This story about an Enneagram 5-Observer type from The Enneagram of Death – Helpful Insights by the 9 Types of People on Grief, Fear, and Dying, is infused by the feelings and style if its Enneagram 4-Romantic author.
Three years ago, when I got a rare lung disease, we bought a glass-faced niche large enough to hold two urns in the San Francisco Columbarium, a copper-domed masterpiece of neo-classical architecture. We wrangled over whose ashes would go on the top and whose would go on the bottom—a classic power struggle in the history of our thirty-seven year old relationship, including a thirteen-year marriage in the middle. Finally, another niche became available in a sunlit room where our urns could sit side by side, so, to Frank’s displeasure, we traded up. He let me know if only I knew my place and would stay on the bottom, everything would be fine. I never thought he’d die first. A portion of the life insurance policy he left our son paid for the balance of the niche and I’m sure he would have been relieved that he, at least, didn’t have to spend money on something he found so unreasonable.
One year ago Saturday, while a January storm thundered outside my window, I reclined in bed, reading a New Yorker about Haiti’s earthquake and a young woman who became an uncommon leader. After a lifetime of loss and failure, she had found the courage to fight and bring relief to her community. She foraged bags of rice and beans, drums of clean water, medical supplies, and bedding and trucked them back to the rock-strewn ravine where a few hundred residents of her town lived under tin roofs, cooking and sleeping among the devastation and the dead. Suddenly, I felt so grateful for my life and prayed, Thank you God for keeping me safe, for keeping the storm outside, and easing the pain when I lie down, for helping me to see that I am surrounded by love and friendship.
Slowing my breathing, I relaxed and, still holding the magazine in my hand, I fell asleep to the sound of the rain and a feeling of peace in my breast. The phone woke me an hour later.
“Hi, little lady,” Frank said.
“Frank, how are you?” I asked, glad to hear from him.
“Not so good.”
I caught my breath. Frank doesn’t say things like this.
“You know the doctor took a CT scan on Tuesday? He called yesterday to tell me it’s not degenerative arthritis, as he thought. It’s in my pelvis and my ribs. He’s saying things like cancer and lymphoma, maybe a bad infection. I can’t remember everything he said. I wrote it down somewhere. I have to have a pelvic biopsy next Tuesday.”
Time stretched and tumbled. I felt a dark sadness in my throat and behind my eyes. I told him so, but mostly, we talked facts and logistics, which we do well together. During our marriage, Frank told me that my strong feelings overwhelmed him so he couldn’t find his own. While a quiet standoff prolonged the marriage, our connection shriveled because I kept myself apart from him. He is the strong, silent type whose mantra goes, “I can handle it.” Over the years, I had learned to hold my feelings close and keep them to myself or suffer. And ultimately I found closeness elsewhere.
I picked Frank up from his apartment to take him to a pelvic biopsy at Kaiser on my way to my own therapy appointment. I called a block from his house to give him a heads up. He said it might take a while to get downstairs. When he walked through the front door, leaning on his cane (which strengthened his identification with the irascible Dr. House, his TV hero), my throat closed.
Read Part II November 27.
Charlotte Melleno is a Marriage and Family Therapist living in San Francisco CA.
Read What I Learned about Prisons at My School Reunion in Elizabeth’s recent Psychology Today blog.