Irish talks about fear. She fell, crushed half her face and lost her right eye. Of course she’s afraid of going back on the boat. No job and savings wiped out by divorce, she fears medical bills, as do many in much better shape. She fears for our relationship.
After losing her job, the day before she fell, she asked me if I “could still love an unemployed miscreant.” Her question was not out of the blue. This isn’t the first time Irish and I had gotten together.
We had connected on a dating site years ago, and met for dinner. We talked and laughed for three hours and closed the restaurant, but I didn’t think it was going to go anywhere: she’s conservative and I’m liberal, she lived with two adult sons and three dogs in a rented house 150 miles away from where I lived, I was on my way out of the country for weeks or months … and I intended to buy a sailboat and head for adventure.
After our date, I hugged her goodnight. She seemed so tiny and frail in my arms. That was that, because I wanted to be a gentleman.
A month or two later, after I returned from my trip, we had plans for a second date. While I was gone, the country went on daylight savings but I had not reset the clock in my truck. She called.
“Where are you?”
“On my way, but still early.”
“Um, no, you’re late.”
“It’s only 2:30, we’re meeting at 3 …
“Oh no!” I said, when I realized what happened. “Please wait for me. We’ll get everything on the appetizer menu, and anything you want for dinner, I’m not that far away … please?”
She found that endearing, she waited, and we had another wonderful, four-hour conversation. That’s when she told me about her Parkinson’s Disease, and her fibromyalgia, and migraines and spinal fusion after she fell and cracked vertebrae in her neck …
It was full disclosure.
But the person you tell these things needs to know what you’re talking about, and I didn’t really have a clue.
We didn’t kiss after that date, either. While I could see a wonderful friendship, I still didn’t think it would evolve into romance, and I was trying to be a gentleman.
We had a third date. We kissed, and discovered we had what she called “kiss compatibility.” I still remember the first time I felt her fingertips on my skin.
Then I bailed out.
As she was planning our fourth date, and talking about when I could meet her best friend, and her sons. I was reading about Parkinson’s Disease and fibromyalgia and brooding on “two adult sons at home, three dogs, part-time job, a disabling disease that at some point will require constant care and then kill her…”
Just how does all this fit onto a sailboat headed to Fiji? The sailboat dream had been my refuge for decades, had prevented me from making horrible life compromises that I was otherwise willing to make for all the wrong reasons, had “kept me afloat” in more ways than one.
I knew I was falling for her, but we did not have the same future lined up, and I thought it was better not to get too much farther down the road of romance or the damage would be awful.
Three dates and out, I thought was being a gentleman.
But I could not stop musing on the way she said simply, “Hey” when she texted or called me or answered the phone when I called. That was really weird. Just the simple, drama free, glad to hear from you, “Hey.” It took a while, but I checked back in, just saying “hey.”
Predictably and justifiably, Irish responded, “What the hell do you want?” or something like that. “You made me feel I was unlovable because of my Parkinson’s.”
“It was because I could fall in love with you that Parkinson’s scared me away,” I told her.
“We don’t know what and how the Parkinson’s will progress,” she told me. “Many things could happen.”
After a while, she agreed to fourth date. We’ve been together since. So, she’s not being unreasonable to fear for our relationship. I’ve had a few fears of my own.
After she fell, I spent the first night in the hospital pacing and waiting for her to come out of surgery. I spent the next night on the couch in her recovery room listening to hospital sounds and nurses who came in every two hours to administer pain meds and antibiotics, check her pulse, oxygen, etc.
I was far beyond tired by the next day after two nights without sleep and drinking far too many cups of coffee and cans of ginger ale. The caffeine and sugar were no longer keeping me alert, but had morphed into agitation.
“Can you love an unemployed miscreant, with only one eye?” Irish mumbled the question from her damaged mouth. She remembers being desperately afraid of my answer while knowing that then and there I could not answer “No.” I gave her a kiss, a squeeze. I don’t remember what I said.
“You told me something I needed to hear, that I hoped was true,” she said later.
But when I left the hospital to shower, and buy a sweatshirt and T-shirt to replace ones they cut off her in the emergency room, her fear burrowed into me and became mine: ugly, self-absorbed, anguish-ladened fear that seemed match, drop for drop, the cold, soaking, wind-driven rain that pounded the streets of Victoria.
I was once afraid of flying, so I bought an old plane and became a (mediocre) pilot. I love to travel to far-away places where English is rarely spoken with absolutely no clue what I’m going to do after the first night. I drive a race car at 160 mph through blind corners inches away from other cars.
At an age when many are looking forward to a lounge chair and afternoon of televised football (that I never cared much about before the Seahawks), I bought a sailboat. I’d never really sailed before, but the plan was to take it to Alaska for a shakedown this summer and then on to south, maybe even New Zealand.
I’m an adrenalin junkie. That’s not unusual for someone of my background. I’m also “a runner.” The closer I become to someone, the more I love them, the greater the danger I will fear my own vulnerability and run, sometimes for a pretext so flimsy it’s obvious I’m running from fear. It’s my inheritance.
Two days after Irish fell I set foot again on the boat and looked to see where she fell.The wood rail where she struck had no sign of the impact, but it was so much harder than her delicate cheek, nose, skull, and eye. There were spots of blood on the deck and I wondered which held fragments of her burst and missing cornea.
Sleepless, feeling helpless, I growled through clenched teeth at the boat.
“Why!? Why?!? You jealous bitch, why did you do this to her!?”
Cold and indifferent, the boat declined to answer.
I knew I was being foolish, that the boat had done nothing, the boat was an inanimate object, that the fall was an accident, a misstep, a bad decision in footwear, a breaking of Boating Rule #1 to always keep a hand for yourself, hold on to something when moving about.
But I was irrational, anger was setting in, even as I know better than most that all anger has its roots in fear. All the fears that chased me away from Irish the first time returned, with a vengeance for their exile. Almost as quickly as I had boarded the boat, I showered off the sleepless hospital night and headed out into rain pelting downtown Victoria and I walked, looking for something to look for so I did not have to go back to the hospital quite yet.
I blamed Parkinson’s for the fall, not the stupid heavy socks. I howled at myself for ignoring my earlier “knowledge” of the inevitability of Irish’s immobilization, I cried that that she would be helpless unless I helped her, that the sailboat was now gone, adventure a thing of memory, that I was about to become … be … immobilized, encased in my own fat and bound by chains of duty.
And then, St. Francis showed up in the form of a prayer I remembered vaguely from countless meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. It wasn’t like I didn’t bring my own host of disabilities to this relationship, after all.
“… Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace!
That where there is hatred, I may bring love.
That where there is wrong, I may bring the spirit of forgiveness.
That where there is discord, I may bring harmony.
That where there is error, I may bring truth.
That where there is doubt, I may bring faith.
That where there is despair, I may bring hope.
That where there are shadows, I may bring light.
That where there is sadness, I may bring joy.
Lord, grant that I may seek rather to comfort, than to be comforted.
To understand, than to be understood.
To love, than to be loved.
For it is by self-forgetting that one finds.
It is by forgiving that one is forgiven.
It is by dying that one awakens to Eternal Life.”
Why this prayer? Unlike Irish, I’m no Catholic and some would say I’m not even a Christian. That’s okay, I’ve long thought of myself as a Taoist and I’ve been known to debate the definition of God, wherever She may dwell.
But the prayer brought quick, deep relief. It seemed I saw through the words and into the meaning of how, and why, St. Francis sought to comfort than be comforted. Then I heard Irish speak.
“I don’t want anything from you that is not given with a glad heart,” she said to me. She had told me once that she taught her boys this lesson, and I heard it as plainly as if she were standing beside me, as if the narcotics that bound her to bed in the hospital had given her the gift of teleportation.
I didn’t know the future. I didn’t need to know. Two miles away lay a woman I loved in a hospital bed, terribly injured. I had not only the duty but a deep desire to be there with her, make sure that she had a ginger ale if she wanted a sip, pain medication if she was hurting, to comfort her if she was frightened, as she was sure to be.
The memory of the sound of her face hitting the coaming on the boat makes me shudder, and always will, but I wanted to be there. I still am.
We’re planning to take the boat to Alaska in June. It’s been about eight weeks since Irish fell on Foxy, our boat. We are on the ferry now, on our way back to Victoria. In two hours we’ll be back on board, for the first time for Irish, after many misgivings for me.
But it’s time.
Second star to the right, and straight on till morning.