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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Identity Crisis

Identity Crisis
Grand Canyon, July, 2010
I was sitting at Lindaman's cafe in Spokane about a year-and-a-half ago when a friend asked a question that's been following me around the world ever since. I'll get to the question later, but first, background: In early October, 2009, my husband, Sean, lay in room 549 of Sacred Heart Medical Center, after being transferred from the Intensive Care Unit. Sean was still battling after-effects of Necrotizing Fasciitis – also called "flesh-eating bacteria." The mystery infection (we'll never know how he got it) nearly killed him. He was pumped full of fluid (more than 20 pounds worth), drugs that knocked him unconscious, and placed on a ventilator for two weeks. He endured several operations, including two skin grafts. He was, as several nurses put it, "a train wreck."

Sean re-learned to swallow, eat, sit up and stand – with heaps of help from hospital staff. His kidneys had shut down. He'd spend 3-4 hours, 3-5 days a week, hooked to a dialysis machine.

During this time, I spent anywhere from a couple hours a day to nearly all day, every day, at the hospital. I was spinning plates, as I've always done, as a chronic, unrepentant multi-tasker. But I didn't pick these new plates. My plates adorned the walls of our home, with their splashy colors, flowers and rooster patterns. I chose the ceramics carefully and packed them from Portugal and Italy. This new set of spinning plates was different: cracked, chipped, and plain white, they smelled of alcohol. Some plates were even stained. They were heavy and slippery and would crash to the floor, littering my exit routes with broken shards. I sure as hell didn't choose these pieces. Still, I had to spin them, until Sean died of surgical complications, 4-and-a-half months after entering the hospital. White hospital plates - gone. Sean - gone. Part of me - gone.

Finally, to the question that's been dogging me. Maybe it's chasing you, too: Who are you? During the conversation at Lindaman's, Paul said, "Before Sean got sick, you guys traveled a lot. Now, you can't go anywhere, because you're tied to the hospital. What does that do to your sense of identity?"

I stopped slurping lemon-chicken Thai soup, struck by my friend's intuitiveness. I used to think of travel as something you did, not "traveler" as someone you were.

Do we understand our identity pyramid before losing a building block or two? Lose your job – remove a block. Lose a spouse or partner– remove 6 blocks. Leave your home, your friends, your neighborhood – remove, remove, remove. Who are you?

I recently attended a church preschool playgroup where the leader, Bonnie, told us mums to pair up and ask our partner: "Who are you?" It was the only question we could ask, over and over: "Who are you?" Bonnie was trying to illustrate how the Devil challenged Jesus's identity during 40 days in the desert: “If you are the son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” If you are... Who are you? I sat with a 27-year-old Cameron Diaz look-alike who asked me the question over and over. It was disconcerting, trying to craft answers beyond, "I'm a mother, traveler, daughter, runner, friend..." At the end of the exercise, Bonnie summed up the Christian perspective: "Above all, we are people loved by God." Hmm...sit with that for awhile...

You have time to ponder this identity question if you sit in a hospital's critical care unit watching IV fluids and medicines dripping (from 14 different bags), listening to machines humming and monitors beeping, while the person who had been the rock of your family lies unconscious. "If he's here, who am I? Single mom?" You grasp the impermanence of nearly everything – what was your life – healthy spouse, intact family, a home, a job, a routine...all we have and say and do...falls like leaves from a tree. One more gust of wind, and – poof – gone. Death hands you a dusty black box with a new stack of cards. They all read, "Who are you?"
Fiona's sand art along the Great Ocean Road, Australia

I grabbed Paul's question about travel and identity and ran with it – literally. This time, I chose to leave much of what and who defined me: I quit my job, rented my house, left friends and family and donated or sold at least one-third of what I owned. I left behind my good jewelry, including the flashy wedding ring Sean gave me. Any material clues about who I am would have to fit into 2 suitcases so the kids and I could circle the globe. No one I meet en route can see my "real" home, car or wardrobe.

Handling an owl in S. Africa- Nov., 2010
Before I arrived in South Africa, I called my friend, Heather, telling her how to spot us at the airport (we hadn't seen each other in 13 years): "Check for the haggard-looking mom screeching at 2 small children," I'd said. "Oh no," she replied. "I told my friends you used to be a TV presenter in the States. They're expecting someone glamorous." Good luck. I didn't bring that chick on this trip.

Instead, I show up in each new locale, meet new people, and only have myself and 2 unpredictable kids to present. I consider what I'm not: wife, worker, well-known in this community. According to many yardsticks (do metre sticks exist?), I'd probably fall short. Low on the status scale. I've traded titles and trappings for flexibility and freedom. I've kept what I need and want, as long as it's portable: mothering, running, writing, traveling, reading, reality shows on my iPod (I don't actually need that last one, but I'm hooked!). I choose to spin these plates. And if you're game, I'll spin them with you while you answer the question for yourself: "Who am I?"


  1. Brilliant! Asking myself the same question as I enter the world of unemployment and changes.. thanks for this blog.

  2. can the question also be: who do I want to be? who does God want me to be? what do you do with the building blocks left?

  3. Yes to "Who do I want to be?" and "Who does God want me to be?" Good questions.