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CYC-Online 139 SEPTEMBER 2010 / BACK
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Life's lessons

Liz Laidlaw

Around the time my daughter celebrated her 100th day in kindergarten we discovered that my husband was facing a severe health crisis. While my daughter was learning to read and write I was trying to figure out how I would keep the joy and wonder in my children's lives if their father was no longer around. How could I teach them anything if I couldn’t see how I could possibly cope with every new day?

The fact that we had everything we had ever dreamed of was suddenly in focus. We have two wonderful children, a strong marriage, our dream home, healthy family and friends. We took so much of it for granted. I admit feeling recently that I didn’t know what I had done to deserve my good fortune and contemplated people who had so much tragedy in their lives. Why them? I thought, why not me?

And then the floor fell away beneath our feet.

Before being eventually diagnosed with Nephrotic syndrome (a form of kidney disease), we had my husband diagnosed with some pretty terminal and appalling things, thanks by and large to the Internet. Self-diagnosis is an incredibly dangerous thing. If doctors have difficulty diagnosing disease, why do those of us with no medical background think we can do it better? While waiting for an assortment of test results, we bargained and pleaded, swore off bad habits and promised good clean healthy living with heaps of exercise if only we could get through this with something we could handle. Truth be told, you can deal with anything but we hadn’t yet learned that.

My initial reaction to this crisis was to swing a wild pendulum. One moment I was wondering if my husband would survive the day while in emergency “undergoing CT scans and X-rays, worrying about blood clots, congestive heart failure, malignancies and multiple myelomas (just to name a few). The next moment I was obsessing about the little things, like what on earth do I cook for dinner every night (my husband does most of the cooking)? Will my children turn into giant noodles if I serve them pasta every day? How many bags of garbage will they pick up on garbage day and if I have too much garbage what the heck do I do with it until the next garbage day (he’s also responsible for the garbage)?

My husband lost his mother when he was nine years old and this has given him a very different perspective on death. He knows with authority that life does go on, albeit very differently. He understands at such a basic level that death is a part of life. His big fear during this crisis was not dying, but leaving us to fend for ourselves. He kept reminding me about the various life insurance policies and widow pensions that existed, and not to forget about the penny jar, which must have several hundred dollars in it by now. This relaxed and sensible attitude was something I was hoping we could communicate to our children, although we probably demonstrated a more yin-yang approach than a unified display. While one of us was calm and philosophical the other was wild and emotional “complementary and yet also in opposition to each other.

Somewhere along the way we made a conscious decision to have faith in things - everything from trust in each other to faith in hospital care and doctors and nurses to our own expectations of everyday in our lives. Why expect the worst when you can hope for the best? We’ll have enough time to deal with the horrible things when they happen (and they will to varying degrees). Why waste time looking down when you could be looking up? The key is that we will get through this and we can get through anything because we have to and because this is the path to our future and we are bound to follow it.

During all of this we kept discussing what to tell our children. We were looking for the positive life lessons “hoping to teach them from this experience and at least have them come away with something of value. I kept wondering how we could show them to truly appreciate and be present for every moment in their lives.

Then while my husband was still in the hospital, my daughter and I flipped the page on our page-a-day “Zen Calendar” to see what the day’s quote would be. It was by Zen teacher/activist and author Bernie Glassman and read, “Every day is a special day, every place is a special place as it is.” And the tears came. I sat down to show it to my daughter and we read it together and I asked her what she thought. She nodded earnestly and said, “I can’t wait for the rest of the days to be here because I don’t know what they’ll be like “every day after the night is a brand new day and so exciting.”

And once again, when I intended to teach my daughter a life lesson, it turns out that she had something to teach me instead. For that I am truly grateful.

This feature: Laidlaw, L. (2005). Life's lessons. Relational Child & Youth Care Practice, 18, 1. p. 40.


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