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A defining moment

Late last week, Governor Deval Patrick looked more in charge than he had in a while, forcefully protesting the detention of a group of immigrant workers in New Bedford.

By the weekend, though, his office announced that his administration faces a new challenge because of a far more personal issue: His wife, Diane, is being treated for depression and exhaustion. The governor will work a flexible schedule for the time being, not the best news for an administration struggling to find its footing.

No further information was released about Mrs. Patrick's illness, from which I wish her a speedy recovery. Some psychologists -- not speaking to her situation directly -- have observed that major life upheaval is often a large contributing factor to such a condition. Without question, the past few months would fall into the major-life-change category.

Yesterday, Patrick aides were backtracking on the notion that the governor might be working part-time. "He's still going to be here," senior adviser Doug Rubin said yesterday. "He's still going to be in the office, and he's still going to be in charge."

The past few weeks could not have been much fun for anyone close to Patrick. From helicopter rides and a leased Cadillac to an ill-considered phone call vouching for the character of predatory lenders, he has drawn his share of criticism -- more than his share, in the minds of some supporters. He's been compared to Jane Swift, which is never good.

In the midst of the gathering storm of negativity, it is easy to forget that he has been in office just two months. Granted, the charisma of his campaign has not seamlessly translated to governing. But he has almost all of his term still to go.

The transition to very public life has not been easy for Patrick. He has seemed genuinely surprised at the reaction to many of his decisions, surprised by issues that have resonated with the public, and surprised, perhaps, that the acclaim he received in the last phase of the campaign did not follow him into the State House.

People complain about the media scrutiny that accompanies public life, but that's only part of the adjustment Patrick has been grappling with since becoming governor. Normal people don't travel with drivers, or security details, or get death threats. Learning to deal with the Legislature -- and the media -- is only part of the learning curve.

Patrick's election was largely a triumph of personality and demeanor. Voters responded to his even temperament, his ideas to reengage the public in civic life, and his expansive vision of government. Voters, to the surprise of many pundits, were hungry to be told they mattered, and they selected a person, as opposed to a set of proposals. But they haven't seen much of that person since Inauguration Day.

Patrick's staff, under fire for weeks, will be tested more severely now. With a governor who has a whole lot going on, they will have to rise to the occasion. Nothing about the work of state government is about to slow down. Nothing about the budget negotiation is going to be any easier. The people around him are going to have to fight some battles for him -- and they have shown little aptitude for that to this point.

But this is also an opportunity for the governor. It is an opportunity to focus on the things he really wants to accomplish and stop micromanaging everything else. It is a chance to connect, in a more personal way, with lawmakers and the public. This is obviously a defining moment, and if Patrick can provide public leadership while dealing with his family issue, he could emerge in a stronger position. It's a campaign, of sorts.

It was clear in the wake of the Ameriquest call that Patrick had yet to learn that one is governor all the time. That is true in a far more profound way now. Being a governor and a husband at a critical time for both roles doesn't figure to be easy, but he doesn't have a choice. It will take every ounce of the skill and discipline that propelled him from obscurity to center stage in the first place.

Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at