This weekend we went to a wonderful play at a theater that's very near the hospital I was at for 6 weeks in 2004, after an aneurysm burst inside my brain. I was actually "out of it" for more like 2 months, since I spent some time at another hospital, because the ambulance always takes you to the closest place. Whitley (with the help of his brother Richard, who's a lawyer) soon managed to get me transferred to UCLA, which was a much better place for my problem.
It's about a long as I've ever spent away from home at a single time, but I don't remember much about it--besides my near death experience, I mostly recall a few hazy scenes. One of them was a glimpse of our long time, loyal friends from Texas who had traveled all the way from Austin to see me (perhaps, they thought, for one last time).
In the play we saw, a tough guy who thought he had all the answers discovered that he was more vulnerable to love than he'd thought he was, and ended up giving away everything he had to help a young boy who stumbled into his life. It's a classic plot, but it was especially well done this time. Whitley wouldn't go to this theater for quite a long time, despite the fact that they put on some great plays, because you can see UCLA hospital on the drive there and it always brought back those terrible memories to him.
When he talked about them (yet again) this weekend, I reflected that healing is, to a large extent, a waiting game--you get gradually better and you can never be sure exactly how much normal life you'll recover. This brought my thoughts around to a relative of ours who is dying and won't recover--she's had cancer in both breasts that has now spread to her spine, so she's playing a waiting game as well: She's waiting to die. She's a lovely young woman with a young son, so it's an especially tragic situation.
The last two times we've gone to Texas for Christmas, I've sat next to her mother at the family dinner. In fact, we got on so well the first time, this woman's husband (who is one of Whitley's cousins) asked me to sit with her the last time we were there. I said, "Sure--love to. That gal's a pistol!" and she IS--she's ex-military and full of well-thought-out ideas and opinions that are fun to discuss. She moved to San Antonio to be near her ailing daughter. In fact, I even went into the kitchen (where the sick daughter was) between the main course and dessert and told the daughter how much I was enjoying sitting next to her mom, because I knew that just because you're ill and likely to die first doesn't mean you have less concern for an older relative.
While we were there, the sick woman told Whitley that her doctor had told her she had six months to live. As far as I know, she's still with us, but I expect to hear of her demise any day now. But what really interested me was her mom's denial. Despite being a hard-headed soldier, she was adamant that her daughter was getting well and that all her health problems were being solved. She talked about all the small trips they had planned to take together in the future. This puzzled me at first, although I certainly didn't contradict her, but then it dawned on me: She just can't face the fact of her daughter's death.
Sometimes the people who seem the toughest are actually--under that hard exterior--the softest, most vulnerable folks of all. It's probably why they've developed that hard shell in the first place--as self-protection. It was the plot of the play and it's a plot I've seen lived out in real life many times too, but somehow it never quite sinks in.