Embracing Your Partner’s Unembraceable Physical Challenge

My heart goes out to Tina Fox, my friend and FineAfter50 business partner. Her own physical challenges have recently reached the point where they are very close to being unembraceable both mentally and emotionally (see the previous blog post on this page). There are days when it’s very difficult for her to win the battle against discouragement and depression. But on Tuesday morning this week, things suddenly and unexpectedly got a whole lot worse.

Tina found out on Tuesday, December 13th, 2011 that Michael, her partner for more than 25 years, has multiple myeloma in his blood. It’s an incurable cancer that starts in plasma cells in the bone marrow. The cancerous plasma cells multiply and basically crowd out red and white blood cells, thus preventing the immune system from doing its job of protecting the body from germs and other harmful substances. The average life expectancy of a person with multiple myeloma of the blood is from four to seven years.

To say that this news was a shock to Tina and Michael is putting it mildly. They have both lived their adult lives as many of us do, believing theoretically that their lives are in God’s hands and that He ultimately will determine the number of their days, while assuming on a practical level that they would both live into old age and enjoy a period of retirement from the rigors of working to earn a living. Moreover, they have both assumed during all the years that they’ve been together that Tina would die first and that Michael would quickly get over her passing and move on with his life. Tina believes that she’s more dependent on Michael than he is on her.

Now, all of a sudden, everything is reversed. Backwards. Flipped upside down. It’s not supposed to be like this. Tina can’t imagine living without Michael; the thought has never crossed her mind until this week. She’s not prepared for this. The prospect of her outliving Michael and being alone — without him –is extremely upsetting and depressing.

This situation brings to the surface a whole new aspect of the concept of being fine after 50. It’s one thing to embrace your own physical challenges and accept your own limitations and define your own “new normal,” but how do you embrace the physical challenges of your spouse or child or other loved one that you love dearly? How do you accept the limitations of a loved one who is suffering from an incurable, debilitating, fatal cancer?

To cope successfully with such brute reality, I think we need to develop and nurture a totally new mindset. I think the apostle Paul gives really good advice in this regard in Romans 12:2 when he says, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” One translation says, “Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mold…”

Different religious persuasions may disagree on whether the renewing of the mind is done internally by oneself or requires outside spiritual help, but one thing we know for sure from the ancient Greek manuscripts: the renewing of the mind is not a one shot deal; the Greek verb tense used for this word implies a continual action. In other words, we need to develop a habit of thinking differently — in this case, regarding human life in general, and regarding the life of our loved one in particular — and take every opportunity to apply that new way of thinking to the events and circumstances of our daily lives.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. The sudden deaths of my parents and 19-year-old brother in a plane crash on June 27th, 1969 taught me that no one is guaranteed a long life on this earth. Not me, not my wife, not my kids, not Tina, not Michael; no one. We shouldn’t expect to live past a certain age; we shouldn’t count on it; we definitely shouldn’t think that we have a right to it or that we deserve it.

Why not? Because accidents happen every day. People die unexpectedly every day. We know this; we are constantly reminded of it by the news media. We just assume that it will never happen to us or to one of our loved ones. Bad assumption…

When you hear or read a news report about an accidental death or a natural disaster that takes lives, how often do you think about the loved ones of those victims and what they are going through as they deal with their grief? How often do you think about what YOU would do if that news report were about the death of one of YOUR loved ones? It would be good for us over-50 folks to begin trying to put ourselves in the shoes of those who are going through the grief of a sudden and unexpected loss of a love one, because every day the chances of such a loss happening to us increases.

Consider this: Michael could have suddenly lost his life in an accident the day before he learned he has multiple myeloma. But he didn’t. Instead, he received unexpected news that he has incurable cancer. If Tina had been given the choice last week between Michael losing his life suddenly in an accident or learning that he has an incurable cancer that may reduce his life expectancy to four to seven years, I’m pretty sure she would have chosen the four to seven year option. I would have chosen the four to seven year option instead of the sudden plane crash option for my parents and brother.

So do you see how framing the unexpected and unpleasant cancer diagnosis and prognosis in terms of a sudden accidental death (always a possibility) changes the picture from one of sadness and depression to one of joyful anticipation of another four to seven years together? Tina and Michael will have many days and weeks to be together, to do fun things, to enjoy each other’s company, to talk and share and say their good-byes — all of which were not possible for me to do with my parents and brother, nor would be possible for Tina to do with Michael were he to have lost his life suddenly in an accident.

Another aspect of renewing the mind is developing an attitude of thankfulness. I’ve written about this elsewhere: the idea that every breath we take and every heartbeat is a gift from our Creator, and that we should be aware constantly of His grace in our lives. I often forget, but I try to say a prayer of thanksgiving every morning when I wake up — for the new day, for my life having been preserved and sustained through the night, for the privilege of one more day of life on planet earth to enjoy the beauty of God’s creation.

Here are some things Tina and Michael can be thankful for right now: (1) the cancer is Stage 1; it was caught early. That’s certainly much better than if it were Stage 2 or Stage 3; (2) Michael has good health insurance through Tina’s former employer; (3) Tina and Michael live in Los Angeles county and thus have nearby access to some of the finest medical experts, hospitals and cancer treatment centers in the country; (4) Tina is no longer working long, stressful hours as a technical writer and program manager, so she has more time available than she otherwise would have to support Michael and help him with research regarding various treatment options.

The apostle James sums up the new mindset I’ve been talking about above, and that I recommend we over-50 folks work at adopting and applying in our lives:
“Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow, we shall go to such and such a city and spend a year there and engage in business and make a profit.’ Yet you do not know what your life will be like tomorrow. You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we shall live and also do this or that.'” (James 4:13-15)

May we all no longer be conformed in our thinking to the world view that our media and our culture ram down our throats: that we deserve long life and comfort and constant pleasure and a perpetual youthful appearance; but may we instead be transformed by the continual renewing of our minds. Selah. (“selah” means “Pause and calmly think of that!)

Note: We welcome comments on our blog posts on Fine After 50 and on Structured Ink. If you’d like to comment on this article, click here and enter a user name and password. Then you will be able to comment on any WordPress blog page.

If you are having difficulty dealing with physical challenges, either your own or those of a loved one, and you’d like to talk, feel free to contact us. We may be able to help, or refer you to someone else who can help.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s