Two months before her fiftieth birthday, my client V’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. He took charge and immersed himself in researching treatment options and ensured they took the best possible path. Now, ten months later, they are on the last leg of the treatment. As one would expect of the after-effects, energies are low, discomfort is high, and there is a general fatigue one experiences at the end of such an arduous journey.
Every time we speak, I am deeply moved by V’s sensitivity and clarity of thought in this matter. He seems to be always thinking a step ahead as he realises that life as they know it will not be the same again. For example, V was very concerned about how his reaction to her physical changes through the treatment – such as hair loss — might affect her. He did not want her to think he didn’t find her attractive anymore. To ensure that he maintained an equanimity in his expressions when physical changes did come about, he started visualising the various effects of the treatment on his wife.
Besides incorporating the treatment related aspects of the disease, he also wants to re-imagine the romantic side of their relationship. This has become important for him especially given the pandemic-paranoia of exposure to infection — V fears taking his wife out of the house. When they step out of the house, it is only for treatment-related visits to the hospital.
He has come to me to figure out what he can do to show his wife how much he loves and cherishes her in a romantic way, beyond what he has demonstrated through his caregiving during her illness.
V says he’d like to proceed from a place of genuineness rather than from sympathy for his wife. He adds that she is already doing the heavy lifting of battling a life-threatening disease, constantly wondering how her life will change as an individual, as a wife and with their eco-system.
As we work around incorporating his wife’s varying energy levels after each treatment session, it also comes up that my client follows his counsellor’s advice to spend some quality time alone, to do things by himself, things he likes. This would serve well for his own emotional wellbeing. This is equally if not more important when one is in a situation similar to V’s. Very few care givers take that necessary pause. The primary reason is guilt of doing so when the other person is suffering.
For V, periodically carving out time for himself has helped maintain an equilibrium, and replenish his emotional energies, so that he can go that extra mile to keep his wife’s spirits high.
When we speak, V and I zero-in on creating special and lighthearted moments the couple can share. We do this especially keeping in mind his wife’s interest and energy levels especially after treatment. V and his wife have already started doing some of these — healthy gourmet meals on date nights at home, boardgames in bed, and ideating on redecorating a part of their house, which is something his wife enjoys doing.
In most cultures, the wedding ceremony consists of couples promising to stand by each other, come what may. A big component of this when growing older together is about facing waves of health setbacks. Many like V, keep that promise when the time comes.
Another recent example of such a partner is K, a friend who recently visited us in Bangalore. Even though we had specifically asked him not to bring anything, K walked in with a fancy bottle of wine. His response was that his wife had insisted he not enter our home empty-handed. K promptly got her on a video call, and we had a nice chat ending with a plan to meet soon with families.
Throughout the evening, K brought up his wife on many occasions, sharing stories of her likes and dislikes. It was like she was there with him, and with us, even when she wasn’t physically present. At the end of the evening, as we were saying our long Indian goodbye, we talked about how his next visit to Bangalore should include his wife. It was then that K mentioned that his wife has been suffering from a rare health disorder for four years and that she will not be able to walk again. Even as he spoke those words it seemed like he had accepted this fact as their “new normal”. K said they now take holidays only outside of the country where everyday logistics are friendlier for people with movement disabilities. Consequently, she also feels more independent and confident.
Having a spouse go through a severe illness is difficult for both partners. The healthy partner might not experience the physical pain that the sick partner goes through, but the emotional turmoil is most likely similar. V’s and K’s cases, are heartening examples of people finding their own ways to keep true to their wedding vows of loving their partner in sickness and in health. Examples like these only renew one’s faith in true and unconditional love, whatever form it takes.
This is a limited series by Simran Mangharam, a dating and relationship coach, who can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org