Rethinking Strength: Embracing Weakness

Nate and Gabe

This article is by my friend Nate Nicholls.

Gabe has mentioned her health problems and the lessons she’s learned from them.

I have had my own set of hard times, taking care of Gabe while she’s been ill.

In one sense it’s been hard taking care of her because of the things I miss out on. I sometimes refer to these as the “selfish” reasons that it’s hard to care for her, but I don’t really think they’re selfish. I think it’s important to be honest with oneself about a situation. Sometimes it sucks to care for someone, to put in the extra effort to provide for her the things that she used to provide for herself. Sometimes I get tired, sometimes I’m lonely. Sometimes I look at my life and think, It was not supposed to be like this!

This past summer I worked 7 days per week, just to be able to afford to live with Gabe. For a period, while she was very sick, I also cooked the majority of our meals, cleaned the house (though, not very well), took care of the dogs, and attempted to attend Gabe’s every need. I would leave the house every morning between 5:30 and 6:00AM in order to get to the Park n’ Ride in time to catch the commuter bus into Anchorage. The ride is 45 minutes, one way. I worked from 8:00-4:00, then climbed aboard the bus going back to the Matanuska-Susitna Valley.

There were many times that I would stop before making the last leg of my trip home, just so I would have a few minutes of time to myself. One day I bought a tallboy of Pabst Blue Ribbon and parked along side the Matanuska River, a few miles from home. I sat on the sand, drinking my beer and watching the water flow by. I’m too young for this shit! I thought to myself. We were supposed to be so much farther ahead by now! We had planned trips together, adventures. We were going to take life by the horns, dance to our own rhythm. Instead, we’re stuck on the rusty hamster wheel of life.

But, mostly, these thoughts are fleeting. There are times when I feel the weight of the extra responsibility and I’m trying to learn that it’s okay to acknowledge that I do get tired or that it is hard. Yes, Gabe hurts much worse than I do. Whereas I’m choosing to forego the experience of new adventures, she’s been given no choice in the matter — she cannot have them. That’s much worse. What she is going through is different than what I’m going through, but I’m still allowed to have my feelings and my sorrow. This is a lesson that I’m still working to learn.

Nate PBR - Matanuska River

Being the healthy one, I felt the need to be strong for Gabe, though. I need to put on a happy face, a calm demeanor. I needed to be there to tell her that life was going to get better. Even when I wasn’t happy, when I wasn’t calm, and when I didn’t know if life was going to improve; I felt I had to be strong. I had to hold the roof up so she could breathe.

There are moments when the caretaker needs to be strong. But, there are also times when it’s okay for the caretaker to acknowledge his own weakness and pain. There are times when it is appropriate (and even necessary) for the caretaker to stop speaking words of encouragement and just lie down and weep.

One day, during some of the worst depression she experienced, I broke. She had been sobbing when I started talking. Sobbing those soul-rending, body-shaking, noiseless gasps from her gaping mouth. Tears and snot slicked her face. Her body was convulsed with each silent burst of agony. She was balled up on our bed, facing the window. I tried to tell her that everything would be alright, but she wouldn’t hear it. I tried to encourage her, to lift her up, to cause her to find some hope. It wasn’t working. Her eyes glazed over and her tears stopped. If not for her breathing, she would have seemed dead. Nothing I said seemed to register. I couldn’t reach her. I felt like she was giving up on life itself.

I burst into tears. I was hit with an overwhelming wave of despair and sorrow. My strength crumbled in that moment and the roof I thought I was holding up came crashing in around me. I found myself collapsed in front of her, sobbing. I was sobbing because I thought I had lost her. I was sobbing because I was scared. I was sobbing because I was lost.

It was then that I felt her hand on my shoulder. I looked up through flooding eyes and caught a glimpse of her looking down on me. There was a hint of life in her eyes and a warmth in her touch. She pulled me to her chest where I pressed my face and wept. Then, she began to weep, too. We layed on our bed, holding each other and weeping. When we finally broke, there was a lightness to the room. Life was returning to her face. A weight had fallen from my shoulders.

I’ve struggled with this post for the past month. I’ve been trying to find something positive to say. I wanted to impart some wisdom I had picked up along the way. Honestly, I still feel like I stumble along in the dark, trying to figure out what to do from day to day. I suppose the big takeaway for me was this: Sometimes, it’s okay show your weakness. Sometimes the person you’re being strong for may benefit from seeing that their source of strength acknowledges that their situation is truly difficult.

There are days when I need to maintain my composure and be strong, for both of us. And, there are days when Gabe needs me to stop trying to hold her up and to just sit down and cry with her, acknowledging that life is shitty. There is strength in the camaraderie of shared weakness.

Nate (2)

About Nate Nicholls:

A once-avowed city boy, Nate recently fled Anchorage to move into a tiny yurt in the woods, where he lives a semi-civilized life with his partner, Gabe, and their three quadruped children. During the week he works in a windowless office in the basement of an all-but-forgotten government building in Anchorage, pushing papers for “The Man”. In his off-hours, he passes the time by writing, chopping firewood, and starting his own web development company. Living in the woods for the past 18 months has taught him that, while running water is NOT a necessity of life, the Internet definitely is. He has structured much of his life (and yurt) around this fundamental lesson.



  1. tobystevens says:

    Thank you Nate for your openness. Ellen and I have had our long seasons of this too.
    Once, when her back was doing it’s debilitating practice, she was laying very still in bed. One day I went in to pray for her. I slowly sat on the edge of the bed and was positiong myself to caress her face. Just as I touched her she jolted and yelled at the same time. I thought I was witnessing a miracle.
    It was no miracle. Just my clumsiness. I had leaned on her shoulder and sat on her hair at the same time.
    And ironically, it’s happened a bunch of times since.
    Laughter helps in those dark times.

  2. I love the honesty in this piece. Makes me have hope in humanity’s capacity to care and love for one another.

    Thank you for writing this.

  3. Thank you both for your kind words.

    Toby, you had me rolling with that story. I seem to remember trying to help Gabe to the couch one time. In an attempt to be gallant, I picked her up and carried her from the kitchen. Crossing the threshold into the living room — SMACK! — her head hit the doorway. I think it took us a day or two to start laughing at that one, but we finally got around to it.

    Sharenda, as for humanity’s capacity to love and care for one another, I feel that we would all do well to re-define what it is to be strong. In my opinion, viewing strength as I once did as being “bulletproof” is a sure way to fall apart. Admitting to ourselves that our strength has its limit, however, allows us to anticipate the breakdowns and take care of ourselves. Only when we are whole are we able to truly love and care for one another.

  4. I was searching for articles on “Embracing weakness” when I came across your blogpost.
    Your story has given me a new perspective regarding this. :)
    Thank you for sharing your story. :)