Travis and I got married in early May, and we proceeded almost immediately to the “sickness” portion of “in sickness and in health.” He’s been struggling with crushing headaches for nearly seven weeks now, and after pushing through medical indifference, office staff cluelessness, and rounds of tests and CT scans, things have improved dramatically. I won’t get into the medical details, other than to say that wrapped up in this mess was a procedure to address a badly deviated septum. He had that surgery today.
Marriage, like the natural world, teaches me about myself. The truths aren’t always palatable or flattering, but they’re always worth learning. I knew before Travis got sick that I wasn’t much of a caretaker – at least for sick people. I tend to want to bulldoze someone toward recovery, because illness scares the crap out of me, and in any event, it was derailing our carefully laid plans for the summer. This was the guy who paddles with me on lakes and rivers, who slept outside with me in December, who hiked eleven miles on a broken toe. It freaked me out to see him in constant discomfort, lacking the will to do much but exist.
For his part, he’s not much for being doted on, so it took us awhile to figure out how our connection was going to work in this new situation. Once I surrendered and quit trying to force the train back on the track, I was better able to just sit with him, and make space for what was happening. We lay in the dark for hours one weekend watching clips of “Britain’s Got Talent,” discussing the performers and my surprising affection for the empathetically undeveloped Simon Cowell. We watched endless reruns of MASH. We just existed together. Sitting still and doing nothing, advancing no balls, producing nothing, is incredibly hard for me. I did it anyway.
Whenever my inner toddler would break out during this long, miserable period and threaten to wail (which was more often than I would wish), I would try to remember the night he fed me and made me pine needle tea in the Rocky Mountains, after I’d foolishly mistaken altitude sickness for my inner weenie. Or the time he carried my pack for me on a trail after I’d failed to eat enough carbs and got sick to my stomach. Caretaking isn’t a one-way street.
My biggest challenge came today, when the nurse brought me back to see him just as he was coming out of anesthesia. Visiting loved ones after surgery has always been a fraught experience for me. Both of my parents have had major surgery, and I was equally useless to both of them as they emerged from the experience. I watched, helplessly, as my older sisters approached them without fear and touched them, talked to them, arranged blankets, processed their weird post-anesthetic ramblings, and generally cared for them. I had more trouble, felt more awkward. I can be competent and cool in a crisis. But situations like these, where comfort with vulnerability is required, are not my strongest suit. There is something so fragile in the way someone looks, lying in a hospital bed with IV’s inserted and hooked up to beeping machinery, that makes me simultaneously afraid I will break them or catch the condition myself. The only person I’ve not experienced this with is my son; caring for him is so hard-wired it breezes right by my rational brain before getting caught in those gears.
He was mumbling when I got there, and the nurse was feeding him ice chips. I said hi, and though his eyes were still closed, he recognized my voice immediately and reached for me with his one free hand. He was surprisingly coherent for someone just out of general anesthesia. His nose and eyes were burning, he whispered, which wasn’t surprising considering someone had just taken a scalpel to his nasal passages. And so I found myself wiping his closed eyes with a cool wet towel, holding a straw to his lips for his first few sips of fluid, and later – in the advanced nursing curriculum – feeding him tiny slivers of jello. Eventually I even progressed to helping him change his bandages. Once I leaped over the wall, the going was easy.
It took awhile, but when he cracked open his eyes just a little, he looked to find me first. “You’re so beautiful,” he said. Later on, when I asked him the first thing he remembered on waking up, he said it was me taking his hand. A good thing to wake up to, he said.
Long stretches of my life had evaporated before I found a man moved to comment like that on the beauty of finding me at his bedside.
I’ve realized what an intimate act it is to hold someone’s hand when they are emerging from such an experience. It wasn’t as hard for me this time, maybe because we’ve become comfortable sitting together in both vulnerability and strength. Whatever it was, I grew a little today – and in the last few weeks too. That, for me, is one of the best things about marriage. It’s all part of the ambiguous adventure.