conversation With clients – henry
One of my favorite clients is an elderly widower we will call “Henry”. I see Henry twice a week for strength and post-rehabilitative training; he’s had a hip and knee replaced and suffers from neuropathy of both feet due to Type II diabetes. Henry towers over me, a gentle giant nearly 7 feet tall whose awkward movements, dry humor, sarcasm and overall “old man grumpiness” (as he’s fond of describing his general disposition) I’ve endeared to over the past year.
Five months ago, Henry lost his wife of almost half a century to complications from cancer. He and his wife have one child, a daughter whom he doesn’t mention much. From the bits and pieces of his life that he shares in random spurts during our training sessions, I’ve learned that Henry’s relationship with his daughter is good but they’re not closely connected, partly because he spent much of her childhood traveling for work and missed “many opportunities to be a part of her life”.
During a recent training session, after having spent the entire weekend at home alone, Henry grumbled to me that his daughter doesn’t initiate contact with him “nearly as much as she should, especially now that her mother is gone…”. Other times he has stated things like, “I hope she remembers my birthday” and “Maybe she’ll have time for me this weekend.” I empathize with Henry’s situation; he must be quite lonely as he navigates the various stages of grief that accompany the death of a cherished life partner. It must be awful to not feel a close bond with his daughter, his only living connection to his wife. I can’t even imagine the anguish he endures, daily. I pray for the blessing to spend nearly 50 years with the hubs.
It was in that empathetic spirit that I listened to Henry this morning when we began our session. While I was in the midst of demonstrating his first exercise he launched into a tirade, complaining about his retirement community’s homeowners association’s (HOA) plans to install a “grandchildren playground” near the community’s private lake. He was appalled and quite annoyed that his monthly HOA fees would be increased to fund such a “silly and ridiculous thing”. Henry’s shoulder’s were rigid with tension and his already-compromised balance faltered as he paced back and forth in the small gym, ranting. I stayed close to him – quiet and attentive – as his lanky frame, struggling to remain upright, swayed from side to side every few steps.
“Not everyone here has grandchildren, y’know!” Henry hissed through clenched teeth, rolling his eyes and shoving his fists into the pockets of his joggers. Especially since his wife’s death, Henry has been given to grumpiness and a generally ornery disposition but his reaction seemed more dramatic and exaggerated than the occasion called for. Maybe he’s having a bad morning, I reasoned.
“I understand.” I replied, softly, resting my hand on his shoulder as he finally sat down to (hopefully) perform the exercise.
“It’s just stupid! I think they should raise their own money and build their own playground.” Henry was indignant. Flustered and distracted, he stood up too quickly, obviously forgetting the neuropathy’s numbing effect on his feet, and stumbled a few steps forward in what seemed like cartoonishly slow motion. Terrified that he would tumble to the ground I reacted quickly, reaching out and grabbing him around the waist (he’s almost 7 feet tall!) to steady him.
“Dude.” I was calm and firm. “Chill.”
Henry regained his composure and sat down again, rolling his eyes at me and shaking his head. “It’s just stupid!”
“Henry,” I asked, wanting to diffuse his anger and, perhaps, direct his mind to more pleasant thoughts, “is your daughter going to have children?”
There was an abrupt, pregnant pause – a thick, awkward silence that lasted an agonizing 10 seconds. “She can’t.” Henry blankly responded. In an instant he had gone from passionately enraged to passive, blank.
“Ohhhh, ok.” I replied. I was beginning to understand why he was so angry about the “grandchildren’s playground” … I think? Maybe he had wanted grandchildren?
Henry continued, “I have a glandular problem. I told you already!” Still seated, he looked up at me with hard, angry eyes.
Confused and a bit alarmed by his tone, I replied quickly, “Um, actually, this is the first time I’m hearing that, Henry…”
“Huh?” His cold, blue eyes stared right through me. “I told you … oh, wait. That wasn’t you.” Henry looked down at the floor, mumbling something unintelligible under his breath.
“So, what glandular problem?” I inquired, genuinely curious.
“Look! I don’t want to talk about it. The subject is closed! I have a glandular problem – that’s why I am so damn tall – whatever – I have this problem and my daughter inherited it and so she can’t have kids. I’m done talking about it, ok? Don’t ask me about this anymore!” Henry rolled his eyes and turned his head to look at the wall behind me as he began to perform the exercise I’d shown him a few minutes earlier.
I was thoroughly confused by the venom in his voice and I knew that, today, Henry was too far gone to be talked off the ledge with a light discussion about the weather or his golf game. So, I said no more than what was necessary to get him through his training session.
In kind, Henry remained quiet, followed my instructions and avoided eye contact for the remainder of our 45-minute session. When we were done, he mumbled, “See ya later”, hastily grabbed his jacket and headed out of the gym, forgoing our usual end-of-session review and chat.
Unpacking that conversation could result in an entire book, I think. The myriad feelings Henry must have about his perceived responsibility (albeit something he couldn’t control?) in his daughter’s infertility. The divide or strain it may (or may not) have caused in their relationship if, for any reason, she blamed him for being unable to bear her own biological children. The pain of not being about to have biological grandchildren. Were there regrets? Resentments? I may never know, but what stuck in my mind long after Henry walked out of the gym this morning was a question:
Why do I continue to take the gift of my own fertility for granted?
Why do I complain and stress about being 7 months into a process that others have put years, blood, sweat and tears into? I have no idea what it feels like to not be able to have a child of my own because I have birthed 4 children. I have been blessed with a fruitful womb and I am so grateful to God for that! Being able to have children is a gift that not all of us are given. It is a privilege that is not to be taken lightly and certainly not to be underestimated.
Historically, it’s been so effortless for me to conceive that my empathy for couples struggling with fertility didn’t truly develop and expand until we had two back-to-back miscarriages a few months ago. It was then that I became part of a new community – one that I’d never thought I’d join, one that seemed foreign and for other people.
The reality of my life right now is that while I am on this journey to conceive at child at the “geriatric reproductive” age of 44, I am humbly learning so much about the struggles with natural conception that women and couples endure. Though we make up a relatively small percentage of the overall population, as God would have it, I am encountering so many wonderful people and hearing their stories of heartache, faith and triumph on their journey to complete their family, one way or another.
There are more stories to tell. More stories to come.
In the meantime, I pray for Henry to find peace in his spirit and strength in his heart. I pray for him to continue to embrace the everlasting love provided by our heavenly father. I pray for him to be comforted and encouraged in his time of grief. Our God is a good, good God. All the time.
Lord, I pray for You to speak through me. Your words are a balm to the soul. Use me as Your vessel to comfort and soothe Henry’s aching heart and troubled spirit. Lord, thank You for giving me the words and the wisdom to do Your will in Henry’s life, only as You see fit. In Jesus name, I pray. Amen!
Isaiah 50:4 (NKJV):
“The Lord God has given Me
The tongue of the learned,
That I should know how to speak
A word in season to him who is
He awakens Me morning by
He awakens My ear
To hear as the learned.
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.