By Laurie Kahn
It’s a familiar mantra in women’s circles: we look for love in all the wrong places. There is a plethora of information about bad relationships. What they look like, feel like, act like: what to avoid. Danger signs are listed in self-help books and painted on the walls of women’s bathrooms. Caution: this relationship may be dangerous to your health and well-being. Statistics remind us that women’s lovers, partners and husbands are potentially lethal. However, we are relational creatures. We flourish in the connections of love, friendship and mutuality. We look for love, despite the warnings. And we wonder: is this the good kind or the kind we’ve been warned about?
We need good stories about love. We need to replace the fairytale love stories and the tragic love stories with new stories. I envision a circle of women sharing our best stories of love. Not “the earth moved” stories, not “I walked around with a silly smile on my face for a week” stories, but stories about relationships that are sustaining. Relationships in which you can be fully yourself. Stories in which the person you love takes pleasure in both your competence and your vulnerability. Stories of trust and deepening regard. In a circle of such women I would tell this story. It’s about a fight I had with my husband Michael.
I was in South Africa on a three-week trip. I was invited to lecture at the first-ever African conference on Traumatic Stress. It was an honor and a challenge for me to speak to an audience of mental health practitioners from different parts of Africa and the international community. I had been to South Africa two years earlier and had witnessed the optimism and despair of a country newly emerging into freedom. I had been moved by the experience; it had changed my understanding of trauma and healing and taught me about the power of community, song, and moral leadership. I hoped I could find some small way to give back.
In addition to my good intentions I had arrived in South Africa with a secret wish: to ride a horse on the beach on the beautiful coastline near Cape Town. Several days before the conference, a colleague and I made our way to a horse ranch. Just minutes into our ride, my horse broke into a wild gallop, and I was thrown. I had gashes on my face and arms and a vague sense that there was something very wrong with my arm or hand. As the numbing started to subside I began to tremble. My colleague drove me to a hospital in the township outside of Durban. The attendants, with some difficulty, rounded up enough sterile cotton to clean my wounds. An x-ray showed I had broken my hand in three places. I returned to my hotel wearing a temporary cast.
My colleague called my husband and told him that I had had an accident and that I was OK, but would need surgery. I spoke with my husband for a moment, with the shaky voice that accompanies the aftershock of an accident. He was kind and reassuring.
The next morning Michael called and said he had booked me on a flight home and had made an appointment with a surgeon in Chicago. I paused for a moment and said, “I am not coming home.” I assured him that I could find a good surgeon in South Africa. I had a mission and I had every intention of completing my journey and attending the conference. My husband, in a steady and not yet escalated voice, explained that my right hand was very important and I should not be so casual about hand surgery. Our voices grew louder and both of us became more and more adamant about our positions. I’m not sure if I hung up on him or if he hung up on me.
Our fight saddened me. I knew, as I lay in bed that night, that he was feeling helpless and protective, and underneath my determination and independence I was frightened by the prospect of having surgery so far from home. The pain in my hand and back made it difficult to sleep.
The next morning when I took my bruised body to breakfast, someone from the hotel handed me a fax. The fax read: “Here is the name and phone number of a hand surgeon in South Africa. Your dreams matter to me too. With Love, Michael”
I called the number my husband had given me and set up an appointment. I flew from Durban to Johannesburg for surgery. My husband and I were in constant contact by phone: We spoke on our cell phones as I arrived at the clinic, moments before surgery, and as I woke up from anesthesia.
The next morning with my arm in a cast, an aching body and a bruised face I spoke to the First African Conference on Traumatic Stress. I ended my speech with a poem and I looked up into the warm faces of the audience applauding. I was told that my speech was later translated into Zulu and distributed to mental health workers in the townships. Many remarked that I looked like a trauma victim myself, yet within I had the strength and resolve of women who knew she was well loved.
Now, I look toward hearing the other women’s love stories.