When I vowed to love Rick “in sickness and in health,” I found the words romantic. Like many brides, I had some vague idea that long marriages always end up involving difficult times and illness, but I had only the dimmest understanding of what I was actually promising.
We made it seven years before I learned what it means to have and to hold in sickness. Rick himself had learned earlier through my difficult pregnancies that involved tons of vomit, a c-diff infection (nothing solidifies your marriage vows quite like collecting a stool sample for your spouse), and a weeklong hospital stay for pre-term labor.
My own education, however, did not begin in earnest until 2009 when Rick became deathly ill from what we think turned out to be swine flu. Suddenly, my perfectly healthy husband who had traveled the world without so much as getting diarrhea, a guy who didn’t even wear glasses, was lying in a hospital bed in the critical care unit. There was nothing romantic about it.
For the first time in our relationship, Rick was totally unavailable to me. This man who makes my tea every morning, who is my closest confidant, had no strength for anything beyond fighting for survival. Even seeing his children, let alone holding them, was beyond his capabilities. His sole job was to try to breathe and to interact with doctors. His entire self turned inward, much as mine did when I was in labor with our kids.
Serious illness means that though you and your spouse may be in the same room facing the same external realities, you are having profoundly different experiences. Rick’s thoughts were consumed with terror at not being able to breathe (and with annoyance at the medical staff for repeating the same questions over and over, On a scale of 0-10, ten being the worst pain…). My thoughts ranged from planning childcare for our kids to trying to make sense of the doctors’ words to wondering if Rick was going to die to debating if I had time to go to the bathroom before rounds started. Sitting in the very same room, we were inhabiting different worlds.
After seven days of donning increasingly powerful oxygen masks, Rick was finally intubated (put on a ventilator). They sedated him while they put the tube down his throat and then kept him sedated for weeks so that he would not fight the tube. He spent at least three weeks totally unconscious.
Those weeks turned out to be the very scariest, most vivid of my life. We watched Rick develop pulmonary emboli (blood clots in his lungs) for which he needed a very dangerous “clot buster” drug. During the unimaginably long 24 hours that we watched in suspense after they administered the clot buster, as we waited to see if he was going to bleed out, I remember thinking “I wish my best friend was here to see what I’m going through.” He lay there unconscious, unable to do anything but somehow fight a mysterious and perilous cellular battle.
When they finally lowered Rick’s sedation and he regained consciousness, our experiences continued to diverge. He awoke to find himself immensely weakened, unable to even sit on the side of the bed, in great discomfort with tubes going down his throat, unable to communicate except by writing, and confused by how much time had passed and how my mom and I seemed to suddenly be speaking a new language (medical-ese).
Although surrounded by medical staff and with me spending ten hours a day at his side, his experience was a very solitary one. Only he was trapped inside a desperately ailing body. Only he could not speak. Only he had to lie in that bed day after day, tormented by pain, sleeplessness, and incessant beeping and whirring of machines. While I experienced rich community and shared prayer outside his room, he faced the quietest moment of his spiritual life, alone with his soul and his own thoughts of Jesus.
After two months in the hospital, Rick recovered enough to be discharged and transferred to a rehab facility. There he worked harder than he had ever worked in his life (and that’s saying something), laboring to gain back his strength and master skills as basic as swallowing and walking. I visited each day but only for an hour or two, as his rehab schedule was quite full and I had charge of our children again. My fight had largely concluded, but his continued.
It has taken years–five at this count–to learn about each other’s experiences of The Illness, as we call it. It was weeks before Rick first learned about the dangerous clot buster and the excruciating 24 hours we endured, waiting and watching to see if he would hemorrhage uncontrollably. It was months before I understood the extreme pain he had experienced when they used the AED paddles on him one night when his heart was beating out of control. It was years before Rick heard the full list of all the people who cared for our children during his illness.
Little by little, we filled each other in on our sides of the story. Anecdote by anecdote, we shared our experiences, gradually helping each other understand what happened and what it was like for us.
This is what Rick’s illness taught me about marriage. It taught me to listen. Prior to his illness, I had foolishly rushed past Rick’s experiences, expecting them to more or less match my own. I gave little respect to his distinctiveness from me, naively thinking that our marital unity somehow meant we would experience life the same. With the gradual recounting of our individual stories of The Illness, I learned to listen to my husband, to actually hear him.
It turns out that our experiences are always different, that his perspective rarely matches mine exactly. That is the nature of marriage. Probably of any relationship. And it only took me a life and death experience to understand it.
© Laura Goetsch and goetschblog, 2014.