My story, briefly...
I'm an expert on grieving because I’ve done a lot of it. I have a doctoral degree, essentially in counseling, from the University of Virginia, but my decade of higher education is beside the point. It was the decade of grieving that taught me most of what I know about life, faith, survival and friendship.
My mid-to-late 30's revolved around trying to have a baby. When it didn’t happen after more than a year, my physician-husband consulted one of his friends, an infertility specialist. This infertility specialist treated me for two years, without first checking my husband’s sperm count. To make a long, awful story short, my hope of ever giving birth eventually ended in a botched procedure, done last-minute by a surgeon whose hospital privileges had largely been suspended for alcoholism and malpractice.
Just after I miscarried our only pregnancy, my husband was diagnosed with a rare type of brain tumor, growing on his brain stem. The attempt to remove it left him perpetually dizzy and deaf in one ear, with a scar that ran from the back of his skull almost to the top of his head. Faced with a soul-wrenching career crisis while still not recovered, he took his own life. I found him on a Sunday evening in his office at the hospital, no more than a few minutes after his death.
My career broke down during this time; I let a publishing contract to write a textbook slip away. In the aftermath of Wayne's death, I was sometimes barely able to drive to the grocery store. I remember sitting in a parking lot more than once with my heart pounding, gasping for breath, unable to leave the car. I was plagued by nightmares, insomnia and intrusive, uncontrollable, horrific images.
As I grappled with rebuilding my life, I eventually became entangled in a relationship with a man who reminded me of Alex Baldwin, strikingly handsome but well known for his vicious, unprovoked rages. This is a story I cannot tell, but I understand, and I never could have before, how educated, self-aware women, even strong women, can be caught insidiously, compellingly in a cycle of abuse. I was completely unprepared for what happened.
Now fighting middle-aged wrinkles and strange little aches, I am a caregiver to my mother—until this past spring to both of my parents. My father died this spring. I sat vigil for weeks beside his hospital bed as he struggled in a fog of vascular dementia and multiple illnesses to simply stay alive. "He's tough," his doctor said to me one day. "I'll give him that."
My mother lives with me now; I’m alone in the responsibility for her care. My only sibling, a brother born ten months after me, died suddenly at the age of 50, while raking leaves.
So life has not been easy for the past 20 years or so. But although I am a chronic worrier, a terrible procrastinator and an unrecovered perfectionist, I live with a deep sense of joy. I am loved by God, and I cannot even begin to describe this love. At times it overwhelms me. I have good friends. I have a purpose: The All-Weather Friend—the kind of friend we need when life takes a turn for the worst.
I know a lot about Alzheimer’s disease and caregiving because I’ve spent many years immersed in the study of it, working with people who face its challenges, and I've been a caregiver myself. I know what it is to live alone with grief, invisible for the most part to the people who pass in and out of everyday life. Having dealt with a harrowing death and many losses, I know the power of friendship—both to heal and hurt. I believe a majority of people want to be helpful in difficult circumstances but may not know how. I've written one book, Alzheimer’s: A Crash Course for Friends and Relatives, to begin a series of materials meant, as my tagline goes, to help friends be friends when it matters most.