My husband Dave very recently retired after 24 years as chaplain with hospice. He looks forward to having time for creative pursuits. Yet even as he says hello to his creative self, he says goodbye to position and daily routine, patient contact and serving as part of a hospice team. He is defined by the space he no longer occupies.
Dave's last day at work was Friday. He left at 3:00, headed for a 3:15 doctor's appointment regarding his heart. "This is not how I envisioned starting my retirement," he said. He's been feeling tightness and sharp jabbing pains in his chest—angina pectoris.
And so we are at the hospital. He's here for tests. I'm here for him. I feel a pang when I look at this man I adore, when I place a hand on his defined pecs, know I love him, fear losing him. I want to hear that all is well, that this pain is perhaps the result of stress and major life transition.
Today Dave will undertake a treadmill stress test with radioactive dye coursing through his system. Just now he is in line for a blood draw when the man behind him engages him in conversation. This fellow had a heart transplant three years ago. Doctors had given him 10 months to live without the transplant, 10 years with it. He opted to pursue treatment.
"I used to weigh 430 pounds," he tells Dave. "I hated shopping for clothes. I felt like I was buying a couch cover when I bought a pair of pants." Before his heart transplant he lost 60 pounds and had bariatric surgery. He's now down to 180 pounds and says he is doing very well, feels great.
Dave says hearing this man's story helps him put his own troubles in perspective. "I realize I'm worried about my condition and there are people who face far greater challenges than I do."
What I hear is how we are defined in part by the space we no longer occupy. This man once weighed 250 pounds more than he does now, and he readily shares this information with a stranger. Part of who he is now is what he does not have. He no longer has the heart he was born with. He no longer has 250 pounds that were once a part of him. These losses allow him to live and to live more fully, but that doesn't mean that he's forgotten about them or no longer thinks about them. In an intangible, invisible way they are a part of who he is.
Dave and I later stand at the radiology counter. An elderly woman comes out of the waiting room, looks about, looks bewildered. The receptionist turns her attention from us to the woman.
"They wheeled your husband down to Area 2. You were on the phone so I didn't interrupt you. Go down this hallway to the desk in Area 2 and they'll tell you where he is."
The woman nods and steps away, then turns back. "When you've been married to a man for 60 years, you miss him when he's not around."
Dave says he hears this as a need to talk, invitation to dialogue, plea for help. I hear a comment about loss, about self-definition, about defining oneself by what or who is not there—or here.
I gauge such encounters through the screen or filter of my own experience. Who am I? I am who I am not; I am the space I no longer occupy. I am the father whose children are lost to him, whose children choose to have nothing to do with him. I am the father whose eldest son at age 10 said, "Dad, I don't want to see or talk to you again." I am the father whose twin sons when they turned 14, obtained a restraining order to put a stop to our visitation together. At issue: my being gay. My being an openly affirming gay man. My being a gay man with the temerity to believe I'm not going to hell for being who I am.
I define myself in part by the space I do not occupy, by the children who are lost to me. By the heart space that is empty, the echo I hear when I call my sons' names. Is this me, the un-father, not-father, used-to-be father? Yes, part of who I am is who I am not. But I sometimes wonder if I spend too much time looking at the empty half of the glass. Still, to be human is to experience loss.
The stress test over, we go to the pharmacy to get a prescription filled. The woman in line behind us says she's been up since 3:00 this morning. Her husband is in the hospital with an unknown heart condition. She received a middle-of-the-night call from the nursing staff suggesting she come sit with him. None of their three children could join her. She's having to go it alone.
"I don't know what I will do if something happens to him," she says. "We're barely making it on two incomes now."
Who will she be when her husband dies? How will she handle a new definition of self when it smacks her in the face? How does any of us handle loss? We adapt, we cope. We grieve. We move on, we get stuck. We do the best we can, the best we know how. We rely on each other. We tell our stories. To anyone who will listen. This is part of being human, too.
Later this month, come Pride Day, I'll be thinking of this as I celebrate us as a people of courage and spirit, as I listen to the stories told of who we are, where we've come from, how we define ourselves. We are who we are—and also who we are not.
This essay appeared in the June issue of The Community Letter.