Emma’s friends were very kind. “I’m here for you!” and “You can be part of my family!” they chimed. But as only a child without a family of her own knows, it’s not the same. Friends can do long talks and good cries, but at holiday time or very hard times everyone teamed up with family, and Emma was left standing alone.
One day she hung her head in her lap and sobbed most of the hour. She had just bought a new address book, and she came undone as she filled I her many contacts but stared at the empty “In Case of Emergency, Please Call” blank . She was almost hysterical when she looked at me and said “Who’s going be there for me if I have a card wreck. Who’s gonna help me if I get cancer?”
It took every bit of professional restraint I had not to say “I will!” But that would have been about making myself feel better. Instead, I gave my sincere attention and said, ” We need to get you a new family.”
— Dr. Meg Jay, “The Defining Decade: Why you twenties matter and how to make the most of them now”
Over the past three weeks since learning I will be on kidney dialysis, I have thought about the story of Emma, the twenty-something patient of Dr. Jay, who was searching for a family of her own, after enduring her father’s suicide and mother’s alcoholism as a teenager. Emma went through college, received good grades, and went through life as if there was nothing wrong, but internally it was anything but for her. Emma had a saying which went like this “You can’t pick your family, but you can pick your friends.”
When she was filling her address book, she came apart. There was no one to fill in to be an emergency contact. She didn’t have a family for her to turn to for help, support, and love.
I do not have a family where I live. They are three hours away. I am reluctant to turn to others for support, help, and love. I have gone through most of my life relying on myself to make the most of the hard times: unemployment, health, and personal battles. I, along with Emma, had “fallen up” We are good at hiding our troubles from everyone. To the outside, we’re normal, but on the inside, we’re falling apart, scared, unsure of what we’re doing, and where we’re going.
I can’t tell you the last time I opened myself up to a friend or an acquaintance. I find their stories to be more compelling and empathetic than mine. Imagine my surprise when I decided to let everyone know that I was in the hospital and that my kidneys have failed. I didn’t think anyone would read my thoughts.
I was mistaken.
“Family” is what I need to talk about. I have been fortunate to have many friends. A few who are close, many who are casual and I interact with. Many of these friends have family. Whether it’s their own, or parents and siblings who live in the same town. Being single has it challenges. All it take is for me to sit in the dialysis center for three and a half hours, or come home after a day of meetings, job search, and find emptiness.
At the end of July, I will be moving closer to my mom, my sister and her family in eastern Iowa. I do not expect this to be a permanent move. It could last six months. It could be up to a year. I am moving home because I need “family” to help me get better.
I can no longer afford to deal with my health by myself anymore. In 2000, a groin infection should have taken my leg. In 2012, I should have lost my eyesight to diabetic retinopathy. On May 7, 2015, not only did I lose the use of my kidneys…but had I waited one more day to check into the walk-in clinic, we would be talking about me in the past tense.
I had sepsis. Sepsis is a potentially life-threatening complication of an infection. Sepsis occurs when chemicals released into the bloodstream to fight the infection trigger inflammatory responses throughout the body. This inflammation can trigger a cascade of changes that can damage multiple organ systems, causing them to fail.
In other words, my body assumed an infection was taking place, and it began to attack itself. There was no infection. The body had turned on itself and started to shut down.
As a full disclosure, I knew my kidneys were not doing well. As a preemptive strike, I was sent to University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in mid-April to be considered for a kidney transplant. My case was deferred until October, pertaining if I lose more than twenty pounds and my Hemoglobin A1c (which is a three-month average of your blood glucose) was under 8%.
Sepsis hasten things quickly and here I am.
Here’s some advice when meeting those who are ailing: less talk is more. An encouraging hug, an empathetic ear, or being there for others is better than words.
I’ve received responses since I’ve started to resume a limited schedule of attending events. “Well, you look good.” I may look good (dialysis have taken off nearly 40 pounds of water and toxins out of my system. I’m sure my body spent years accumulating fluid and toxins), but I am in “bad shape.” I am weak, tire easily, and with the abrupt changes in my body, with battling sepsis and kidney failure, my speech has greatly been affected.
Being a stutterer most of my life, I have prided myself on trying to speak clearly without any verbal roadblocks. I have noticed how severe my speech has been affected. A grown man, unable to put complete sentences together and to utter specific words. It’s why I resort to writing a blog like this to tell you what’s going on inside my brain.
I am moving closer to home, not because I am failure in life. I am moving home because my health is failing and I need to help to where I can function as a human being again. That means several things: continue dialysis, get on the kidney transplant list in the fall, and rely on my family for support.
If I do get on the transplant list, and if I’m well enough, I could return to Des Moines in six months. If not, then next summer will be my target date. This will be a good time (long overdue) to sort out what I want to do if I come back: work, dating, and life in the 40’s. Let’s face it, my 30’s was not the best decade for me.
I look around and everyone has a family of their own, or are in relationships where they are seeking the right partner. I’ve never done that. I wished I had in my 20’s, but the stain of my parents’ divorces made me disillusioned, to where I wanted to postpone dating until my 30’s. I’m 39 now. According to Dr. Jay, “Often the clients with the toughest family background know the least about how to get what they want in love. But these are the clients who need to be the most careful. They are the very clients who need to partner well.”
I am in this category. I do not want to date for romance and cute stuff. I want to date for stability, balance, and love.
Isn’t that what we all want??
I know my friends will support me and are willing to help out, but I know myself too well. I will try not to ask them. I feel like I’m intruding on their lives and families. There are girlfriends and boyfriends of friends who feel that their “time” with their partner is being cut in by an ailing friend or colleague.
I have spent so much of my adult life alone, that it’s automatic for me to drive myself to dialysis, knowing that I could develop leg cramps or my blood pressure will drop after treatment, and I’ll still get in my car and drive home.
Which is why being under the care of my family is important. They will force me to rely on them.
As a parent of two children who are living with life-long chronic illnesses, my Mom has to deal with a lot when it comes to my sister and I, who are the sick kids. Mom can’t split time between Des Moines and the Quad Cities to keep an eye on us.
So, it is me, the single person without a family of my own, who has to move closer to home. I’m walking away from the “identity capital” I have built through community service, organizations, and associations with others.
That is the bittersweet part of this decision: not being able to be a part of what’s going on in Des Moines.
There are some activities that I will have to give up, and there are a few that I will have to make arrangements and adjustments to. I have chosen to work my calendar around my hemodialysis (treatment at a center), and my medical appointments.
I am at peace with this decision. The more I think about it, I feel comfortable with it. I have lived in the same apartment for eight years. To say I’ve been living in neutral is an understatement.
As my friends are moving up in their careers and taking on new challenges, I have been stuck searching and finding my real place in the business world. Taking a break from the Des Moines business community could be beneficial: it would force me to look at outside sources and networks.
If I can’t find where I belong, then it’s not worth beating my head on the wall, trying to break that wall to get in.
Over the past week, I have noticed how important family is. I was invited to dinner by one family and an open invite from another to visit their vacation place. My friends have their family close by.
I don’t have my own family, but I have the next best thing: a family I grew up with.
I need my family. Moving closer to them..for now, is what I need at this stage in my life.
I want a family of my own, but until that happens, I need to understand what it means to have a family.
My family is ready for me to come home for a while.