Robert Yonover Ph.D.

Staying Alive

Half Dead but Twice As Alive

What happens when you lose love, but life keeps going?

Posted Sep 18, 2018

It was 4 a.m., and I was lying next to Cindy, when she suddenly started to breathe very deeply. Twelve or so deep breaths, and then they stopped. Cindy stopped. It was the end of her life, and I was right next to her, as I had been for 33 years. It was the actual day of our 31st wedding anniversary, and she had been paralyzed and wheelchair-bound (from Multiple Sclerosis) for the past 19 years. I was in shock. Our daughter (23 years old) was in the room across the hall, and our son (26 years old) was on a work trip. The end had arrived, and although we had been expecting it for years, it was still devastating. Cindy was my other half — even before she became dependent on me becoming her arms and legs. I cried in those dark early hours before I broke into action mode. There was a lot to be done. When and how to tell everyone? What to actually do? What to do with myself? I had never lost anyone that close to me. Both of my parents are still alive, and I had only lost grandparents and friends — never anyone as close. Cindy was me; I was Cindy.

For the past 19 years, I had been acting on the advice I received from a psychologist friend, who told me in the early days of Cindy’s illness to “lose self.” When he told me that, I wasn't sure what he meant. But I learned pretty quickly that if I didn't drop myself way down in the pecking order, we were going to lose everything. Cindy came first — she needed it the most, and the kids were a close second. They were only 4 and 7 years old, respectively. Marriage and parenting are hard in the best of cases, but this was nearly impossible. Keeping the machine moving was a colossal, long-term effort. I made sure Cindy was included in all of our parenting decisions and kept our relationship at the top of the pyramid for our children to witness. During her darkest suicidal periods, I pleaded with her to stick around to help be a mother to our children — even if she could only nod, wink, or smile at them, they still had a mother!

I was in a numb, overachievement overload mode, keeping everything going for 19 years, and on that morning when Cindy took her last 12 breaths, I knew that we gave it our all to perpetuate her life as long as possible. I was supposed to feel relieved, at least that was what people told me, but I was still in shock at the loss. You can try to prepare yourself for something that you know is going to end, even if many years in advance, but it nevertheless was devastating.

I did what I've done my whole life, and especially the last 19 years, when faced with massive stress – I ran to nature for centering (thank you Emerson, Thoreau, and Duke). I'm fortunate to live on the water in Hawaii, so I grabbed my paddle-board and paddled a few miles into the ocean and dived repeatedly beneath the surface to become fully immersed. The ocean has always worked for me. It's massive and welcoming. Getting lost in nature makes me and my land issues feel insignificant; It's life-affirming to be surrounded by the fish, birds, and turtles — all of which couldn't care less about my problems. Nature was there for me, as usual. I could mourn, cry, and refocus in solitude. It was just enough rejuvenation for me to return to land and face another 24 hours of whatever challenges were on the agenda that day — until I could get wet again.

I felt like half of me died with Cindy on that morning. She was my partner for so long, and the intimacy level we achieved was off the chart. I no longer had to move for her, feed her, and bathe her. It had become a part of me, and it stopped. I died a little too.

It’s been three years since that morning, and I definitely appreciate all the nuances of life even more than I ever have. Things smell, taste, and feel better. I feel twice as alive as before (and maybe ever). What we went through as a team was mind-blowing, and I would not trade it for anything. Years ago, one of our kids asked me if I would have chosen Cindy if I knew she would become sick and paralyzed. I answered yes without any hesitation. I loved her and our journey together. It was harder than anything that I could ever imagine, but it was beautiful, and the memories are still emblazoned on my cerebral hard disk. I look at my children every day and see a little piece of us — living and charging on hard as life goes on.