In the three years since Linda passed away, I have come to discover that happiness was never the goal. Contentment is.
When Linda was diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s about 7 years prior to her passing at age 57, it was the beginning of eight soul twisting years of our lives, during which we both crawled great distances over the landscape of human experience, albeit in very different directions.
All at once I became a caregiver to my wife, whom I loved, admired and respected, and who would now leave me, incrementally, in measurements of days, words, memories and tasks.
I was now left with no choice but to discover a way to turn that love into something that I never would have imagined for us. All of our dreams of a great life, full of adventures, would now become an endurance contest, where both of us would disappear. Linda’s identity, and my picture of what life is supposed to look like, would collapse under the weight of this tragic illness.
Due to some miscommunication, on the morning Linda passed, I arrived at the Memory Care Facility and her body had already been whisked away, unavailable for viewing. I wanted so desperately to see my wife one last time, unable to imagine letting her travel on without an opportunity for me to say goodbye.
Through some forceful and emotional administrative wrangling, they offered to bring her to me, but asked for some time to make her a little more “presentable.” I sat and waited patiently, sadly, like a rudderless ship floating on an endless sea.
When they brought her in that morning of her passing, I looked into her eyes, knowing it would be the last time. Ever. In that moment, I wept eight years’ worth of tears, and said goodbye. I walked away reluctantly, thinking that I was leaving behind both Linda and the possibility that I may never feel truly happy again.
I felt lost and free at the same time. Alone, without the regimen of daily caregiving, my life felt like all purpose and meaning had been taken from me, and I didn’t know what to do with myself.
At the same time, however, I saw before me an open road that lead anywhere I wanted it to. I was now free to reinvent myself and explore the slow, challenging path towards healing and wholeness, and was also literally free to go wherever that road would take me.
For no other reason than I simply could, I purged myself of all belongings, including my house, my job and everything that wasn’t tied down, turned my pickup truck into a camper, and headed west for a few months. I desperately needed to open up some space within myself to put the past eight years into perspective, take some deep breaths and see if I could recover the feeling of life returning to my cells, like standing up after your leg has fallen asleep.
I drove for three months and camped at those empty spaces in the worn out creases of the map, where I could immerse my wounded heart in the bounty of nature. My goal was simple: Try to make some sense of loss, and see how I could turn this experience into an opportunity for growth and healing.
Healing, I continue to discover, does not follow a straight line from sorrow to joy, nor does it look like I imagined it would. I had an idea that healing equated itself with happiness, and what I have come to learn is that happiness is a state, like any other. Like sadness, anger and confusion, they all have earned their right to exist in my life at the appropriate times.
I have given up on the notion that the goal is to be happy all the time. I welcome my moments of sadness, in that those are moments when I feel the fullness of my heart, still yearning for depth and meaning. During my years as a caregiver, it was often when I was crying out of unfathomable sadness that I was shaken from a state of numbness and felt truly alive. Kneeling in a puddle of tears, I felt alive and connected, and for that I was deeply grateful.
In the three years since Linda passed away, I have come to discover that happiness was never the goal. Contentment is. Contentment is the place where I find room for all of life’s experiences and the recognition that those are what make a life…a life. A sense of loss will occupy a corner of my heart until my last breath and will amplify my profound gratitude at the sacredness of life.
I will still think back on some of the more profound moments with Linda and cry, only to find myself hoping that my tears never dry up and my heart never grows cold over such a life-changing experience. There is a profound peace in being open to the full spectrum of life’s emotions and embracing them as a reward for our experiences.
It occurred to me recently that what ebbed slowly out of Linda over those years found its way into me. The light that became dimmer in her as her illness progressed, became brighter in me as I came to terms with losing someone I love and caring for her in the process. It is hard not to come away from such an experience with a deeper, more powerful understanding of what it means to be alive. The vows we exchanged when we got married were tested severely, and taught me the value of love and living a heart-centered life.
These days, all of that has come together as a sense of deep contentment. I feel happy most of the time, as there is abundant reason to feel happy, although I embrace sadness, or any other emotion when there is a time that calls for it. Contentment brings a comfort and ease with which to navigate through life.
Being a caregiver to Linda, an extraordinary woman—whose life, rich in vitality, joy and integrity, was taken away at an early age by the fate of such a cruel disease—has inspired me to explore what it means to live a meaningful and purposeful life. There is a wide boulevard available for growth and healing if I keep my heart open and nurture a desire to move through it towards the next version of myself.
David Davis helps empower caregivers at Support the Caregiver.