Are You Happy?
by Lynne Rothrock
A local high school student recently interviewed me for a project she was working on and as expected most of the questions were biographical and about my education and work experience. Near the end of the interview she said, "I have just one more question. Are you happy?”
I stopped short. This was not what I was expecting. Are you happy?
How does one answer that question, at my age, in my current situation--or maybe ever, if you want to answer honestly? We had only a minute or two left to complete the interview, so I paused and then said something along the lines of, um, I think so? I mean... probably? I was mentally going through the reasons why I should be happy: I am a person who knew from about age 5 what I was supposed to do with my life, which makes me luckier and happier than many. I have work that I am passionate about and that I think matters. In many ways I am wildly more successful in my work than I might have ever imagined when I was young. This work does not give me financial security but my basic needs are met, and other than perhaps going out to eat more, being able to buy tickets to shows and taking vacations once in a while there isn't a lot I wish I could do that I can't. I have a wonderful mother and sister, and other very, very close friends who are like family. And I have love--in my music, in my life--in my husband, Ron, the world’s most amazingly soulful guitar player I’ve ever heard.
But how can I say unequivocally,”Yes, I am happy," when my husband is fighting for his life? Two and half years ago he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and the days since have been terrible in more ways than they have been wonderful or even okay. This experience of fighting and living with this disease has been awful, horrifying, scary, tragic, devastating in ways that you would never see publicly. And we are not even into the very worst of it yet. It is hard. SO hard. Managing this while going about the business of life including the work that I genuinely love is just treacherous. It is walking on a tightrope all the time, falling and barely catching yourself, overreacting to things, snapping at people, getting mad and offended at other people's normalcy. Craziness. Terror. Forcing yourself to be strong and brave in front of him.
I’ve actually walked this path beforewith the other great love of my life, my father. He was diagnosed with essentially the same illness my husband has, had the same gigantic surgery my husband did - and died within a year of diagnosis. Although I was not my father’s primary day-to-day caregiver, I was there when the fires were burning. Sleeping on a cot next to his bed at the Mayo Clinic when the alarms went off signaling dangerous fever, collapsed lung, pancreatic leak. Walking the hospital halls with him during the night as he shook with pain that was inadequately managed. He suffered so much that in one harrowing moment he clutched my hand and said, “I wish you could get a gun and shoot me”.
He recovered from that surgery, only to have the cancer return with a vengeance shortly after. I returned to Iowa to care for him in the last weeks of his life and ironically, I would have to say that those weeks were happy times. We had already been told the worst possible thing: that he was dying. All that was required now was to keep him comfortable and to love him.
Very near the end my father was in bed, feverish and agitated. I lay next to him, softly singing and trying to soothe him, ease his way, even, when I realized that if I was successful he would leave me forever. The mere act of trying to help ease his struggle may ultimately bring on the very thing I feared the most. I remember thinking, now THIS is love, in its purest form, divine, selfless love,because every part of me was screaming for him to stay, terrified to live without him. And yet I was helping him along! This had to be the greatest love of ALL!! AHHHH--the chorus of angels were singing, I had this revelation, I now KNEW the meaning of life!
When I went through this with my Dad I was much younger. I didn’t yet know that the years of grieving his death would be even trickier than the time preceding it. I was unmoored when I lost him. I was too young to know that the good and bad in life are all part of the same thing, that we don’t get one without the other. From that experience - I learned a lot. I learned that one can endure great pain and still go on living and in fact, thriving. I learned that the greatness of the loss was equal to the greatness of the gift of having a Dad who loved me SO much. I learned and am still learning that great love can be as difficult to manage as great loss. It is messy and heavy and draining and difficult and so potentially painful to manage great love. But isn't that why we're here?
So here I am again. Loving someone with a terrible cancer. My husband has managed to buy more time than my father did, so the period of caregiving--the least fun rollercoaster you’ve ever been on--is longer; the tests, treatments, and procedures are multiplied. When I cared for my Dad I left my work and my house in Nashville so my time here was totally focused on him, caring for him, being with him. No distractions.
Now the moments of heightened emotion and awareness are peppered amongst the day to day mundane activities of life that continue on. Now there are plenty of distractions: I must balance the caregiving with the obligations of a self-employed artist who still needs to make a living. That means juggling eight jobs in eight different places, scheduling work six to twelve months in advance while not knowing if I will be able to honor those commitments,doing laundry, taking out the garbage, shopping for and cooking fattening foods that you hope he will eat and that you hope you won’t eat, running point for all medical communications, appointments, prescriptions, infusions, temperature taking, logging weight and blood tests results - while the car needs an oil change, the tax return needs attention, the motion light by the back door is broken, the dog needs grooming, I need grooming...
Right now my acts of love look less like softly singing and comforting someone and more like hitting HyVee for the third time in a day because he hates going to stores and he is craving carrots. It looks less like sewing little caps to keep my father’s bald head warm at night and more like stopping at Casey’s to pick up a twelve-pack of Busch Lite for my husband when it is the last thing I feel like doing after a very long day.
Love looks less like plumping pillows and more like jamming a thermometer in his mouth one last time before I dash off to work and shriek at him to TAKE THE TYLENOL BECAUSE YOUR IMMUNE SYSTEM IS COMPROMISED!!!
Love is also knowing your limits. This chubby, menopausal woman will never be able to keep the thermostat where he wants it. BUT I did buy him both a space heater and an electric blanket.
These days, love is buying a ticket for a show or concert, a rare splurge, and feeling the pull, the tug that makes me leave at intermission. Not because he urgently needs me or I can actually do something that will make him feel better but because as much as I long to get out of the house sometimes, I’d really rather be with him.
Love is the acceptance of the fact that it is no longer ever about me. That I have moved from wife to caregiver and may not ever move back.
Love is realizing that this is the natural course of things, the trajectory of our story, our great love story that was born in music making,and those sublime moments of music making will be the truest, most proud moments of love that I have shared with my husband.
Love is finding him irritating, infuriating and disappointing like we all are at one time or another and catching yourself just before snapping at him and remembering that he is scared. So scared.
Love is feeling neglected and taken for granted, yet throwing every ounce of your red-headed personal power in the face of any doctor or nurse who fails to treat him with respect or give him proper care. Believe me, you don’t want to be on the receiving end of that.
So, am I happy? Can one be happy while walking through this particular fire? Certainly not the chipper, smiley kind of external happy that we sometimes show the world. But maybe a quieter, darker kind of happy in knowing that there is no place you would rather be. Happy that there is love in your life - the SERIOUS kind of love that you have to dig deep for because it’s really, really hard. The kind of love that is a big, fat, complicated handful. The love that provides the greatest lessons. I’m grateful that I have the opportunity to keep learning those lessons. So, am I happy? I guess I am.
Lynne Rothrock is a nationally recognized cabaret singer, actress and arts educator based in Cedar Rapids, IA. She and her husband, IA Blues/Rock and Roll Hall of Fame guitarist Ron DeWitte, shared the stage at venues around the midwest and all over the world on the high seas. They shared a cozy, little house and the love of two beloved maltipoos for many years until Ron died of pancreatic cancer in 2018. With a far emptier house and heart, Lynne continues to stumble forward. Visit www.lynnerothrock.com for information about upcoming events.