Friday, April 15, 2011

Side By Side

Eleven years ago today, my husband had a breakdown. Not a few tears. Not an emotional outburst. I’m talking a full-on, never-seen-before, never-seen-since, heartbreakingly messy breakdown.

The day before, I had been discharged from a six-week hospital stay, five weeks of which had been spent in the intensive care unit. Jeff was with me nearly 24/7 during that time, taking fitful naps in the chair in my room or on the couch in the ICU family room. Hour after hour, day after day, my husband listened to good news followed by bad, discussed liver transplant options with a team of surgeons, conferred with the kidney specialist every time my numbers indicated the need for more dialysis, watched bag after bag after bag of red blood cells, platelets, and plasma being hung from my IV pole.

Week 3 in the ICU
For 43 days, my husband made decisions regarding my care, spoke for me when I was comatose, held me when I screamed in pain, calmed me when I hallucinated, and simply took it when I lashed out in anger and frustration. Remarkably, for 43 days he held it together. But on the 44th day – the day after I came home – he fell apart.

I was alone in the bathroom at the time, where Jeff had left me to brush my teeth. Though I could still barely stand, I craved independence and wanted to prove that I could handle this simple task. Leaning on my walker, I began brushing my teeth, but soon I was distracted by a wet sensation on my right foot. Looking down, I noticed a slow, steady stream of water leaking from under the vanity. I called to Jeff, who opened the door so quickly that it was obvious he’d been standing just outside, still unable to grasp that we were no longer in crisis mode.

Seeing the leak, Jeff breathed a sigh of relief and went to retrieve the small toolbox from under our kitchen sink. Returning, he got on hands and knees, and his upper body disappeared into the open vanity. Within thirty seconds, the swearing began. He’d broken the rusty old wing nut that needed tightening. The leak was still slow and steady, nothing our landlord wouldn’t fix immediately with one phone call. No big deal. And certainly nothing compared to what we’d both endured with my sudden catastrophic illness.

But at that moment, as I stood helplessly gripping my walker, I watched my husband lean back, wrap his arms around his shins, and drop his head to his knees. He said nothing, but his shoulders began to pump up and down, and he began to make loud, gut-wrenching sobs the likes of which I’d never heard come from him, from anyone. His wailing continued – five minutes, then 10, then 15 – a torrent of pent-up fear and angst and doubt and sorrow. I watched my husband surrender to the psychic burden he’d carried for more than six weeks, the final dismantling of the stoic armor that had helped him survive the near-loss of his mate.

13th Wedding Anniversary
The experience of a major illness is never the patient’s alone. It also belongs to the family, friends, even the hospital staff who come to care for patients emotionally as much as physically. But often it is shared most intimately with that person who vowed to stay through sickness and health, till death do us part. 

The inscription on my wedding band reads “Side By Side,” and it now holds greater meaning for me than I ever imagined in my younger, more na├»ve days. So this one’s for Jeff – and for anyone else who’s ever stood side by side with someone they love throughout a critical illness.

Download a PDF of the first 4 chapters of Lauren's memoir, Zuzu's Petals: A True Story of Second Chances, FREE here.  Click on the link below the green "Buy the Book" button.  


  1. Somehow I missed this. It's brilliant.
    Holding it together always seems to be a temporary thing.

  2. Lauren thank you for sharing this. When I was discharged my 2 year old asked to stay home from daycare the next day and he said (at a whole 27 months) "but I need to be with the family we are a team" just at those words my big, tough husband lost it. Like I had never seen him or any other man before. He broke. I think the fear of preeclampsia and what could have been came crashing in on him when my son called us a team. I never told anyone about it because even now it brings tears to my eyes. THank you for truly affects us all

    1. Aww, Sarah, that's lovely. A team. Perfect description. Give that kid a hug from me.