll contentedly down a leafy autumn path, holding hands and smiling. They’ve survived child rearing, the empty nest, the transition of retirement, and now they can focus on each other, with nary a care in the world.
What I had never pictured, not in a million years, was the possibility that I might face a future with a husband who was disabled, diminished or different.
Although I had weighed the chances of widowhood, I had never seriously thought about joining the ranks of the 1 in 4 Americans who are caregivers.
Instead of luxurious late afternoon walks, I could have a future of catheters, medication schedules, intermittent resentment and truncated dreams. I had never pictured myself in this role with a loved one, only as someone cared for by my husband—and in turn, caring back.
All of that changed on January 29th 2006 when my husband, Bob Woodruff, co-anchor for ABC News, was hit by an IED while covering the war in Iraq. My vision of us together, enjoying a long and active life, was shattered as he lay in a medically induced come for five weeks, the doctors fearing the worst as he continually failed to respond to commands.
As medical professionals gently tried to break it to me in numerous bite-sized conversations that Bob might never talk, process information or function as he once had, my mind reeled with visions of how circumscribed our family’s life could be.
Would we all be visiting him in a nursing home each week? Would he be so damaged that he would not be able to work in any capacity? And even more terrible, what happened to love in a marriage like this, a marriage that had sustained 19 years of wonderful ups an occasional downs, of ruts in the road and disappointments and joys?
What would happen if the teeter-totter of marriage tipped so drastically that I became nurse and nursemaid, mother and teacher?
I was terrified to guess how spousal love survived in that kind of lopsided equation. How did one sustain that mutual respect that Bob and I had shared through our marriage the healthy admiration we had for each other’s accomplishments at the end of the day – whether it was accompanying a child to an elementary school field trip or breaking a major story overseas.
We had supported one another and understood the delicate balance of what made our family work. Both of us had put our shoulders into the four corners of our marriage to make it a whole.
Just a month before Bob’s life-threatening attack in Iraq, my sisters and I had helped our parents move back from their west coast home to the east coast, where all three of their daughters lived. While both in good physical health, my Dad had been becoming more forgetful and the three of us instinctively felt the giant circle of life arcing back to our turn to care from them.
After all of those years of lovingly raising us, it would be our turn to be there for our parents as they readjusted to an independent living facility and acclimated themselves to a new phase of life.
Helping my own parent’s transition was what had been on my mind in the weeks before Bob was injured. My sisters and I had worked out a schedule to visit, and I was adjusting my life to try to build in more time with them, despite having four very active kids at home an a husband with a new TV anchor job that would make even more demands on his time.
In an instant, with the explosion of an insurgent’s bomb, my parent’s needs suddenly became shoved to the back burner as, terrified, I helped my husband fight for his life and set about making my children feel optimistic about their nuclear family.
What I did not count on, once we got Bob home and he was beginning to put words together, struggling with fatigue and the pain of having 14 cm of his skull missing, was my own sense of despair. The initial adrenaline surge of the acute care situation had abandoned me as I struggled each day to rise to get the children off to school.
Day by day, Bob and I faced the myopic, slow crawl of recovery from a brain injury. I was too close to the subject to have a long view.
Being a day to day caregiver meant I had lost true perspective. My whole world was tied up in helping Bob through the day, watching like a bird of prey for miniscule improvements.
I was losing my sense of self too. If he was rested and made progress, I felt happy. If he was exhausted and in pain, I could feel my optimism begin to sink.
In some ways, my own road to recovery was as painstaking as Bobs. I had to repair myself, find the center of our family again and look for moments of joy, exclusive of Bob, so that I could nurture all those around me.
I had to begin to accept what they called “the new normal” in rehabilitation terms. This was our new post-injury life and there were limitations. Even as he improved, I was
The last person to believe he was capable, as I could not erase the image of his lifeless body and swollen brain lying in the ICU in a coma.
Still, I told myself, Bob was moving slowly, inexorably toward his old self again. There were many days that I reminded myself how many caregivers in a marriage pasted on daily smiles to ease the final days of their spouses lives, knowing with certainty that the situation was inoperable, incurable or lacked the glittering promise of the golden years.
Friends call me now, friends who have husbands with diseases and tumors, who have had strokes or brain bleeds. “How did you do it?” they ask me, as if I posses the answers of a shaman or a wise man.
“You would do the very same thing for your loved one,” I say. “Situations like these allow you to find things inside yourself that you didn’t know you had.” And I meant it. The human spirit is an amazing thing.
The toll, the responsibility of being a caregiver, is one I never thought about, as I stood doe-eyed at the altar, dreaming of life together as one long, magnificent journey. But the act of care giving, like the act of marriage itself, requires that each person take care of themselves in order to care for the other, as hard as that may be on some days.
“It’s like being on an airplane,” a woman shared with me the other night as she explained that her husband was losing the battle to ALS.
“Don’t ever forget that you need to place the oxygen mask on yourself before you place it on the loved ones around you.”
It wasn’t easy to do in the midst of a maelstrom, I’d learned. But it was vital; as vital as all of the other precious acts of giving and nurturing and caring that we do for our loved ones day in and day out.
Lee Woodruff is a public relations executive and freelance writer. For more information, please visit www.bobwoodrufffamilyfund.org
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