Life Is Beautiful

August 22, 2021

Life Is Beautiful

Words escape me this week. I’m often unsure of what to say in a moment. I’m seldom lost for words when putting pen to page. This loss is breaking my spirit at a time when I thought I’d already shattered into as many pieces as humanly possible. While I’m disheartened that I haven’t been able to write, it’s strangely comforting to know there are more shards of me. The edges are sharp and draw blood, but they are still there. Numbness is my true fear. For today, I’ll take pain.

I’m reminded this week of the origin story of Joseph’s moniker for me. He calls me Principessa. Italian/Medieval Latin for “princess,” he lifted it from the movie Life Is Beautiful. We watched the film while newly dating, and it had a strong impact on us. In it, a Jewish waiter falls in love and although the couple is of simple means, he calls his wife his “Principessa.” They concurrently have nothing and everything.

The couple is raising their young son in 1930s Italy when the German invasion reaches. To help his son survive, Guido turns their life inside a concentration camp into a game. With the promise of a tank as the grand prize, he creates a way for his son to both remain safe and find simple joys in the most horrific of circumstances.

Joseph started calling me his Principessa the night we watched the film, and he hasn’t stopped. It is the word that floats from his first breath after a surgery. Every card he writes me is addressed as if this were my name. I am precious. Of high worth. Royalty - if only here in the Rutchik home. This is the lens through which my husband lives his life.

Like all great stories, ours is a chiasmus. A pattern, a circle that starts again and again. Like the rings we wear as a symbol of our marriage. Patterns are used in storytelling because they can bring us comfort and reassurance. They can also terrify us and scare us straight. We’ve had a season or two in our life where we’ve felt like hamsters running on a wheel. Giving life all we’ve got just to go nowhere.

This approach to storytelling is seen in ancient literature, and even has biblical roots. Joseph and Tessa have an ongoing challenge to help one another identify if a story is or is not a chiasmus.

There is a symmetry to all good stories, and to the human condition. Or, at least how we interpret and try to make sense of our individual stories and of the ultimate story of humanity.

Call it a twist of fate, irony or kismet, but we know God’s plan is for our story to be circular.

Joseph and I were married in an emergency. While we were engaged, we learned he needed an open-heart surgery. As his medical team explained the surgery and the veracity of his health, we saw the peak of the mountain raising to heights we feared were insurmountable. We moved up our wedding and were married in a school cafeteria turned church a week before his operation and we honeymooned in the ICU.

That was fifteen years ago, this coming Friday. I’ve prayed we can spend this milestone anniversary together. I confided this prayer in a friend today and confessed my shame in its selfishness. She reminded me that my wish reflected my love for him. For us.

Human? Yes. Selfish? Maybe. Some days I wonder if I’m the only one ashamed to be human. Then there are other days when I’m saturated with the deep understanding of the commonality of human brokenness. Unfortunatly, the deepness of that understanding is more fleeting than I’d like, and the circle of shame and understanding starts again.

Our culture teaches us to run from pain whenever possible. There is constantly a new pill, drug, instant gratification idea that is promised to help us outrun the pain of living and the appearance of aging. Eventually we’re faced with the need for and choice of vulnerability. Loss (in its many forms) is the consequence of vulnerability. Once we opt to be vulnerable, we are then ready to choose love. The price of love has always been pain and grief. Love is expensive. I’m grateful someone else paid my admission.

It feels as though the bill has come due here at the Rutchiks. Payment is painful, even when someone else is paying. It’s scary, anger-fueled and because pride is a duplicitous brute – it’s shameful. Still, it’s worth it. I’m trying to stand still and allow the pain to clobber me. I don’t want to turn my face and run, even though the slap stings. My face and my soul burn. The tears of my husband and children a funnel of salt gushing into my open wounds. I stand in my choice, though. To love. I will still encourage everyone to choose it, if called.

There is no more standard. There is only the ugly face of survival. Among the kids, there are too many pieces of pizza, slammed doors and hurtful outbursts. For Joseph, there are brilliant moments of acceptance and peace, and then there are moments I find him in a puddle of mud I can’t pull him from.

For me, nothing and everything matters. I cried to a friend this week about how terrible I felt about myself because it’s been months since my hair and brows have been done. Then I cried to her about how humiliated I was for feeling that way. Turns out, a few grey hairs do make me feel less like myself. I guess I’m just one big enigma and a little bit of a hypocrite. That’s where I am right now. I yelped with joy a few days later when she surprised me with the special delivery of my hair stylist for a front porch spa hour. It’s a simple and vain pleasure, but one that made me feel more like a human capable of getting out of bed – which is now the couch next to where Joseph is set up in our living room.

Our life together while Joseph is on hospice is grueling and intimate. It’s almost like a slice of heaven here on earth, since most earthly concerns now escape us. I’m not sure how to update friends and loved ones because everything feels so very sacred and therefore private. We are balancing the desire and comfort found in the visitors who come laugh and pray with us and the need for solitude and the space to wrestle with what we need to wrestle with individually and as a family.

In these moments of Joseph’s greatest physical need and my greatest honor, I may not be able to find words as easily as I would like. However, he is still able to utter Principessa in our most excruciating moments.

This is our life, and it is truly beautiful.