December 11, 2004


Many of us don't start some of our most meaningful journeys until we think our lives are a success. We also may need to believe that we have put life's hazards behind us before we can revisit the solutions we cobbled to cope. Let me explain.


One of my patients, sound of body and mind well into her 80s, was the guide for someone's quest for his past. One day, the phone rang, with a man on the other end. It had been years since he had grown up and left their small town, but his call didn't surprise her, nor did his request.


A professional, he is well established, content in his long-time marriage. His family is grown and dispersed and he wants for nothing. But he had called to say he was coming to town to take some courses and he wanted to see her.


After his arrival and the small talk, he put a question to her: Did she think his parents had ever really married? He didn't just want her to confirm how hard it was for him growing up. He was aware early on that his mom had a bad drinking problem, impossible to bury in that small village. The truth was, his aunt raised him while his father, a nice guy, kind and quiet, the local policeman in fact, was undone by the antics of his mother.


How did his parents even manage to get together? That question had never left him.


After they died, there wasn't a paper to be found that documented any formal union. So more out of loyalty to the aunt, who had underwritten his university degree, he let the whole matter fade. But now in his 50s, he knew there weren't many of his parents' generation left who could remember and fill in the crucial details. So he came to call on my patient, a former neighbour, and the last of his parents' generation from the town.


She remembered that his parents had gone away on a weekend and when they came back, they told everyone that they were married. She agreed that they never seemed suited for each other, not even in the beginning. His mom was a party girl and loved dancing, and his dad -- well, he was just a nice guy everyone counted on in trouble.


More soberly, she recalled that, as a little boy, he was just shoved from pillar to post and yes, indeed, it was his mother's sister who stepped in to both anchor and provide for him.


And just as tenderly, she affirmed that somehow through it all he had managed to grow up to be such a success, a good father and a steady husband. It gave her the greatest pleasure-- sharing the old stories with him. "I wasn't sure anyone would tell me," he said over the tea and cookies she had offered. "I wasn't even sure there was anyone who could. But you have let me ask and I'm glad I came."


For another of my patients, the journey may have begun with the misery of her own failed marriage. She is now in her 60s and shyly announced that she will be a Christmas bride. I, for one, was surprised; she had never hinted that her current relationship would get that serious. In fact, they had staunchly maintained two residences, one in the country, where he lived, and one in the city, giving her access to the college where she teaches.


So what happened to start this journey?


There had already been a three-year waltz with his cancer and chemotherapy. That had led to a tenuous attempt to merge their households, but it had floundered and her resolve to remain independent was unshaken. What finally broke her resistance was his heart attack -- a sudden and scary upheaval.


In hospital, not sure if he would live or what kind of life he would have, he had proposed. Without pause, she had said yes.


Why then, when there was no assurance he would live, and when fierce independence seemed to define her?


When I put the question to her, she said her first husband was a wonderful man, but a terrible husband. "The best thing he ever did was to leave me. But at the time I was devastated," she said. "I felt guilty and blamed myself when he didn't want to keep the minimal marital commitment of fidelity. Not being able to resolve this was my burden alone. And so I left, pretty much convinced that I would never put myself in such a box again."


But now, as she looked at this terribly sick man, the experience provided a watershed for all her fears, and gave her a newfound sense of urgency to seize life. And once launched on this path, her defences have fallen like dominos.


Living in the city, paying rent, wearily recycling the courses for her students, she thought that if this represents independence, it comes with a cost.


With a cool reappraisal of her finances, she now realized that she has been squandering her energy to maintain a lifestyle that, somehow and without her noticing, had evaporated. And happily, her fiancé is better than he has been in years, in remission from his cancer and a proud graduate of the cardiac rehabilitation program in his small town. She has joined his efforts and gained a level of fitness that both surprises and delights her. Where she was once tenuous, she is now determined and active.


More than this, there is a very real excitement, a bride's glow, and optimism suited for the young and the young at heart.


It all reminds me of one of my favourite sayings: "The stature of a man is not measured in how far he has gone, but in knowing the distance he has come from."

Dr. Jean



Doctor. Writer. Athlete.

Advocate. Adventurer.