“I had a good lunch and now I’m first in the queue to board,” Mariacristina texted me as she waited for her flight to Naples. I didn’t understand – where was the usual last-minute duty-free shopping? Why wasn’t she dashing to the gate as the menacing final boarding call boomed out across the airport? In all our years of flying together, we’d never got through the frenetic, soul-destroying pre-flight process so calmly.
I had never thought that might have been my fault. But here was the damning truth: Mariacristina had soared through security, drifted through duty-free and glided to the gate without the slightest sign of stress. And without me.
I was pretty sure I had never been the source of delays, though. My unnecessarily rigorous planning might have often wound up my wonderful wife, but they always got us through on time. Mariacristina never seemed worried about timings… Of course she wasn’t: I would take responsibility and she never needed to. That was it! Flying on her own, she had to keep an eye on the clock – and timed her transit to a tee. She had to take responsibility.
When I was in hospital, being treated for leukaemia, life was surprisingly relaxed. Yes, the chemotherapy was often nasty, and yes, the knowledge that a bone marrow biopsy was coming soon would weigh on my mind – but I hardly had any decisions to make or timings to respect. My responsibilities were minimal and easy: take those pills I’ve just been given; press this button when the chemo drip is about to finish; remember to ask the doctor about the blood test results. The medical staff carried the burden of responsibility.
The most terrifying, liberating moment came when I was allowed home after my transplant. My new, immature immune system was four days old, there were no aprons and masks for visitors and the comfortable, dust-gathering interior furnishings at home were far from the sterile setting of the isolation room. Mariacristina and I had to work things out by ourselves. She had the worst of it: at that point I was too weak to sort out much myself, so the now critical cooking and cleaning tasks were all down to her. My life was in her hands.
We’d bombard my doctor with questions at every check-up. “Can I go to this interesting event? Can I eat this food again? Can I…?”
“It’s up to you,” he’d reply, “but you’re still at risk. It’s your decision.”
That wasn’t the answer I wanted. YES, you can do this; NO, you can’t do that. We were desperate for someone else to take responsibility.
We realised we had to make the decisions ourselves. There was no button to press to have a nurse appear within a minute or two to tell us what was best or put our fears to rest. We had to start working things out by ourselves.
It was scary. My life – our life was back in our hands. Only we could decide how much we would be willing to risk to do what we wanted to do. Nobody else could make our decisions for us – whether they turned out to be right or wrong would be entirely our responsibility.
Taking responsibility, though, can also be strangely liberating. It’s a wonderful, life-affirming feeling to know that you can decide which way you want to steer your life, year, day, or even hour. It can be stressful – “should I, shouldn’t I, when should I?” – but it forces you to decide what is most important to you: what matters, and what doesn’t. What are you willing to risk – and what are you willing to give up to make things simpler?
When Mariacristina flew solo, she had to manage her progress through the airport, knowing that nobody else was regularly glancing at his watch to make sure she didn’t miss her flight. She could have chosen to leave everything to the last minute and dash to the gate for the final call. But that wasn’t what she wanted. She had to make the decisions, in doing so realised a calm pre-flight journey was her preference – and made it happen.
Perhaps things would have been easier if I’d stayed longer in hospital and we hadn’t had to take responsibility – but we’d never have been able to get on with the life we wanted.