I stumbled across a marriage blog via someone’s commenters the other day. The couple appeared to be relatively well-off financially, young and not together all that long. The post that caught my attention was about the myth of sacrifice in relationships, the idea that couples should be willing to give up or go along for no other reason than it benefiting the other person. They believed that value for the “sacrificing” partner should always be a consideration and the idea that every give and take should have a value to value thing going on.
In theory I agree. If one can’t find an upside for both partners the majority of the time, a relationship isn’t likely to last (although, my parents’ marriage flies in the face of this having lasted fifty+ years wherein neither of them ever really saw value in the give/take they engaged in). But like most theories, this value added relationship thing doesn’t fly when the clear glass window of reality rears. There are times when a partner is called on to “suck it up, buttercup” while the other is largely unaffected or the clear beneficiary.
I used the example of my care-taking years when Will was sick. Ms. ModernWife replied that I made a good point but that she felt that if Will had been a good husband then my “sacrifice” in terms of the toll those years took on me physically and emotionally and in terms of putting my life on hold were his due. I owed him that. At least that’s the way I read her reply. And to me, that negates the value-value thing and makes it a “score-keeping” thing which the site felt was “bad”.
I made a commitment to Will and I honored it despite the personal cost to me (and to Dee – my parenting suffered and she bore the effects). I supposed one could argue that I gained from the situation in terms of gaining perspective and inner strength and all that touchy-feel good about myself psycho-babble. But I would counter with the fact that if I hadn’t possessed much of this before, I’d never have done the things I did. I wouldn’t have had the tools. I’ll admit to having been changed somewhat but not to the idea that it made me a better (or worse) person. It built on what was already there.
But Ms. ModWife has clearly never been put to much of a test in terms of having to do something for someone that didn’t benefit her at all. That, in my mind, is the true test of character. Value for value is fine, but it’s not real life.
The other thing was a post Alicia wrote about a friend who lost her brother to a 12 year battle with cancer. It was a case where the outcome was never in doubt. Doctors never claimed to be able to cure the man, just lengthen his life span. This kind of thing usually exacts a huge toll on the patient and his family/friends. Her friend had expressed exasperation with her sister-in-law (the dying man’s wife) from time to time saying that she was never around. Never took an active role.
It reminded me of an incident that took place the summer before Will died. He was in the nursing home still. He was completely blind. Bed-ridden for the most part. Couldn’t speak. His movements were spastic and involuntary. I really haven’t any idea of what, if anything, he could hear or comprehend. Just going from the autopsy results I got the next spring, I would say if he heard people at all – he wasn’t able to make sense of what was being said.
I was taking classes all that summer, getting ready to start my thesis paper. In the morning I still took Dee to daycare for half a day because she needed to stick to a schedule she knew and she needed the interaction. It was also one of those instances where I chose Will over Dee in terms of my time. During the school year when I taught, Will often lost out to Dee. Her needs trumped. But that summer was going to be his last, I knew that, and so I opted to pawn Dee off and spend as much time as I could with him.
I would drop Dee off about 7:30 and drive across town and out to the bedroom community where his nursing home was located.* I would feed Will breakfast and get him set up in a nice spot for the morning, go home to work on school work or get whatever yard/house work I needed to out of the way and then drive the 30 minutes back to the home to feed him lunch. I did this every day except for the days I was in class.
There was a pastor from a local church who came into the home to visit people and run little programs. I later found out that he’d baptized Will at the insistence of my MIL despite the fact that Will was adamant about his lack of interest in such a thing before he became ill.
“Will’s accepted Jesus as his personal Savior, ” is what MIL told the hospice chaplain months later.
“When the hell did he do that?” was my reply before I assured the chaplain that Will had no real interest in organized religion and that anyway his last religious act had been to learn the Hail Mary and insist on wearing a medal of the Holy Mother with Infant.** I got quite a bit of satisfaction out the pained look her son’s interest in Catholicism gave MIL.
Anyway, the pastor was there at lunch, and I saw him often before the day he walked over and asked if I was Will’s physical therapist.
“I see you here all the time with him,” he said. “You are so good with him. Are you his therapist?”
“His physical therapist.”
I think it’s because he saw me feeding Will, taking my time and coaxing. Will really only ate more than a mouthful for me by then. No one else could really get him to eat at all. And I was always touching him. Smoothing the front of his shirt or running my hands through his hair. Patting him. Which begs the question of what kind of a therapist was this pastor used to observing?
“I’m his wife,” I said.
You really should have seen the double-take this man did. And I know why. He was a “friend” of Will’s mother, and she made it her mission to tell anyone asked, or didn’t, about her poor dying son’s appallingly neglectful wife.
“She hardly visits and when she does it’s only for a few minutes. She just lives her life like he’s dead already. She can hardly wait for him to be gone.”
Well, maybe not those exact words but I know they were awfully close. Later she would be convinced that I was dating again almost as soon as he was dead. In her eyes, I was not worthy of sympathy in the same way she was. And maybe I wasn’t.
I had a full time job because the bills had to be paid and we (Dee and I) needed health insurance and couldn’t get it through Medicaid as Will did. I had to keep a roof over our heads, food in our bellies and clothes on our back. I had a child to raise – by myself really from day one. And as I mentioned earlier, I often had to choose between visiting Will and what was best for Dee. Sometimes my little buttercup had to suck it up and go to the nursing home even when she was tired from having been to daycare/preschool all day long or would have rather gone to the swimming pool or on a playdate, but as it became clear to me that it was traumatizing her to go to the nursing home to see this husk of a person who didn’t know her, couldn’t interact with her and she couldn’t really remember any other way – her needs became priority. I couldn’t ruin her for his sake and he wouldn’t have wanted me to. I took comfort knowing that he would have been proud of me for taking care of the basics and putting Dee’s needs first because he would have done the same.
This friend’s sister-in-law is a stranger whose story I don’t know. But I do know what it is like to be the wife of a man who is essentially walking dead. It changes your outlook. It changes the way you interact. It makes you think more about the future beyond than the immediate future with. Did I shut down? No. I wish that was possible. But I compartmentalized and walled people off, becoming very picky about who I shared my hurt with. I certainly didn’t share it with my MIL and actually became more steely and indifferent in her presence and around her family and friends because I knew they were judging me and I felt I didn’t owe them a peep show of my soul for that reason because it was unlikely to change their views.
You can’t walk around for years on end as an open wound. You won’t survive long if you do. And a person can only put life on hold for so long before the force of it simply sweeps you away like the dams of rocks and sticks my siblings and I used to make in the gutters were after it rained. Life is a force that will not be denied. You can swim along or be swamped and carried, there really is not another option.
*At one point I was hitting all four corners of Des Moines in my daily commutes. We spent more awake time in the car than we did in our own home.
**Will was quite frightened in those last semi-cognitive weeks he had between July and late August of 2003. He asked me to teach him to pray. I taught him the Hail Mary because that’s the first prayer, aside from Grace at supper, that I learned as a little girl. I got him a rosary and the medal, and because his insomnia – its a symptom – was so bad he would be up half the night, so he took to praying the rosary with Mother Angelica on EWTN. He really believed that if he learned the rosary and prayed hard enough and often enough he would get better. He really did. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that prayers really aren’t for that. Prayers are for sharing confidences, and struggle and saying “thank you” . They won’t save you from what is supposed to be.