In the beginning of Wendy’s hospitalization, Michael and I arrived at Massachusetts General Hospital at different times. I had first flown with Wendy from our home in Vermont to Dartmouth Hitchcock hospital in New Hampshire. Then a few hours later when it had been determined that Wendy was in kidney failure, she and I were taken by ambulance to Mass General. Michael and my mom followed later in the car, and typically, got lost in Boston because everyone does.
After we had both arrived and had gotten settled, one of the first things we did was go down to the coffee shop in the hospital. We knew that we were in for a long haul. Suddenly we were two states away, our parents were arriving, and we knew that things were going to be really tough medically, emotionally, financially, all of it. In a whirlwind of chaos, we knew that we had to set down some guidelines for communication, and stick with them. We were both horribly scared, but we knew that we had each other, and we had to keep our lines of communication open. We agreed to some ground rules:
Be kind with your words. “Don’t ever say anything that you can’t take back.” You know those words, spoken in anger, using absolutes like, “You Never” or “I Always”. Those aren’t helpful. We are a team and we will act like a team.
Be honest with your emotions. Just saying your emotions out loud makes you feel better because you’ve put a name to them. “I am scared” is a powerful phrase. Don’t expect to have the other partner know how you are feeling, you need to state it.
Say when you need a break. Sometimes we need to take a step back, get a cup of coffee, walk outside and breathe a little fresh air. We would feel overwhelmed at some point in this journey. Those few minutes where you can separate and regroup your thoughts will save you in the long run.
I honestly believe that this agreement preserved our marriage.
These ideas didn’t fall out of the sky, we had done these things, more or less, over the years. We had learned good communication through a number of avenues. One way was living in the Czech Republic together. After dating for about a year, and after we had both graduated from college, we had the crazy idea that we would move to Prague and teach English to Czech students. We didn’t quite realize the situation we had put ourselves into. We had arrived in a small town well outside of the city and were essentially the only two people who spoke English. Unlike western cities that had dual languages for menus or bus schedules, everything was only written in Czech. This made for humorous meals at the local restaurants when all we could do was point to something on the menu and hope for the best. The other “English”teachers in our schools were the former Russian teachers, who were told overnight that they needed to switch to teaching English or face losing their jobs. Not only was their English not good, but they weren’t thrilled to have native speakers teaching along side them. We were on our own.
Michael and I lived in a single converted classroom in one of the two schools in town. It was inconvenient, especially because it also housed the early care for children, who liked to just walk in to see what we were doing. There was no telephone, and it was only the dawn of social media. The situation was less than ideal.
We realized quickly that if we had an argument that there was no one else to talk to in the whole town. Necessity became the mother of good communication.
Prior to that, we also had experience with something called a “Full Value Contract” from Gettysburg College, where we both attended. A full value contract was introduced to us through Gettysburg Recreation Activities Board, or GRAB. The idea was that everyone had an equal say and it was up to the individual to be clear with how they were doing, as no one is a mind-reader. Neither Michael nor I were in GRAB, but one of our best friends, Hutch Hutchinson, was one of the first student leaders, and he led trips for student groups, including groups that we were in. Michael and Hutch hiked 500 miles of the Appalachian Trail together. (Hutch continues this work at Boston University, where he leads the Common Ground seminar for first year students. You can see a video of it here.) “Full Value Contract” was a part of the vocabulary we brought with us to the Czech Republic, and it served us well.
Lastly, Michael and I knew that when we were stressed, that we used a certain “tone”. You know that tone. It’s 50% of communication, and when the words and the tone don’t match, it’s the tone that trumps the conversation. Way before we got married, we agreed to state when a day was going to be stressful. We would say, “Today is going to be tough, so I want to say I love you now, in case I forget later.” This might include buying our first house, or going on a trip, or going into labor and having a baby. This was an inside joke, almost a code for us that we needed to treat each other well not knowing what the day held in store for us.
We brought all of these tools with us to the hospital, and yet we still felt the need to take time away and actively state our three ground rules for communication when we got to the coffee shop. This isn’t the recipe for every happy family in the world that is going through the trauma of a chronically or terminally ill child. But what I’m saying is that you have to find what works for you, what will sustain you even through the darkest times. Only you know what will work for you and your partner, but they key is to find it, agree to it, and stick with it.
It will serve you well in the long run.