For most people, the marriage vow “in sickness and health” probably conjures thoughts of chicken soup, jack-hammer coughing, or days of yuck-but-you-signed-up-for-it food poisoning. The vow has been around since at least the 16th century’s Book of Common Prayer, and versions of it are implied or expressed in all sorts of cultures and faiths.
But who stands at an altar (or chuppa, or mandap, or justice of the peace) really thinking about what that promise might actually entail? On the happiest day of one’s life, who pictures cancer, numerous surgeries, or a chronic disease of some sort?
I’ll tell you who didn’t. My husband didn’t. Yet in the last seven years Stephen has stood (and sat and slept) beside a wife who has had all three. Briefly: I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis; then I had a double knot in my colon that required a lot of surgery; then I had a double mastectomy. But enough about me.
Let’s talk about him.
He is sleeping in a high-backed chair with a blue vinyl seat in the corner of my hospital room. It’s dawn, and there is just enough light for me to see his silhouette. I have been here for ten days, and he’s slept here every night. He has fetched ice, talked to doctors, brought pajamas, handled the children, gone to his office, helped me roll my IV pole to the bathroom and back. The room brightens, and his silhouette gets filled in. He is sleeping with his eyeglasses on. Ever ready. For some reason, I find this the most loving, concerned, heart-breaking gesture of all.
When we get through with all the surgeries, we still have to deal with my “regular” MS symptoms and — a year later — with breast cancer and then the operation that entails. My son likes to say he’ll tell people any two of my medical issues, but never all three, because he thinks the full story will just sound like a play for sympathy. (I love this about him.)
But for Stephen and for me, the sheer number of doctor visits, medications, suggestions of alternative treatments, instructions, restrictions, and, yes, even emergencies, while challenging to say the least, have offered some unexpected, even cherished, benefits.
I’m not claiming that Stephen and I don’t bristle at times over the regular annoyances in a lucky life: the kitchen cabinets I leave open; the pens he always leaves around. The puppy. Of course those things still occupy us.
But there is nothing like a health problem (or three) to give your life some focus. It’s as if you’re walking down a beach, with tiny pebbles biting the soles of your feet, when suddenly you step on a rusty nail. It’s not that the pebbles disappear. It’ just that they don’t hurt as much anymore.
There’s another benefit, if that’s the word, to sickness, and it’s a kind of psychic health. This is especially true of Multiple Sclerosis and other chronic illnesses, which can make life do an astonishing, acrobatic flip. The bad moments are now not nearly as surprising as the good ones. But the good ones are thereby made great. It may be hard for a healthy person to fathom the sheer ecstasy of being able to sleep on your stomach after months of abdominal surgery, or wade into a swimming pool, or eat a piece of melon.
Illness has a tendency to make children of us all: helpless, needy, bewildered, embarrassed. But out of such childishness grows gratitude for every skill mastered, every muscle (sometimes literally) trained, and every joy that the freedom of strength can bestow.
In addition to gratitude, Stephen and I discovered a sense of kinship with people in similar circumstances. As luck would have it, when our “sickness and health” vow first got put to the test, we were collaborating on an anthology about marriage. Along the way, we found — and included in our book — the uplifting, unexpected anniversary letter Dana Reeve had written to Christopher Reeve after the actor became paralyzed: “This path we are on is unpredictable, mysterious, profoundly challenging, and yes, even fulfilling.”
We found — and included — a passage from the book Blindsided by the journalist Richard Cohen, about coping with his illnesses alongside his wife, Meredith Vieira: “Smiling your way through sickness is a preposterous plan, though it can work wonders from time to time.”
There is a sense of connection, even community, that came from reading about other people’s struggles. It is the sentiment that has made me infinitely more aware of people on the street walking with canes, or struggling to open doors. I often walk with a cane myself now, but I am far more inclined than I used to be to help someone roll a walker up a steeper-than-usual sidewalk curb. Stephen feels the same way. He’s less shy around people with disabilities. He’s more helpful, more conscious.
And finally, there’s the expansive perspective that comes from realizing that a lot of people have it a lot worse than you do. In an 1897 book, a Canadian physician wrote about an engaged British officer who had been terribly wounded fighting in India. The officer wrote to his fiancee: “I have lost an eye, a leg, an arm, and been so badly marred and begrimed besides, that you never could love this poor, maimed soldier.” She replied: “As long as you retain sufficient body to contain the casket of your soul ... I love you all the same.”
In an extraordinary echo, we found a 2013 StoryCorps recording of a couple in their early 20s who had been married only a short time when he, a Marine, nearly died in Afghanistan when his truck was hit by a roadside bomb. The corporal suffered third-degree burns that covered his face and most of his body and eventually led to the amputation of his left arm. His wife was just 21 at the time.
When he asked her what she first thought when he woke from a three-month coma, she answered:” I just knew that you needed me and I was going to be there.” She continued, “The crazy thing is I’m still more self-conscious about what I look like than you are. But I have grown so much over the past five years: I didn’t ever think that I’d be as strong as I am today and most of it is from you. I can’t imagine you not being in my life.”
His answer? “There shouldn’t be anything that could tear us apart besides death itself.”
There’s a vow for that.
Photo courtesy of the author