Every year I choose a guiding word rather than making resolutions I won’t keep past January. My word for 2018 is Soften, which makes more sense in relation to my 2017 word, which was Tough. Tough was a good word for my situation last year, but after experiencing 2 years of 24/7 caregiving, followed by the death of my husband and our lives together, I have developed a few hard edges, maybe too hard for current circumstances. I have fought way too many battles, and I want to come off the field and rest for a while. It’s not that I will be less tough, but that my toughness will be softer.
The more I thought about softening the toughness, the more I realized I have been tough for most of my life, not just the past 2 years. I was bullied as a child, but rather than crying about it, I responded by kicking one of the bullies in the shins hard enough to cause bruising. The school officials had a discussion with my parents about that, as if I were the only one to blame. I began to get the message that standing up for oneself was good, but kicking was not considered lady-like or even civil behavior, so I found other ways to be tough.
My toughness usually took the form of verbally outmaneuvering the bullies and the competition. Every time someone treated me badly or undermined my success, my response was to outsmart them or tell them off in no uncertain terms.
My father once proudly told his work colleagues about an incident that happened on a shopping trip with my mother when I was about 17. I had dropped her off, parked the car and was walking past a gang of boys about my age when something hit me in the eye. I knew one of the boys had thrown the object, and common sense said I should have just kept walking or summoned an adult for help. But no, I walked right up to the boy who appeared to be the leader and said, “If I weighed another 100 pounds, I would beat the crap out of you.” And then I walked away to the sight of his jaw dropping to the ground. I guess seeing a 90-pound girl yell at you loudly was not a common sight, at least for him.
There were other demonstrations of toughness around that time: I was paired in a high school debate with a boy who later became a lawyer. The opposing team included my boyfriend of the moment. I spent most of my Christmas vacation preparing for the debate, then assured my boyfriend the night before that we had done nothing to get ready for it. The next day our preparation was obvious and we won easily. Needless to say, my boyfriend broke up with me after that.
I had found the core of toughness within me that would save me on more than one occasion from not only bullies, but anyone who thought they could take advantage of my small size and feminine appearance. As I moved into the working world, I used that toughness to survive in a man’s world, both physically and emotionally. When I was interviewed for a professional job in a steel plant, the interviewer wanted to know how someone my size could possibly deal with all those “big, burly, hairy-chested men” (his words). I didn’t see the problem, especially since I had already been working shifts as a production scheduler in another steel plant where the men had been unsuccessful at intimidating me with pictures of nude women posted at my work station and the 1970s version of sexting on an ancient computer system.
At the steel plant I developed a reputation as, in a colleague’s words, “a little spitfire.” A lot of men my age were scared off by my behavior, except my future husband, who was captivated by it, and, many years later, grateful for the spitfire that advocated for him with sometimes arrogant doctors. Unfortunately, my take-no-prisoners attitude intimidated most of his friends. Another colleague said years later that he was “surprised how someone so tiny could be so assertive and strong.”
I know there is such a thing as short man syndrome, also known as Napoleonic complex, in which small men compensate for their size by being overly aggressive. I had never heard of short woman syndrome, but when I Googled it, discovered it’s a real thing, sometimes referred to as the “Tinker Bell syndrome” after the tiny, feisty fairy. It makes total sense to me that my favorite dog breed is the Jack Russell Terrier, a big dog in a small dog’s body. They don’t know they’re small, so they go after animals 5 times their size, sometimes scaring them off and sometimes dying in the attempt. I have been so much like both Tinker Bell and the Jack Russell.
In the last 2 years I have used my toughness to, first, fight for my husband’s life, and then to endure the grief that begins when you know the fight is useless. I fought with the medical community that made mistakes, that had no answers or compassion, that didn’t follow through on actions, that didn’t understand what was going on as he sank further and further into his end time.
I remember vividly an encounter with a nurse as they hurriedly transported him from a regular hospital room to ICU when he began hemorrhaging again. She stopped me and said, “You can’t stay with him. You have to go to the waiting room.” I told her to call security or do whatever she had to do but I was not leaving his side. As we squared off, one of the doctors in the room said to me, “You can stay.” That’s when I knew they believed he wouldn’t survive the night. But I prayed and fought and he lived for another 2 years.
Now that he’s been gone for 5 months, I know that my toughness has to lighten up. Some of the armor I have been putting on for a lifetime needs to be cast aside. I cannot continue to fight battles with everyone who doesn’t meet my high expectations or who disappoints me in some way. For one thing, it’s exhausting, and my energy is limited these days. My concept of soften does not mean becoming weak or a victim, rather it has more to do with letting go, loosening unrealistic expectations–of myself and others, and taking a more joyful approach to life.
One of the things you discover, first as a caregiver and then when you lose a spouse or life partner, is that others do not live in that world and therefore do not always understand your feelings. They are going about their own lives, as we all did before a loved one died, and are not focused on making sure you have everything you need. I cannot get stuck wishing that people would continue to treat me as they did before my husband died. Things have changed. I’ve changed, and it’s up to me to accept that reality and create a new life. That is a hard lesson, but it must be learned if we are to go on with our lives in a new normal. I know that I must be more like the other side of the feisty Jack Russell, the side that curls up in your lap at night after a hard day of going after everything that moves.
Soften also has to do with moving into a different way of grieving, a less stoical, more feminine grief that doesn’t insist all is well at every turn. I have had a lifetime to be tough, and more toughness will likely be needed down the road as I and my family and friends continue to get older. But for now, I want to soften, to put down the boxing gloves, to feel the feels, to hug and be hugged, to cry when I want to cry.
I want to be more forgiving of others’ weaknesses and of my own, as I reinvent me once again. I believe that living in life’s valleys for a long time can either turn us into bitter, cynical beings or into catalysts for changing the world. Since I want to change the world, one step or person at a time, I want to turn away from so much toughness and anger and see others’ stories before I see their excuses and failings. I want to use my newly found softness to reach down into the pit and pull others out. I know my guiding word won’t be an easy path for me because it comes on the tail of a lifetime of toughness. But it is time to let others fight the battles while I regain my strength and curl up in the lap of softness and warm light.
Originally published at marywilsonsblog.wordpress.com