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In sickness and in health

ivar

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By CATHY SOSNOWSKY

Tuesday, September 20, 2005 Page A20

Our marriage had survived a number of crises over its 30-year duration: we'd given birth to a baby who lived for only 12 hours; our second birth child died in an accident at 17; and our two adopted children spent their teen years alternately on the streets doing drugs or in jail doing time.

While we sometimes considered ourselves failures as parents, we were often congratulated by friends for the strength of our marriage. We had survived our losses intact, and were still loving.

Then, this spring, my husband went for his long-overdue knee replacement operation. The decision to take this painful step was precipitated in part by our desire to finish walking the Pilgrim's Way to Santiago de Compostela. We had started last summer in France, my husband limping severely after only two hours. We'd manage four hours of walking each day, not enough to finish the 1,500-kilometre route to northwest Spain by the end of August, when he would have to return to his job as high school principal. Next summer we'd finish, we said, and my husband promised to put himself on a surgery waiting list.

Friends and acquaintances all seemed to know someone who'd had one, or even two, knee operations -- and survived. Survived to walk again, but how was their marriage or partnership affected, I wondered. As enthusiastic as I was to volunteer my nursing help (in sickness and in health), I was not prepared for the emotional strain that nursing a wounded husband would entail.

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I had retired from my teaching career a few years before this momentous operation, and was used to the freedom of my own schedule: tennis, yoga, coffee with friends, some grandchild babysitting, some volunteer work, a bit of writing . . . all on my own time.

Once I brought my husband home with his elephant-size, stapled, black and yellow leg, my time was no longer my own.

Switch the ice bags, answer the phone, make coffee for visitors, go to the doctor to renew the morphine prescription, put on his socks, drive him to physiotherapy . . .

Well, none of this was really so onerous, and I knew this busyness would pass as his knee healed, but what was really oppressive was the change in my husband's temperament. The good-natured man I married, who survived all our personal traumas with a spirit of optimism that sustained me, had turned into an impatient grouch. I responded with my own impatience. We found ourselves having yelling fights at least once a day.

I began to see a certain pattern that initiated these outbursts: Just as I was about to do something he had asked me to do (fetch the ice bags, phone to check the physio appointment), he would ask me when I was going to do it. My service wasn't fast enough, it seemed. When I'd burst out with "I'm just doing that!" he'd accuse me of impatience.

"Who's impatient?" was my loud and instant reply.

"You don't understand the pain I'm in!" was his.

No, I didn't, and couldn't. I think it was F. Scott Fitzgerald who said the greatest difference between people in this world is not between people differing in intelligence or race, but between the sick and the well.

And I felt my patient didn't understand my pain, either. While my husband was suffering from his bashed and reconstructed knee, and from his loss of mobility and independence, I was suffering the loss of my personal freedom and the loss of my bed and eating companion. I didn't like ascending the stairs to our lonely queen-size bed every night. I didn't like sitting alone at the table to eat. I began to feel just some of the pain that the widowed or divorced must feel.

And then I realized that although we snapped at each other every day, my nursing time and this time of loneliness were re-teaching me the value of my marriage. Because he was not himself in his pain, I valued in retrospect the man my husband was. I missed his energy, his cooking skills, his keen interest in the latest movie or a visiting concert artist. I missed his daily tales of humour or conflict that he brought home from his work world.

In sickness and in health. Not an easy promise. I thought of our dear friend Darrell who has nursed his wife Andra through 15 years of MS and how her ever-declining health was irreversible. Now Darrell can only have her at home three days a week, and that with home-care assistance. His own back has been damaged from lifting her from wheelchair to car and bed too many times. How does he endure lovingly through his ongoing loss?

And when I was picking up yet another jar of morphine pills today, a small grey man (about 90 years old, I guessed), was asking a young pharmacist for advice in choosing the right size incontinence product for his wife: "She's very frail, you know." He sounded protective and apologetic.

In sickness and in health. I reminded myself that my husband's knee and temperament would heal. I reminded myself that I should be thankful for my own good health. I brought the prescription home and, instead of retiring upstairs to my computer, suggested a game of Scrabble. A game we had played last summer to pass the quiet evenings on the French part of the Pilgrim's Way, a game I hope we will play next year as we walk together across Spain.

Cathy Sosnowsky lives in Vancouver.

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