The biggest challenge of my life had just begun. I had finally put myself to bed and made the diagnosis. A terminal caregiver. There I lay, the most difficult patient I would ever have to care for – myself. I had no idea where to start - no nursing care plan to guide me. How could I nurse myself back to any semblance of mental health and physical homeostasis? I was now facing the most painful care-giving role of my career.
After twenty four years as one of the best nurses there was, when it came to seeing to my own needs, I was as helpless as a day-old baby.
Brian, my husband of eighteen years, was alone with me in Israel. Our children Josh (17), Hannah (15), Rachel (9), were holidaying in South Africa with my family. The unforgiving Israeli summer had taken hold of the. Brian and I were enjoying a light dinner at the Browns, our friends with whom we had made aliyah eighteen months previously. It was Tuesday evening at seven o’clock when my cell phone rang.
It was my niece Tali in Johannesburg. In her genteel manner she asked, "Nicci, are you alone or not?" "Why, what’s wrong?" I asked. She told me, "I don’t know how to say this to you, but Kim has passed away."
The world then went into slow motion, I remember Brian being in shock, and Joanne giving me sugar water. How I wished I was in Johannesburg and was being given Valium, Rivotril, Xanor - anything, but not sugar water – what could sugar water possibly do?
And then I called and explained to my patient’s wife that I would not make it that night or the next few nights. I went home and got into my bed. Oh my G-d, how was I going to make it through the night? And the next day, and the next night? How could I save myself? I needed to ask for help. I did not know how.
I had a loving and kind husband who was mourning his loss. I had friends here with whom I had built good relationships, but I was used to being the adequate, strong giver. I needed to ask them to step forward and take care of me, but no voice came out my mouth.
I needed to start breathing life into my soul and body. It felt that minute by minute my body had become a lifeless mass. In my present form I was only here, my essence was flagging. It seemed that G-d had plucked me off the African continent and placed me on another. Could it be that He had separated me from all my support systems in Johannesburg to give me the opportunity to look after myself for the first time? Here I was, distanced from them all by oceans and mountains, unable to mourn with Kim’s parents and children, her brother and our friends.
It was my natural propensity to dive in and save everyone, fix their lives. Now I was alone and isolated. I had to fix myself. I was so disconnected from myself. I did not know how to start a process of beginning to heal these. Taking a look at my essential self in my most raw and vulnerable state was overwhelming. I was full of fear. I would lie on my bed and cast my eyes out through the window at what had once been a magnificent, azure blue sky. The same heavens that Rachel and I would stare at before, and in our imaginations create with clouds pictures of dragons and chariots and French poodles and giant snowmen. Now that same sky was simply a thick humid mass draped in the firmament.
I thrashed about on my bed, screaming out to G-d to shelter me under the shadow of His wings, to help me, to guide me and to give me understanding. I did not understand why my friend was gone. I did not make sense of eternity, that I would not see her again, that I would never hear her incredible, infectious laughter again. How was I to be OK in the knowledge that we would never talk again, fight again, be happy for each others' children again?
I would see other women meet in the future and hug each other hello. We used to do that – that simple act we took for granted – and her beautiful fragrance would linger, and it was an act filled with nuances of all the warm and feminine gestures of kindness and knowing that we understood and appreciated each other without having to say anything. And all this time I felt so powerful and full of impact on my world around me.
How can I be happy again knowing her two children will never say the word “mommy” to her again? And how will my guilt allow me to tuck my children into bed at night knowing her children have no mother to do that ever again. That her loving and doting parents will never see their beloved child again. Their lives have flipped upside down and the normal order has been interfered with. How will they face the new life they have after having buried their only daughter, whose presence and largesse were legendary?
And still my thoughts kept coming. I was yearning for the familiar smell of detergents on my laundry and the bed linen I was hiding my face in. I was longing to open the fridge and recognize labels on the groceries inside. Anything that could connect me with home. All this strangeness made my grief more intense. I did not belong here – I did not belong anywhere, but where was I to go – only within. I mulled over it over and over again, trying to see the lesson I was meant to be learning in this.
As a nurse I had come pretty close to perfecting the skills of seeing to the needs of my patients. As a person I was a “good enough” mother, wife, daughter, sister and friend to those I loved. And yet as a human being, I was failing dismally in loving and taking care of myself. I clearly needed to learn to become my own best friend.
Here I found myself, a year and a half into my aliyah, in a strange culture, with a foreign language being spoken all around me, and I realized, at 41 that I was questioning my whole existence.
How was I ever going to live with this thick salty lump in my throat that triggers tears in my eyes? Tears of sadness and tears of anger and tears of fear. These tears have a way of making my head fuzzy, blurring my vision, falling out of my eyes and slipping down my cheeks, and even in this intense heat, making me cold and nauseous and my body tremble and shake.
How was it possible that the sun continued to rise and set? That the waves continued to break on the seashore? That cars were still moving on the streets, people still going about their daily business, dogs still barking, flowers still growing? Why had the world not ceased functioning and suspended all activity in conferment with my loss?
Halcyon days are gone forever. The chance to have a perfect time again has been taken from us, never to return. Living with that consciousness makes me sick. I was never an 'afraid' person. I always lived with a sense of abundance and joy. This ineffable horror has shrunken me and made me feel so small.
A few weeks after Kim passed away I planted a beautiful pot plant garden on my balcony. I chose a beautiful fig tree as her, to watch it grow. I wanted to cook delicious foods, touch fresh produce, cook meals that titillated my taste buds that I could feast my eyes upon. I needed to feel close to my husband, and wanted to make love to him so that the world and human pleasures were not denied to me.
I needed to believe that beauty still existed amongst all this pain. That I could still partake in this life and that there was still magnificence and delight to experience. As hard as I tried, my world remained a dull grey. The color was sapped out. It took me six months to notice that the flowers had returned.
One day, walking on my way, I stopped and noticed the light of the morning sun which had fallen gently on the dew drops delicately balancing on a baby blue flower juxtaposed by a bold red weed. I sat down and stared at this splendid creation. How could beauty and pain and love and anger and hurt and joy all exist side by side? Simultaneously? And now I realize that this is the human condition. Is it the stillness and silence, the noise and disquiet, this imperfection and honesty that ultimately dissolve the lump in my throat, which will build up always, again and again and again?
I am learning that it is not the big events in life that we look forward to, to make our lives meaningful and special. Life is what happens in the spaces between these times. With this realization comes the understanding that there are no answers, no questions, no right, no wrong, no demands and no fair, no simple in the simple.
So instead, I sit and extend my hands in front of me. I open my palms and look at them closely. I cup them closer together and imagine all the years of my life, all the people I love, and all the experiences that have come my way. All the opportunities I have had and lost. I look at them and own them all. They all belong to me. Today I claim them and make them mine.