As a young girl, I read everything I could about Florence Nightingale who made nursing seem like a noble profession. I was certain that being a nurse was a high calling. In fact, the three professions women were encouraged toward for years, the helping professions, nursing, social work and teaching, may be high callings, but with low pay, while the three professions men are encouraged toward—finance, law and medicine, come with high pay. In pictures, Nightingale often wore a hat or a scarf, and I tried wearing a scarf on my head as practice. I imagined myself working with soldiers during the Crimean War. I wanted to be a nurse, so I got a job at a nursing home as an eighteen year old. Seven weeks later, I took a job planting tomato seedlings. As it turned out, I preferred seedlings to health care. Every bedpan made me vomit, every bandage gave me the creeps; the antiseptic smell left me with chills, and when I was called on to care for someone, I defaulted to story telling.
Still, I knew that if my beloved needed me, I would rise to the occasion. I pictured myself leaning over a couch, pouring tea and honey. Getting toast and butter. Perhaps with a wet cloth, I’d rub his forehead and then hand him the cloth to bathe whatever other bits needed attention. I’d play music and slice pears. Quiet sunlight would pour into the living room, and my beloved and I would enjoy an intimate kiss while he recovered. In these scenarios, my husband was already semi-recovered and lying on the couch. The real illness part where you can’t move from the bed, well, I preferred not to think about that. I hoped it would be blessedly short.
We were both very healthy when we got married as were all four kids. When I said, “In sickness and in health,” I was thinking health and sure, I’ll be there for you when you get a cold, a flu, maybe even a broken leg. Beyond that, I didn’t think at all. For a long time, we all stayed healthy. Nobody broke any limbs. Nobody came down with any serious illnesses. None of us went to the hospital except to visit friends. We were blessed as a family with a full share of health points.
That is why we were all stunned when my husband fell. He was out walking the dogs when he collapsed. He was taken to the hospital in an ambulance and ended up needing open heart surgery the following week. At first they said it was probably just high blood pressure, he’d be sent home. I was on the tarmac at JFK when I heard he needed surgery. My son came home, my daughter flew in. We stood around at the hospital and stared at each other. My husband had been an avid cyclist when I’d met him and had become more of a walker and hiker. It made no sense that he’d been born with a faulty heart valve. He had surgery on Wednesday, and he came home Monday. He was making staff calls two weeks later and he went back to the office in a little over a month. So he didn’t exactly try my patience. My son was there to help drive him for INR testing. But it shocked the central nervous system of our marriage for us to reverse roles. For me to take on caretaking. He had always been the nurturer. What hadn’t sunk in about long marriage wasn’t just that you might really get sick, need major surgery, have mental illness or long term pain. It’s that your roles might reverse.
I have friends who have taken care of sick and dying parents, spouses and siblings for years. Loved ones with dementia, brain injury, chronic fatigue, aphasia; that caring can go on for decades. My husband’s recovery was brief. It was months before he wanted to cook; he was not supposed to use sharp knives, but finally, he was back. When I was caring for him, I had to remember to do my own life stuff and his too, to remember that he had to focus on his own recovery. Part of the apparatus that keeps us emotionally buoyant is health, so I had to have enough trapeze energy for both of us.
When we said, “In sickness and in health, for richer or poorer,” what we meant was we’ll be together, even if the DNA of our marriage changes, even if the roles flip orthe rules change. We’re still committed to us. There’s you; there’s me and there’s this other entity: Us. Us has its own swirl of energy in the world, its own music. It’s a dance, sometimes you follow, sometimes you lead. Sometimes you’re dancing so slowly, your movement is imperceptible. Other times you’re like flashes of light, like the way stars moved when the galaxies were first formed.