Right now, I’m sitting in a hospital waiting room. No, this isn’t a repeat post from two weeks ago; I am actually sitting in the same plastic chair, at the same white workstation, for the second time in thirteen days.
Once again, I am waiting for Joe. Once again, he is gowned and unconscious for another round of a surgery called a discectomy.
The electrical current running the length of his leg returned with a vengeance after the first operation to remove some disc and bone from his spine. Actually, it never really left in the first place. Upon waking from the anesthesia, Joe swung his feet over the side of the hospital bed, and murmured, “It’s still here. The pain down my leg is still here,” as his face fell.
I hope, dear readers, you aren’t tired of reading about marriage. I didn’t plan to write about it again; I told my side of the Great Oreo Fight and then Joe told his side and we were all good. I was planning to write about Jack’s new fascination with pickles and toilets, but this week, as we awaited a date for Joe’s second surgery, it fell apart once again.
It all fell apart over a half-empty yogurt container.
This happened Wednesday morning. Joe had an appointment at 7:30 for a second opinion about the discectomy, and he had asked me to join him.
At about 7:01, he stood propped against the counter while I cleared away empty plates and sticky waffles and yogurt containers. I was grumbling and annoyed because Rose talked me into buying this new kind of yogurt, except no one likes them. But of course they need to try them a hundred million times before they remember, oh! I don’t like these! these are gross! Hence, the half-eaten cups of yogurt.
Quietly, Joe murmured, “Those are recyclable, you know.” And when I snapped that we were running late, that they were full of yogurt, he took it a step further.
“You could just rinse them out.”
I defiantly dumped the pink and white containers in the garbage, turned on my heel, and marched out—fuming. Although I left the room silently, I was screaming this in my head:
“How dare you criticize me I just made scrambled eggs and got five kids fed and ready for school while you uselessly hobbled around the house and I’ve been on my own for two weeks now cleaning up after you and picking your dental floss off the floor when you dropped it and you are the most ungrateful person I have ever met.”
I cannot lie. Just writing this—a day later—ignites a spark of anger in my stomach.
I don’t know what, if anything, this was about. For whatever reason, Joe went straight to recycling and I went straight to anger and it all went straight to you-know-what in a hand basket. And I didn’t get a chance to meet with Phoebe so I have no pearls of wisdom to offer you.
There’s no question we’re both feeling a little fragile lately, but for different reasons. Suddenly Joe’s become dependent, reliant on me for the simplest task: driving and doing his laundry and retrieving q-tips off the high shelf in the linen closet. More than once I’ve leapt forward, scolding him for bending to hug one of the kids or to carry a bag of take-out in from the car.
And each time he’s answered with an indignant, “I’ve got it,” or an irritated, “I’m fine.”
He’s forced to use something called a Gopher Stick—a reaching tool I found at Walgreens. I stood in the brightly lit store, looking over the shoulder of a stooped man in his nineties and scanned the shelf full of walkers and canes and some kind of toilet seat with arms, until I found the long metal pole with black rubber pinchers at the end.
And me? Well, I’m feeling, you know, a little frustrated. I’m frustrated because he won’t ask me for help even though I’m right here, and I’m annoyed that he hasn’t acknowledged the way my schedule has shifted to accommodate his needs. How yes, I know it’s been really hard on him, but it’s been really [insert plaintive, whiny voice here] hard on me, too, but how little I’ve complained. (Out loud, anyway.)
And I’m scared.
These are the things I’m scared of, in no particular order: I’m scared this surgery won’t work and all of this will be for nothing. I am scared I will have to pick dental floss off the floor for the rest of my life. I’m terrified he will come out of the hospital and play with one of the kids and re-herniate his disc all over again. I’m scared that this is what growing old together will be like, sniping and griping at one another through surgeries and recoveries and pill boxes and osteoporosis.
We were chilly, careful with each other through the doctor’s appointment and afterwards during breakfast at the Purple Finch Café. Politely, we passed cream and tasted each other’s pancakes, but the abyss between us was already opening, widening.
How to make amends when he has a side to the story but I’m so obviously right?
At dinner that night, we told the kids that Daddy was going to need surgery again, and was in fact scheduled for the very next day. They listened somberly as we—in tones that suggested it was time to rally—talked about the recovery, how things would change and zig-zag for the following afternoon: no karate for Jack, Joey would get a ride to cub scouts, our sitter would meet them all at the bus stop.
Jack, as you can imagine, did not rally with the idea of no karate, because autism rarely rallies. Instead, he launched a two-hour siege that lasted until bedtime, and started again at precisely 6:02 this morning. He begged, he pleaded, he cried. He screamed he would walk home if he had to, but he was GOING TO KARATE.
As he zipped up his grey jacket and cinched his hood firmly around his face, I leaned over to kiss him good-bye, to repeat the plan that he was coming home on the bus in the afternoon.
“But,” he said softly, dried tears on his cheeks. “My Dad. He won’t be here.”
And I whispered that no, Daddy would not be here.
So here I sit—for the second time in thirteen days—thinking about the exhausting detritus of the past forty-eight hours; the chill between Joe and I, Jack’s tirade over karate, how I will never, ever buy Yoplait again. In fact, I may give up on yogurt altogether.
Every now and again, I’m forced to drag the ugly parts of myself out into the light and examine them. I have to take a good, long look at my reluctance to forgive and my tendency to reach for anger. At my need for reassurance and acknowledgment, how deep down in my soul, there are days I wonder if I have the strength for all I have taken on: five children, autism, plural discectomies.
This is painful and uncomfortable for me.
But whenever I do this, whenever I make myself take a closer look at why I am sad or mad or lonely or frustrated, I am able to find grace. Today, in this hospital, I think I have found it again.
Grace for myself and grace for my tired, overwrought husband. Grace for my tantruming Jack. Grace, even, in a half-empty container of strawberry yogurt.
Now, in this white plastic chair, I am able to see it was never about skipping karate or recycling plastic or who should carry the Thai food in from the car.
It’s about a boy who is missing his father.
It’s about a husband trying to maintain some semblance of normalcy—of control—in the midst of tremendous pain and uncertainty.
It’s about my own fear.
I wrote a lot of adjectives describing my marriage a few weeks ago—I used words like broken and whole and exhilarating and exhausting. But I only described what marriage is, instead of what marriage needs.
This time I will try to do that. Marriage needs compassion and gratitude and acknowledgment and laughter and fear and recycling and tenderness and strength and forgiveness and again, I know this is a lot of adjectives but they’re all true.
Every once in a while, it needs a Gopher Stick.
But maybe what marriage needs most of all is grace, even after the zing of the sciatic nerve has been quieted.