Some – like the Boston Marathon bombing, the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas; or the earthquake in the Sichuan provence of China – are moments of public as well as intense personal tragedy. Wholly unexpected events which – quite literally in these cases – have torn worlds and lives asunder, leaving not only those directly involved, but the rest of us also trying to know what to do and how to respond. What does it mean? Why did it happen? How can we help?
While bomb blasts and industrial explosions are outside of my personal experience (earthquakes I know about), I cannot but share in the anguish and pain and sorrow and anger of my global brothers and sisters who have either lost those they loved and held dearest, or who must now build a much-different life because they, family members or friends have been injured or have become homeless.
And perhaps my empathy is stronger this week because my family too has experienced moments that have changed everything. On Tuesday, my elderly father-in-law broke his hip and a cousin had “just-in-time” emergency surgery for a burst appendix.
Now let me be clear here, I’m not in any way trying to claim that my family’s experience is on the same scale – nor even in the same universe – as those of the victims of war, terrorism, industrial accidents or natural disasters. We are incredibly fortunate that as I write this, both cousin and father-in-law are alive, in hospital and being cared for by skilled and compassionate professionals with access to modern therapies and technologies.
Nevertheless, life has changed.
In the moment it took for my father-in-law to trip and fall, the world he knew ended. He is 80, frail and has, for the last few years, been his wife’s carer. My mother-in-law has a long-standing heart condition, was diagnosed several years ago with a blood cancer, and suffers from memory loss. She cannot live alone; she cannot really be left alone for more than a couple of hours. Fiercely independent and very private people, my in-laws now have to face the reality that their lives can no longer be lived on an isolated rural property, shunning other people.
The ripples from his fall have spread into corners of my husband’s family’s life that have been undisturbed for a very long time. A fractured hip has revealed an equally fractured family.
My partner and his siblings have to make some very difficult decisions about how their parents will be cared for, decisions that are made more difficult by their unique, and not necessarily strong, emotional relationships with their parents and with each other, and also by a whole raft of practical issues such as physical distance, legal complexities and financial considerations.
In the moment it took for my father-in-law to trip and fall, the world we knew has also ended. For the last fifteen years my partner and I have parented our son – a job we’re still joyously doing. Only now we’re also going to have to share in the parenting of his parents.
My partner – the man I have loved and lived with for a quarter of a century – is trying hard to do the right thing for two elderly people who have, inadvertently, alienated their children and grandchildren. It’s not easy, and we’re still trying to figure out what to do and how to respond. What does it mean? How can we help?
For me, there are lots of practical little things I can do for my in-laws, but probably the most important thing I can give my partner, is love.
And whatever else we do, maybe that is something we can give to all of the victims of life-changing moments.