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WM: Deprivation

“How do you do it?”

“Mostly, I deprive my kids,” I answer.

It’s a bit of a joking response, but as with any uncomfortable situation, there is an element of truth. They don’t get to do everything they want. I can’t give them everything. I’m a single father. 

My wife, Jennifer, died more than six years ago. She was in a nursing home for three years before that, and couldn’t take care of herself around the house for at least a year before that, so I’ve been doing this by myself for a long time. 

I have four kids: two girls and two boys—one adopted daughter, one biological daughter, and two biological sons. Three musicians and one who couldn’t give a flip about eighth notes. Two drivers and two swimmers. All four are readers, which I believe holds at least a glimmer of hope for the next generation. We’ve gone through half a dozen pets since my oldest was in third grade, and have managed to keep two cats, a hamster, and a guinea pig alive for a while now (fingers crossed).

And then there is me. 

When people hear that I’m widowed, and have so many responsibilities, I get the question: “How do you do it?”

In their minds, they’re running the simulations. They are imagining themselves without their spouse, doing all the same things they’re currently doing: working a job, going to PTA meetings, driving to soccer practice, and violin, and the doctor, and the library, and planning the family vacation, and calling mother about father’s medication, and paying the sewer bill a couple of days late and hoping they won’t notice and charge you that fee. And then they imagine trying to do their partner’s jobs on top of that: mowing the lawn, changing dirty diapers, serving on the neighborhood association board, planning the family vacation because it just didn’t get done yet.

And for those of us living this modern American life, the thought of taking on twice as much is intimidating. It’s overwhelming to the point where people can’t really think about it and just shut down. It’s a complete nonstarter. 

“I can’t even ...” 

For most of them, I believe it. Because I couldn’t either. 

The Mathys familyFor the first year after the onset of my wife’s symptoms—balance and speech problems, emotional confusion at times—we could manage. She took care of the kids. I worked. We went to doctors, nutritionists, and specialists. We maxed out our health insurance deductible multiple times.

Then it got worse. 

She needed help at home. I took on more and more responsibilities: grocery shopping, driving to dance classes and Cub Scouts, laundry. For a while my parents and in-laws could pitch in. Eventually, that wasn’t even enough. I hired in-home help. I did more, slept less, ate more, exercised less. We had less sex. Then not at all. Our relationship suffered. 
I suffered rejection and loneliness. She suffered pain and sleeplessness. The kids suffered watching Mom fall apart before their eyes. Hallway walls and closet doors suffered my fists in fits of frustration. 

It didn’t get better. The cause remained a mystery. The degradation did not. Jennifer lost her ability to adequately care for herself. I eventually had to make the hard decision to move her into a care facility.

She continued downhill. And I continued to push the limits of myself and my sustainability. I took the kids to visit Jennifer three times a week. On 星空无限传媒s, I took her out for the day, caring for her and the kids, returning her at night. On Sundays, I took her to church and then out for lunch, pretending that we really weren’t that different from all the other families. 

I ignored my own health and punished myself by compounding my sins with further sins. Upset that you didn’t get everything done? Look at some porn because, hey, no rejection there. Feel guilty about that? Eat some ice cream to dull the pain. Can’t sleep because you ate too much ice cream? Go for a drive and spend another two hours awake, so that when you’re supposed to get up and run in the morning before the kids wake up, all you can do is roll back over and sleep. I had built an efficient cycle of self-destruction.

I kept it together as long as I could. Longer than most people around me thought I would. My midlife crisis started when my car died on the highway. My faith died in the pews. My career died when I admitted I didn’t really care about my job and was just passing time. I was only 37, which seems early for such experiences, but as I’ve been told, I was an overachiever.
I had a vision. Go to the ATM, get out the maximum amount of cash you can for that day, and drive away. Leave the cellphone at home and just ... poof. 

That vision didn’t scare me. On the contrary, it tempted me. It called to me, a siren song leading me out past the difficult, but known, current turbulence of action into the deceptively calm sea of avoidance. I had to force it out of my mind more than once.
What was I was doing? How could I keep going? How could I keep up the pace? Why did I want to disappear, to leave, to get out? That wasn’t me. I was the good guy. A family man. A faithful, strong man who does what’s right, who acts with integrity. I keep my promises. I don’t give up.

Then I had another vision. It was my hands holding a styrofoam cup. This cup was my life, and inside was my love—a shimmering, viscous liquid, like honey, mixed with water and sprinkled with glitter. My love swirled and flowed as I generously lavished it upon all those around me: my kids, my wife, the church, the neighbors. I gave to my job. I gave to my friends. I gave to everyone. I gave until the cup was empty. I poured out the very last drops, because that’s how unselfish I was. And I was damn proud of that.

What now? I had only an empty cup and still those around me needed my love. My kids needed to eat. They needed to go to volleyball, and soccer, and football practice. My wife needed me to visit her on 星空无限传媒 morning and bring a doughnut for the van ride so she felt slightly human again. My employer needed me to complete the monthly financial review to know whether they would have to reforecast the end-of-year earnings yet again. Everything that everyone needed was supremely important and I’d better get it all done. Yet all I had was this empty cup. 
I began breaking off pieces of the cup and handing them around. I was consuming myself, destroying myself, methodically, purposefully, and lovingly, because I still wanted to give. Yet, I had nothing left and I didn’t have the emotional strength to admit that I was empty.
I annihilated my cup. I was gone. I was no longer. 

That was not what I wanted. However, it was the path I was on. I would be there soon. Six months? Six weeks? Six days? I couldn’t keep going. I was giving to others first, instead of taking care of myself so that I could take care of others. I was giving to everyone else first and trying to maintain on what remained. When the zigs and zags of daily life interrupted, and started requiring more and more of me, what dregs were left didn’t have enough vitality to sustain me. They didn’t fill my cup. I had nothing to carry on.

I had to make a change. I had to flip the script. I had to start putting myself first. 
I would take care of me, and by doing so, I would ensure that I could take care of them for decades to come. I would be restoring my soul so that I could cultivate theirs.
The next months and years, I began to put this principle into action. I started doing things for me. I had to stop thinking I needed to justify them with anything other than “because it helps me.” This mindset allowed me to be a human again. I was an individual with hopes, dreams, hobbies, and work. I was more than a chauffeur, a masseuse, or a personal shopper. 
I crafted a meaningful design, and had it tattooed on my shoulder. Every day it reminds me to love and know myself. I joined a choir and gained new friends. I scheduled my exercise and lost a few pounds. I got off the addictions to ice cream and porn. And eventually, I even waded back into the world of romance.

I started doing less for others. This meant saying no to being a Boy Scout leader. This meant not volunteering to organize a neighborhood cookout. This meant my kids didn’t get to do all the things they asked for, because I couldn’t drive them. They had to learn to do without. I’m sure they’d rather have two-thirds of what they wanted right then and have me around for the next 40 years, instead of watching me burn out and fade away in 18 months.

Through it all, I’ve come to realize that the specifics weren’t that important as long as I did something. As long as I figured out a way to fill my cup regularly, constantly, to the brim. No longer will I break off pieces of myself, my soul, my experience, for others. No longer will I feel like I am disposable.

Instead, I am me. I am here.

And, yes, sometimes, my kids may feel a little bit deprived, but they are no longer deprived of me.

Stephan lives with his family in Ballwin, Missouri. He is the director of customer success for Montoux, and is a member of the St. Louis Actuaries Club leadership. His fiction (as Stephan James) has been published in “Every Day Fiction,” “Bewildering Stories,” and “The Arcanist.”