One of the duties of a caregiver turns out to be a task no one ever mentioned to me, not even in passing. Call it, for the lack of a better term, the oral progress report.
When you live with a person recovering from a serious illness, you're not only in charge of ordering medication refills, ferrying him to doctors, keeping track of vital signs and encouraging him when he's down, you also become the official spokesperson whenever friends and family ask about his health.
He understands. I'm sure he wants to be defined by something other than a catalog of symptoms.
The Hubby is recovering from sepsis in fits and spurts, and we are lucky -- incredibly fortunate, really -- to have so many wonderful people concerned about his health. That's the silver lining, the rainbow, the unexpected bonus. At least once a day, and usually more, I'm stopped in the hall, at a store or in the gym, long enough for a gentle, caring hand to land on my arm.
"How's he doing?" the person will ask.
I dutifully detail the minute improvements.
Then, inevitably, the next question: "How are you?"
I'm fine. Really, really, I am. I'm sleeping well and eating healthy food. I've been through worse and in the process, like most women I know, I've managed to hang on. Sometimes by the skin of my teeth. Sometimes by sheer will. Sometimes because I didn't know better.
I refer to "women" hanging on not out of some deeply ingrained prejudice. Plenty of male caregivers deliver hope and balm as well as their female counterparts, but the reality is that even in these egalitarian times, women are usually the ones providing care. To husbands, to parents, to siblings, to friends. Women applying the ointment, crushing the pills, reading the blood pressure gauge.
And because of this, women learn, early and well, how to hang on. They clutch, they clasp, they clench, sometimes with white-knuckled intensity, alternating between grace and resentment, triumph and despair.
Over time, I've grown confident that I've perfected the grip, managed it in such a way that now it's almost second nature -- tight enough to maintain the grasp but loose enough to shift and swing.
Friends tell me you don't have to be in a care-giving situation to know the true meaning of hanging on. We hang on to jobs, to marriages, to children, to places, to pets. Sometimes to ourselves, or to who we thought we were.
People refer to the same concept in different terms, too: In times of trouble, we persevere, we overcome, we keep a stiff upper lip, we put up a good front. By any name, this courage feels the same, defiance unearthed.
In the past three months, faithful friends have quoted me every inspirational saying about adversity, and each one rings as true as an old church bell on a Sunday morning. My favorite, however, is from Shakespeare: The robbed that smiles, steals something from the thief.
Here's to hanging on, while smiling.
(Ana Veciana-Suarez is a family columnist for The Miami Herald. Write to her at The Miami Herald, One Herald Plaza, Miami, FL 33132, or send e-mail to aveciana(at)herald.com.)