Picture Perfect

November 22, 2006 at 11:39 am (Uncategorized)

For the past couple of days, I have been conducting a little experiment on myself.

My mother-in-law, Roslyn, is visiting us from Boston. Although she has met us in other cities since her last trip to Montana, she has not been in our house for about two years. Before she arrived, I desperately wanted to mellow myself out. I planned to cut back on the fussing and cleaning I do for all of our guests, including my own parents and my closest friends.

My goal in this endeavor was not to be inhospitable to my mother-in-law, who is a kind and generous woman and who we love having visit us. What I wanted from my foray into the experimental method was to see if I could host someone without making myself exhausted, sick, or frazzled. Before I took up residence in chronic town, I relished making visitors feel welcome. I was taught that by the time you open the door for your guests, the house should be clean, the bathrooms stocked with extra toilet paper and soap, the sheets crisp, and the cupboards loaded with good food. In addition, you should make a tasty dinner every evening, and have the fixings for breakfast and lunch on hand. If you know that your guest likes, say, grapefruit instead of orange juice, then you’d better have a container of grapefruit juice for breakfast. You should also spend time with your guests. After having them travel across the country (or in the case of our friends from Thailand, the world), you don’t leave them bored in your house while you’re off having lunch with pals or taking a nap.

Here’s the problem. Now that I’m in chronic town, when I do all of this stuff, by the time the visit’s over, I resemble the living room rug more than a human being. My sickness has not made it impossible for me to be the kind of hostess with the mostess I want to be. I can still mop the floors and plan outings, but it totally and completely wipes me out. I have nothing left – and I usually get sick.

Since Roslyn has explicitly told me on numerous occasions not to fuss over her or feel like I should give up a nap for a tour of our town’s historic district, I decided that her current visit would provide the perfect opportunity to order pizza for dinner one night, or to leave her playing with my son while I rest. I would take someone at face value, damn it. If she said, “I don’t mind if we don’t have a home-cooked dinner every night,” then I should listen to her words – instead of to the tired drumbeat of guilt in my head – and put Dominoes on my phone’s speed dial.

I’ve done a better job not fussing than I normally do with guests. Thanks to my sister’s generosity, the housecleaners came before Roslyn arrived, so I didn’t have to worry about toilets looking like breeding grounds for a new and vicious life form. Although one evening when I was not feeling particularly well, I broke down and made lasagna (one of the more labor-intensive casseroles known to mankind), the next night I did consent to re-heating the leftovers for dinner – and to letting her do the dishes. This is major progress. We’re also spending Thanksgiving with friends, so the entire burden of cooking the requisite feast won’t fall on me. And one afternoon, I headed upstairs and napped for most of the day to stave off the cold Andrew is spreading throughout our house with his dripping nose and hacking cough.

When I was about to fall asleep that afternoon, however, I was seized with terrible anxiety that bordered on panic. It felt like I desperately needed to up doing something, not lying a-bed like a slug. Rationally, I knew I was being ridiculous. But my gut was twisted with guilt. “Do more. Do more. Do something,” I thought over and over. I forced myself to let this pass, and it did. But the episode was intense enough to make me mull over it later. Why would I feel compelled to disregard someone’s words (“Go and take a nap, Rebecca”)? More importantly, why did I feel repulsed that I would even consider putting my needs ahead of someone else’s? What is with this all this guilt?

I didn’t come up with any answers, but I did realize how intertwined guilt and my illness are. The two nourish each other like twin parasites on my body and soul. I so often feel guilty that my ongoing health problems prevent me from caring for my family as I want to. And I feel guilty for putting the people I love through so much worry and upheaval. But I’m coming to realize that by continuously pushing myself, by making the damn lasagna and shopping for grapefruit juice, I am giving fuel to the sarcoidosis in my lungs and heart. I know when I need to stop and rest, but too often, guilt causes me to stand at the stove or wake up early with Andrew.

Change takes a long time. It will take more than one visit for me to learn to loosen my grip and let go of wanting my life to seem picture-perfect. Admitting that I can’t do it all involves publically accepting that this illness has limited me — at least temporarily. I can feel guilty about this, or I can see in these new limits an opportunity to expand myself in other ways, to learn to take care of myself for the long haul. Hello, Dominoes?

1 Comment

  1. Paul said,


    “Admitting that I can’t do it all involves publically accepting that this illness has limited me — at least temporarily”

    So true – I find it the hardest thing to accept – I keep trying to be Superman and hide the impact of the disease from people. I still want to do it all, but the truth is I can’t, but I will continue to do as much as I can when I can.

    The Guilt – well I don’t like it – It’s so hard when I have to lie down when Denise is busy doing something, or the kids want you to play. I think perhaps I need to feel a little guilt, it stops me from crashing when I don’t really need to. Perhaps I would be a worse father and husband if I didn’t feel it.

    We have far more pre prepared and take away food than I like – but it is a sacrifice we have made to cope – so the pizza shop is in the speed dial.

    Keep smiling

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