While taking a recent stroll along the Umatilla River paved walk, I came upon a friend. We exchanged pleasantries for a minute, and then she began to ask me about my wife, a question I have come to dread. She began to ask a common, normal, well-intentioned, innocuous question: “How is Amy?”
My best friend, the closest human relationship I’ve ever had, truly my better half in every way, my wife of almost 42 years, is a victim of early onset Alzheimer’s disease.
Symptoms began when she turned 52 and increased rapidly to the point that now, at age 63, she must reside in the memory lockdown unit at Juniper House where I attempt to get as close to her as possible through a COVID window. She, of course, continues to slowly degrade and disappear, both of us powerless to do anything about it.
I took care of her at home until her condition worsened to the point of requiring around-the-clock medical care. At that point, for her own safety, she left our bedside empty and cold after 41 years. That was the moment when my spirit died. My very best friend, my other, better half, has gone for good. It may seem a bit hyperbolic to say that my life ended that day, but ask any widow or widower who had a lengthy, close relationship with their spouse and they may tell you the same thing.
In short, while my body continues to carry on, life for me now is pretty much just going through the motions. It takes a great deal of effort just to get up and face the day, knowing that at some point the grief monster will get its pound of flesh out of me. As the psalmist says, tears are my daily bread.
I’m not asking for your pity here; our loved ones die. I’m requesting thoughtful self-awareness, an audacious thing to demand of anyone. Due to the intense grief, pain and loneliness that her condition causes me, I try my best to stay occupied and avoid it for as long as possible, that is, until someone who knows and genuinely cares about my wife asks the inevitable question: “How is Amy?” I try to restrain myself by giving a pat answer, but the very asking plummets me instantly into the whirlpool of grief I try so hard to keep at bay from taking me under, and I find myself feeling peeved. What do they expect me to say? What do they expect to hear? “Miracle of miracles, she’s talking again! She still knows my name!” Don’t they know there’s no coming back from this path?
“How is ...” I have come to realize is a horribly inappropriate question for someone facing down stage four renal cancer, a person whose house has just burned to the ground, or is well along the way on the “ride into the sunset.” But the asking of the question — again, with the best of intentions — always stings and tends to make me a bit peevish in my response. I’ve tried a variety of them: “Well, she has Alzheimer’s disease” (an attempt to state the obvious). “She’s still alive, physically anyway” (an attempt to state that, no, the problem isn’t that she’s broken her leg). Unfortunately, the pain the question causes has made me a little more blunt in my answer: “How is my precious wife? She’s dying a slow, brutal, uncompromising, horrifying death, taking all who love her down with it.” Is that what you really want to hear — the truth?
The root of the problem for me lies in our habit of asking the question more as a throwaway part of a greeting. It’s always a pertinent question to ask even if we waste it in the modicum of social propriety. I do this myself out of habit. “How are you, how’s it going?” when all I really need say is hello. So the answer also becomes throwaway with the usual, but often false, response of “Good! Great!” and now we can move beyond the pleasantries. My wife’s condition has come to reinforce this thought. So what’s a viable alternative?
My friend on the river walk, Ellen, is a retired educator and that may have given her the skills to intuit that which remains unsaid. As she began to ask me the question, she barely got the “How’s” out when she snapped her mouth shut. She paused before she spoke again, not with a question but a statement: “Matt, I walk with you and Amy in your pain. I’m always there when you need.”
I was absolutely floored. At last, someone got it! She alone (thus far) has taken the road — my road — not taken. She intuited the pain her question would cause and redirected her kind intention through a statement instead of the inevitable, ubiquitous phrase that no one really cares about answering honestly. She said what she really, consciously wanted to express, friendship that joins me in my perpetual war against what Winston Churchill referred to as “the old black dog.”
As many of Ellen’s friends know her to be the gracious angel that she is, she remains my sole example to the alternative, normal, well-intentioned but cruel question — asking someone who may be in dire straits a throwaway but serious question as part of a casual greeting.
In closing, I would like to suggest a few things. First off, I’m trying to train myself into not asking how someone “is doing” when all I really want to say is exactly all I should say, “It’s good to be in your company.” Ellen remains my model in this regard and I think it’s a good habit to cultivate, an opportunity to bless rather than curiously inquire. Make a statement as your greeting, not a question. Finally, try your best to intuit where someone might be in their journey before you ask a question that could cause them unnecessary pain and resentment.
Give thanks for educators and be as self-aware as possible. It will be a help to those who may, unbeknownst to you, be in a world of hurt.