Right now I’m sitting in a hospital waiting room. Or, to be exact, I’m sitting in the hallway outside of the waiting room, at a workstation specifically designed for people like me. People who are waiting in a hospital.
I am waiting for Joe. At this moment, he is gowned and unconscious, undergoing a surgery called a discectomy, where they cut a teeny tiny hole in his lower back and shave away the bulging disc that’s been infringing on his sciatic nerve since Father’s Day.
This bulging disc has likely been in progress for years—decades, even. Years of poor posture and carrying toddlers and stacking wood has contributed to the slow pop of an unhappy disc. And finally, a heavy deadlift at Crossfit was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.
About an hour ago I watched while Joe undressed and put on his pale blue hospital gown. I watched him kick off the new brown shoes I made him buy during a recent trip to the outlets, so I could get a pair of orange suede heels half off.
As he shoved his clothes into a white plastic bag, I thought about how earlier this week he’d cleaned out his closet, discarding old flannels he’d had since college, worn-out sneakers and socks with holes. He held up a pair of cordovan dress shoes he’d bought during our very first shopping trip together nineteen years ago and said with a smile, “Remember these?”
Dressed in light blue scrubs, the surgeon popped into the room just as Joe settled into the hospital bed. The two of them started to go over the procedure, to talk about how Joe would not breathe on his own during the two-hour surgery. I focused my gaze on the toe of his brown shoe sticking out of the shiny bag.
And I thought; this is marriage. One day you’re shopping with a cute guy you just met for shoes to wear to his cousin’s wedding, and before you know it you’re convincing that same guy the brown leather shoes look great as you slip your foot into a pair for yourself. And then—just weeks after that—those new brown shoes he reluctantly bought for himself will sit, discarded, in a room down the hall while someone else breathes for him.
I write a lot about raising our five kids and autism and victories on Thanksgiving and lime juicers and blah blah blah-dey blah. But the truth is, some days this marriage is so hard. It is so hard I can barely breathe. No one—and I do mean no one—makes me as angry, as frustrated, as enraged, as this man does.
The biggest argument we’ve ever had—and believe me, we’ve had some doozies—was over Oreos. Yes, you read that right: the biggest fight I’ve ever had with my husband was over a chocolate wafer cookie. (To be fair, they were double-stuffed, and I think that ups the ante a bit.)
We’d been married less than a year, and I had to go to a dinner for work. It was incredibly boring, and I spent most of the long evening nodding my head and looking forward to going home, climbing into my pajamas, and eating a few cookies before bed.
I walked into our apartment just in time to see Joe holding the empty blue cellophane bag—plastic cookie divider cast aside on the floor— and shaking the last of the chocolate crumbs into his mouth.
I was outraged. How selfish! How greedy and thoughtless and disgusting. Before long, the argument took on a life of its own, launching itself from a Nabisco product to everything that was wrong with us as a couple. You never think about anyone but yourself! You overreact to everything!
We didn’t speak for days.
In the middle of huge arguments like The Great Oreo Fight, I often have the sensation I am teetering on the edge of a large abyss, that Joe and I are separated by the deepest chasm. Married, yes. But also so very alone.
I know divorce. I’ve personally experienced three divorces, not one of which has been my own. I am not afraid of divorce. But somehow, thus far, Joe and I have always managed to cross the gulf that separates us. To buy a new bag of Oreos and move on.
This is marriage. It is standing on the edge of the abyss and saying, I choose to stay. Today, I will stay.
As Joe’s leg pain worsened all summer and two cortisone shots did nothing to help the inflammation, to relieve the pressure on his aggravated nerve, it became clear that surgery was the next step.
Once he explained the recovery to me—no lifting anything heavier than a gallon of milk for six weeks, no driving for two, no twisting or bending—I developed a plan for him. He would go to his parents for at least a week, where he could rest and recuperate without a 55-pound four-year old launching at him like a cannonball. When he came home I would drive him back and forth to work.
But Joe didn’t want this. He didn’t want to go to his parents for that long and he didn’t want me driving him around and in general he didn’t want me to be the boss of him. It was infuriating.
I confided in Phoebe when we met to talk about Jack’s progress with fire drills, figuring she would take my side. She didn’t.
Instead she said, “I hear fear in your voice. So why do you go straight to anger? Sit with the fear a moment. Let yourself feel it.”
And sitting on her light brown couch with a giant Elmo peering over my shoulder, I did. I let myself feel my fear.
For the first time since June, I talked about how scared I was to see Joe’s health decline, to see him wait ten minutes before getting out of the car. I wept describing how he struggled to toss the football with the boys and twirl Rose in the air.
How terrifying it is to see the strongest man I know falter.
Sitting here in my tiny workstation outside of the waiting room, I am feeling my fear again, and I notice I have a pit in my stomach – another leg to the emotional spider. With Joe in an operating room somewhere down the hall, I realize there is yet another dimension.
I am afraid this is my fault.
I mean, I was the one who pushed him into Crossfit, who nagged him to get in shape and exercise. And if I can’t control his recovery—if one of the kids jumps on him or he forgets and lifts a chair, then that will be my fault too.
This is marriage.
A few years ago I got up in the middle of the night for some water. I walked towards the door as Joe came out of the bathroom, and when we passed each other sleepily he reached out his arms and hugged me for a long moment.
For days afterwards I lived with that moment in my heart and my mind. I marveled that this person could love me so instinctively, so thoroughly, to reach out half awake and embrace me without even thinking about it.
It is this memory I cling to like a life preserver when the storms of marital rage and frustration sweep over me, when the scenes in the barbershop become epic or he walks in ten minutes late from work for the third day in a row.
This is the Joe I am thinking of now.
Shifting a little in my hard plastic chair, I go online and look up Webster-Merriam’s definition of marriage. It uses weird words like state of being united and recognized by law and intimate union.
Yes, it’s a union and yes, it is contractual, but it’s so much more.
It is sitting in a hospital fifteen years later and realizing it wasn’t about the cookies after all. I went straight to anger in order to avoid the really scary thoughts; you don’t love me enough and I have made a mistake and this marriage will never work. To avoid my fear.
It is finding grace again and again in the small gestures; buying shoes and eating Oreos and spontaneously embracing in the dark hours of the night.
It is complicated and raw and tender and long and giddy and miserable and scary and exhausting and exhilarating and broken and yet whole and I know this is a lot of adjectives but they’re all true.
It is waiting, waiting, waiting for the surgeon in the blue scrubs to tap me on the shoulder and tell me it all went fine, that within a few hours my husband will slip on his new brown shoes and walk out of the door—sore from surgery, groggy from anesthesia, but free of the live wire that has electrified his leg for the past five months.
That he is breathing on his own so I don’t have to do it alone.
This is marriage.