A few weeks ago, my husband had shoulder surgery. He’s only been really ill a few times in our marriage, so he’s not used to me taking care of him. I’m not used to it, either, but it’s part of the bargain we made years ago before God and family when we were practically children (well, at least I was). Yet he seemed surprised that I would help him cut up his meat or slip on his socks.
The day after surgery he told a friend I was a saint. Drugs talking, surely, since days later I lost my sainthood, as expected.
My few days as a makeshift caregiver have me thinking about how we care for each other in all sorts of circumstances and why we wait until someone needs us to do kind things. On ordinary days, I forget the small gesture that shows my husband he is important to me, but it’s what I hope for from him. On too many days I think: Maybe this will be the day he will bring me flowers or leave me a love note, when in fact, his just walking in the door and kissing me hello should be enough.
In the beginning of marriage, it’s all we can do not to be kind, to show unexpected love as we work at a life together. I didn’t quite understand the lifelong part when I was young, that it would include days when we don’t like each other, when our last thought is to do something kind – or that in sickness, it’s all we think to do.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The News & Observer
Love creates such tangled hearts.
I’m a daily grocery shopper, which is inefficient, but it’s I what do. On day three of my husband’s recovery, we ventured out to the store. I made him stay in the car because he is rarely patient enough to follow me as I search for things I don’t need.
On the way out, I recognized an elderly couple. The wife shuffles, often unaware of her surroundings, yet her husband takes her down each aisle as if she will choose Folgers over Eight O’clock, decaf or regular. On this day, they crossed the parking lot, his back facing the store as he pulled her along.
Suddenly, the woman’s ill-fitting jeans fell to the ground, baring her tiny wrinkled bottom to the world. Another shopper and I struggled to save her dignity, but assuming I had the situation at hand, the other shopper shrugged and walked away, though I was sore prepared.
The woman wore no belt, so her husband and I held her jeans as we moved her gingerly into the store, seating her on one of the motorized handicapped carts. Naively, I thought she might stay.
“She has Alzheimer’s,” her husband said, as if I didn’t know. I offered to shop for them while he waited, but he asked instead for a rope to tie the loops of her jeans together so he could pull her along. A clerk found one, and together we threaded the rope through the loops, she batting at my hands as I tied the loop into a knot.
“She’s doing pretty good,” her husband said.
“And how are you doing?” I asked, almost in tears.
“The best I can.”
Through the door I saw my husband pacing in the parking lot, and as I left the couple, I imagined the man at my age and wondered how their love story had evolved into this – her sitting in a handicapped cart with mittens on the wrong hands, her jeans stained with her own excrement, unwilling to accept help from anyone but him.
At home, my husband and I made a pact that we would never allow ourselves to reach this point.
Later, restless in sleep, I wondered what kind but difficult things the man might be doing for his wife in the middle of that sad night. I was certain that once upon a time, she had nursed him, too.
My husband recovered, and we escaped to our routines. At night I make supper, he comes home, kisses me hello. After supper, I watch him sweep the kitchen floor – his favorite thing to do when the evening ends – an unspoken truth between us that the sound of the broom against the floor is simple, yet kind enough.
Susan Byrum Rountree is the author of “Nags Headers” and “In Mother Words.” A version of this column first appeared on writemuch.blogspot.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.