60: Following My Own Advice

60: Following My Own Advice

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman

Following My Own Advice

Go within every day and find the inner strength so that the world will not blow your candle out.

~Katherine Dunham

“Be strong for him,” they told me a thousand times. But I didn’t feel strong. I sat by my husband’s bedside as he struggled for air. He had a mask on his face, wires on his chest, and not a single hair on his head. The doctors reported that the surgery went well, but the concern in their eyes reminded me of his critical condition.

I wondered how cancer could change a healthy, twenty-eight-year-old man into the weak, frail patient who lay beside me. He coughed, and I reached for a bucket and tissues — a conditioned response from months of taking care of him. He told me he was okay, and I repositioned his mask so that it was centered on the bridge of his nose and the strings hit an inch below the scars still fresh from his operation. He smiled and mumbled that I was the only one who did that right. I was glad to help him, but the circumstances were difficult to process.

I felt as broken on the inside as he looked on the outside.

My emotions rushed to the surface as I choked back tears. Be strong for him, I reminded myself. I always considered myself a strong woman, and I usually chose strength for myself rather than anyone else. But this felt different. He was the patient, and I was the caregiver. Since the day of his diagnosis, our lives had been completely engulfed by efforts to keep him alive. Occasionally, someone told me to take care of myself, but I thought I couldn’t afford that luxury. There was no time for massages or spa days with his life in danger.

I loved him dearly, but I hated how my identity was slipping away along with his health. I dreamed of escaping the hospital, but the last time I left, the nurses forgot to bring his medications, and his recovery regressed dramatically. I was scared to leave him because I knew my presence calmed him. I squeezed his hand and assured him I would be in the bathroom down the hall.

I stood in the tiny hospital bathroom that I started to consider my only personal space. Barely larger than an airplane lavatory, I had to lean against the wall to put on a clean pair of pants and tie my shoes. I looked at my greasy hair and wondered if I should wash it in the sink. I settled on tying it back, washed my face, and looked in the mirror as cold water dripped from my chin.

I didn’t recognize myself. I tried to keep it together, but the tears wouldn’t stop coming. I was overwhelmed and tired. I was scared and sad. But, above all, I felt lost.

My phone buzzed, and I tried to recompose myself. I opened a message from a friend I met in a cancer support group. Her husband had cancer, too, so many of her experiences were the same.

“Everyone says to be strong, but I don’t know how to be,” it read.

My heart broke, and the tears flowed even more.

I typed back a response. “Being strong is not the same as being stoic. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to feel broken. Sometimes, strength comes from the brokenness. As much as you want to be strong for him, you should above all be strong for yourself. Don’t forget that your life matters, too.”

I looked at that message and realized it was exactly what I wanted someone to tell me in this moment. I looked in the mirror and read out loud to myself.

“Being strong is not the same as being stoic.”

I needed those words. I was so busy labeling myself weak at the first sign of emotion that I wasn’t recognizing the deep strength in my heart and soul.

“It’s okay to cry.”

I told my husband this many times but I needed to remind myself, too. An empowered woman doesn’t have to be stiff and emotionless. Tears can bring power, courage, and determination.

“It’s okay to feel broken. Sometimes strength comes from the brokenness.”

We all go through hardships in life, and no one is spared from pain. We all have days when we feel like we cannot go on. But in those days, we often find our greatest strength. It is within ourselves, and sometimes we have to dig deep to find it. Sometimes, the brokenness allows it to shine through.

“As much as you want to be strong for him, you should above all be strong for yourself. Don’t forget that your life matters, too.”

I had no doubts about my love for my husband or the value that I placed on his life. But I was short-changing myself. I was so focused on saving his life that I was figuratively losing my own.

I wanted to recognize the woman in the mirror. I decided to start by acknowledging her strength and beauty. I resolved to believe in her. I declared that no matter what curve balls life threw, she would get through it.

I took a deep breath and stood a little taller. I walked down the hallway with newfound confidence. I sat by my husband’s side and told him, “I know this is hard. I won’t pretend that it’s not. But I also know that we can do hard things because we are strong.”

He pulled himself up to sit on the edge of the bed, something he hadn’t done by himself since surgery.

With tears on his face and a smile in his eyes, he reached for my hand and said, “I think you are right. We are stronger than we think.”

~Julieann Selden

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