the healing muse

Volume 13, 2013

How to Be a Wife

Cathleen Calbert

      In the surgical waiting room, a large woman fell asleep with a large book laid across her chest. The title, in bold letters, was easy for me and everyone else to read: HOW WE DIE. I thought about telling her that we die by putting big fat books like that on our big fat chests in places such as this, but I didn’t want to tempt any Fates to punish me for behaving badly while my husband underwent disc removal and spinal fusion.
      One by one, surgeons came in to talk to families until my own scarlet-clad man beckoned: all went well, an apparent success, hurrah. Several days later, I got to take home my guy: a pain-crazed cup of soup I poured into the car before he parked himself on our couch for good.
      Epidural steroid injection. Facet joint injection. Spinal cord stimulation. Radiofrequency medial nerve branch ablation. TENS therapy. Hydrocodone. Morphine. Major surgery. FBS: failed back syndrome.
      You think cancer, heart attack, stroke. You don’t think back pain is going to take your partner out of the game. Who hasn’t had a bad back? I can tell you: no one. How do I know? Because everyone in the world has given me advice to give my husband. He should do acupuncture, get a massage, try meditation, take it easy, take a walk, talk to somebody, how about heat, ice, ibuprofen, herbal teas? Has he tried. Get him to try. Tell him he should try. I feel like I’m the conduit of Man to God, but I guess that would make me the Virgin Mary, and I’m certainly not that.
      “Why don’t you tell him?” I’ve said to kith and kin, who have looked aghast. They don’t want to tell him. They want to tell me. Then they want me to fix him. He’s broken: he needs to be fixed! That he remains unwell seems absurd, obstinate, un-American. Although I’ve told them his ailment is way beyond the usual back problems, friends and family find the idea of something being wrong long-term unacceptable.
      It was hard for me too. I shared frustrations with girlfriends over wine. If I were in pain . . . Although I enjoy commiserating over the obdurate nature of husbands, I felt uncomfortable with that If I were . . . I’d what? Become Joan of Arc all of a sudden? I recalled the urinary tract infections I got back when I had rambunctious sex with my beloved. If I contracted a UTI, I didn’t breathe my way through it. I didn’t go to yoga and relax into downward dog. I didn’t do anything until I got my hands on antibiotics.
      In the parlance of such things, I am now a “well spouse.” I was reassured to learn on the Well Spouse website that other ill husbands weren’t gazing up adoringly all day at their caretaking mates. As pain plunged my guy into the land of the unwell, I’d imagined he would behave more like a character in a sentimental novel: with a shawl over his shoulders and a basin of gruel on his lap, he’d utter thoughtful comments about the vagaries of life and express continual appreciation of his devoted wife. It’s hard to hear “bitch” instead of “ministering angel.” This epithet from him was unusual yet not singular.
      “I thank you all the time,” he protested, but that day he’d acknowledged the tea and soup, not the dishes or the trash or the laundry or the bills or the long commute to work and back. We continually confound each other. I’m thinking, How can he not be nice to me, considering all I do for him? Meanwhile, he’s undoubtedly proud of himself for not ripping off my face, then handing it back to me, so I can feel what he feels for once.
      Wordsworth wrote, “We Poets in our youth begin in gladness;/But thereof come in the end despondency and madness.” Perhaps in marriage it’s What starts with sex ends in nursing. In our beginning, we couldn’t stop touching each other. My lips chafed from continual kissing, I tucked myself into a pastel dress and went to his parents’ house for Easter dinner. I wondered then how wanting to bed this boy had led to my putting his mother’s ham into my mouth on a religious holiday. Now it’s taken me here.
      Who needs sex anyway, right? No more UTIs, no danger of STDs. I’m a sealed vessel, a closed fountain. My God, I am the Virgin Mary.
      My sister said, “This isn’t what you signed up for.” Except it is. You have to read the contract.
      A friend, who also reluctantly turned into a well spouse, warned me, “If there’s a wife, everyone will let her do everything.” If there’s a wife, there’s a way.
      “You’re a trooper,” my father-in-law told me. I thought, But am I a lifer?
      A friend said, “You’re a saint.” I think this means, I don’t want to go through what you are. So I don’t think I could. Since you can, you must belong to a different category of person than I do. But I’m not a saint. And I’ve called my ill spouse an asshole.
      My brother suggested that at some point I might need to let him go, that is, commit suicide, the only sure escape from pain like his. I can’t imagine what point that would be. When I come downstairs in the morning, I wake my husband with one question: “Are you alive?”
      He tells me I’ve kept him alive. I believe him. Without me, he’d give up and die. Or would he be all right? I’ve read that those with solicitous spouses report higher levels of pain. I’ve also read that people experience less pain when they lay eyes on their partners. All I know is that my vision of white-jacketed professionals who’d promptly eradicate my guy’s malady derived from TV shows, I’m afraid, not from reality. Fix him. Why can’t you just fix him?
      When my husband first asked his pain management physician to sign off on a form requesting a handicapped-parking sticker, the doc balked a little. In eloquent but incorrectly inflected English, he said that he didn’t want to make him an inVALid. Yes, I thought. An invalid: someone who’s null and void. Since then, his doctor has used more terrible words: incurable, acceptance, disability.
      It’s like watching sandcastles as the tide rises: a flag falls, then one turret; finally, the walls of the moat overflow. First, he can’t finish painting the kitchen. Then he can’t mow the lawn. Then he can’t teach anymore. That’s when I knew how much pain had eroded his life. Painting a room was one thing. Even going out to dinner to please his wife. But he loved to be in the classroom. This, he didn’t want to lose.
      “How much are you supposed to do for your partner?” I asked a friend. “Everything,” he said. “That’s what marriage is. You help each other.” I thought, That sounds ideal, but what does it mean practically? I also thought, As a guy, you do EVERYTHING to help your wife? Hmm. I posted the same question on the Well Spouse message board. The answers I received were supportive but frustratingly Zen. That’s the question you’ll keep asking. The answer will keep evolving.
      I know I keep changing. One day, I don’t ask if he’s eaten (he must take responsibility for his well-being!); the next, I insist he drink cans of liquid protein (I must take responsibility for his well-being!). I fear I’m making a mess of my caretaking: I don’t take charge of his life, but he knows I’ll step in eventually.
      I fear I will become cruel: Baby Jane feeding my housebound husband his own parakeet. I tell myself, Be kind, Be kind, Be kind.
      I fear if I’m not a good well spouse I will be struck down with my own dread disease. After all, marital caretakers are supposed to have shortened lifespans. I think of Christopher Reeve’s super wife, who tended to him until his death, then died of cancer when she should have had thirty years of splendid second-husband sex.
      Of course, our lot might be much worse: my husband could be Christopher Reeve. All my hats go off to those taking care of extremely sick and injured loved ones. I don’t have to change or bathe my guy. Still, when he told me that he’d prefer to be paralyzed, I said I thought people in wheelchairs aren’t pain-free, but I wanted to weep over this tall man standing before me wishing he never could do so again if it meant getting rid of his pain.
      “Don’t be in pain,” I say sometimes. It’s a dark joke between us. “Why don’t you just say no?”
      I tell him he needs a spinectomy.
      When something hurts me, I say, “Don’t send your pain my way!”
      “Is this our story?” I asked him, in tears. “Is this how our story ends?”
      I’ve never known how to be a wife.
      Certainly, I don’t know how to be a wife now that marriage has hit the worse part. I remember hearing about this woman who left her husband, whose diagnosis of Stage IV cancer came early in their marriage. She said something like, It was all about the cancer. I thought, Hey, you married him, honey. Now I think, Who am I to judge? Who knows what I’d do? I don’t want to hear anymore what people would never do. Wait until they get to never.
      In a way, given his dependence, I’ve gotten what I’ve wanted: a man who will stay with me forever. On the other hand, he leaves me daily, drifting away as far as he can from his painful body. I thought about writing a series of Ghost Husband poems, but this sounds rather depressing. The apparition of my husband on the couch:/an Easter Lily wilting on the altar . . .
      I embarrassed him when I, newly in love, swooned over his “Chatterton pale chest” in a poem. A male friend told me I should have balanced this with something about his “Einstein mind,” but now I’m glad I celebrated his body when he felt good within it.
      More recently, “Painless Villanelle” came from conversations in which I’d said to him, sympathetically, “Nothing trumps pain.” In the poem, love does. I believe this can be true in life too, but I also bow down to the power of pain, which washes away words on the page and the pleasures of touch or talk.
      So why write this?
      I think of Linda Loman’s speech about her failing Willy: “Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.” At times, I feel I’m the only one who truly sees my husband’s distress and decline, that he’s only his problem and mine. People give advice and go back to their lives. Yet, we’re not alone, I believe, just one of many wounded duos. “Love is all around,” the Troggs sang. So is a host of problems that can plunge a couple into contemplating the “in sickness” part of those wedding vows.
      I’d proposed to my guy that we write something together: he could describe living with pain, and I could speak to living with his pain. I waxed enthusiastic, and he agreed. But he never began. When I asked why, he told me he couldn’t stand writing about his condition though he’d do it “for me.” I told him I didn’t want him to do it for me. I think we both meant I still love you. Our twentieth wedding anniversary is coming up. We’ll get there, if the Fates allow. That’s as far ahead as I can see.

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