I don’t remember much of my wedding vows, but I do remember taking my husband for richer and for poorer, for better and for worse, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live. On the day we married, when I spoke the vows and promised to love my husband in sickness and in health, I was thinking about sickness in terms of holding a basin for him while he threw up or taking him juice when he had a cold. I was naïve and had no idea what that really meant.
Shortly after we were married, my husband’s grandfather moved into a nursing home after a series of damaging strokes. His grandmother went to visit him three times a day. She wanted to be sure her husband knew it was his “good ol’ gal” who was feeding him every meal. I remember thinking how devoted she was. I couldn’t understand why it mattered to her who fed him. I couldn’t understand why she wanted to be the one to help him use the bathroom and maintain his dignity as much as possible.
I’m sitting in a major metropolitan medical complex. My husband has just undergone a tricky procedure to gather information about his body’s production of a hormone that prevents his blood pressure from responding to medication. We hope that today’s procedure leads to surgery late this summer. It’s a procedure that has a rare possibility of causing a heart attack or a stroke. It didn’t happen, but consent forms are rather sobering.
We’ve faced medical adventures before. My husband has had a couple cardiac catheterizations and I’ve undergone gynecological surgeries. Those other procedures happened during the darker years in our marriage. Love was faded and sometimes invisible during those years. There were times when I wondered how much better my life would be if my husband died. Sad, but true. Layer upon layer of life, interaction, disconnection, and hurt muddied my memory of what I’d promised this man I’d married.
My vows were something I rarely thought about. Medical procedures had a way of cutting through my barriers and reminding me that my life really had been joined with this man’s and that I didn’t want him to die. Even in those years, all those layers of life could be stripped away by health scares to reveal that underneath all the mess, our vows were still there and they were real. I didn’t worry about him dying, but I recognized that I wouldn’t be happy if he did. These moments always woke me up for a time, reminding me that my husband deserved more than he received from me. Even during our dark years, I was reminded of my vows and of what it means to be a wife who cares for her husband. The reality of being “in sickness” reminded me of the big picture, the entirety of my vows.
Other women have shared with me how health scares and medical procedures have a way of cutting through all their issues to the heart of what it means to be married. Why is it so easy to be stubborn? Why do we let life layer itself over the root of what we’ve promised and been promised? Why is it easier to focus on our hurt, our baggage, and our day-to-day tedium and tiredness than to keep our eyes on the big picture? We can do this during sickness. Why is it so hard during a time of health?
Challenges have a way of narrowing our attention to the heart of what matters.
This time for me, it’s different. It’s harder. This time, I come into this medical situation without the same layers hiding anything. I feel raw. This is the cost of vulnerability. It hurts more because it matters more. I came to today’s procedure fully aware of how much I love my husband and how much my self is intertwined with his. Listening to the risks being laid out—heart attack, stroke, death—reminded me that “as long as we both shall live” isn’t just a vague reference to the far distant future it seemed to be on the day I said those words.
My husband is sleeping now. He needs to lie flat, so I fed him his applesauce. I held the juice and placed the straw in his mouth. I held the urinal for him since he couldn’t do it himself. I thought of the years his grandmother cared for his grandfather. As I held the urinal, I understood how much she had loved her husband.
Today, I am reminded that my vows are still real. I said the words, but God wrote them on my heart.