I Learned the Full Meaning of Marriage Only As Mine Was Drawing to a Close
In those early days we were together—the days before Jim was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer—he would sometimes walk in the door at seven after his day's work in San Francisco and suggest that we go out for sushi. Ten minutes later we'd be in the Boxster, zipping over to College Avenue, where we liked to sit at the sushi bar, not at a table, to watch the chefs at work. Or he'd learn about some interesting new place in Oakland—Peruvian, Cajun, Fusion—and make us a reservation. We might drive up the coast for oysters on a Sunday. Or to North Beach for Italian food.
Still in my core a girl from New Hampshire who'd spent 15 years living on a farm at the end of a dead-end road, I never ceased feeling the thrill of our California life. I loved dressing up in my high heels and riding the elevator to his office, or meeting him at a local bar or restaurant. And to me, for a time, all of this—the good life, I called it—seemed like a not-insignificant part of our life together. I was having, in my 50s, a kind of experience I had not known in my 20s, 30s, or 40s.
Once, and once only, on one of those occasions when we'd made a date to meet up after work at the Ferry Building oyster bar, I'd tried playing a game with him. Dressed for the part, I pretended to be a woman he'd never met, alone at the bar, striking up a conversation with a total stranger. With my hand brushing against his arm, I asked him provocative questions about what brought him to this place, and if he had plans for later that night. I rubbed my foot against his leg, as if I were a fast and dangerous woman, like someone out of a James Bond movie.
Jim hated this game. Or rather, he didn't know how to play it. He was incurably old-fashioned, hardwired to be a one-woman man, with that woman being me. The idea of flirting with some stranger at a bar wearing a slinky dress—even if that stranger were his wife—left him deeply uncomfortable.
"Can we stop this now?" he said after a couple of minutes. "Can we just be us?"
He was a man who thrived on commitment, a man who wanted to be married. Married to me.
Before I met Jim, I used to study other people's marriages, but from the outside, with my face pressed against the window of a house I never entered. I supposed that a good marriage was an endlessly extended romance combined with a regular dose of fun. How many people got that?
Only then I did. I took vast pleasure in having this good, kind, witty, smart, handsome, and endlessly playful man (playful, so long as the play didn't involve the game at the oyster bar) who would take me out to dinner and do the driving after. I also liked the part about getting up in the same bed every morning with the same person at my side—a man I loved—and sometimes going out for brunch together on Sunday mornings, setting theNew York Timeson the table next to the fresh squeezed orange juice and the plate of smoked salmon and bagels while we divided up the sections, looking up from mine now and then to share some interesting piece of news, or to tell about some new movie that sounded worth seeing.
For me—the woman I was before I experienced marriage—marriage meant comfort, pleasure, safety, ease. Marriage allowed for the ability to make plans, see into the future and know whom I'd be sharing it with. All that, combined with my usual round of solo adventures, at the end of which he'd be there to pick me up at the airport and take me out for sushi.
Then came the diagnosis, and in all my years of envisioning a relationship, I had never imagined a life like the one we lived now. I had not seen myself sitting in some doctor's waiting room for the fourth time that week, standing in the bathroom injecting Lovenox into my husband's hip or buttocks—wherever I could find a little fat for my needle.
Sometimes now, I was angry. Not at Jim, but at life. I moved through my days with a chip on my shoulder, ready to take on whoever got in the way of getting Jim what he needed.
As much as I hated what had happened to Jim, to both of us, I had never felt closer to him or loved him as I did when he was sick.
Pancreatic cancer is not an illness a person can readily take on alone. There needs to be another person, preferably one like me—pushy, demanding, relentless, all the traits of mine that had been among my least attractive in some other context. Now my ability to push hard—the same thing I'd done to get us through the crowds at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival—was the reason we'd gotten the best surgeon, the better health insurance, the second opinions. I was tenacious as a dog pawing the dirt for a bone.
Sometimes, when Jim was in the hospital, if his nurse that night was late delivering his pain medication, I haunted the nurses' station, checking my watch every 30 seconds to make my point. Jim was the lawyer.ut I was the advocate. "I wouldn't be alive without you, baby," he told me. It was a heavy weight to carry, the knowledge that this might be so.
There was no going back. There was no place on earth I could run away to, that I could stop worrying about Jim.
I no longer viewed what we were doing now as some kind of departure from our real life. The was our real life.
Not all at once, but gradually, over the months, another revelation came to me: None of that other stuff, much as I'd love it, was what made a marriage. Not restaurant dinners or romantic beach vacations. Not walks on the beach or visits to the wine country in the Boxster. Not oysters and martinis or moonlight over the Bay Bridge.
This was marriage. As uncomfortable and inconvenient and devastating as it might be to live as we did now, we inhabited this place together. I could register envy sometimes (daily, in fact), reading the Facebook posts of all those people I knew who were off taking trips and sailing in the bay, or visiting grandchildren. But comparing my life now to anybody else's would accomplish nothing.
And here was the other part. As much as I hated what had happened to Jim, to both of us, I had never felt closer to him or loved him as I did now. I would like to think we would have reaching this place without the discovery of a tumor in his pancreas, but I wonder if we would have.
It came to me one day in one of those doctors' waiting rooms, awaiting the results of some test or other, that I no longer viewed what we were doing now as some kind of departure from our real life. The was our real life. I stopped thinking about the way I spent my days as an interruption of my work. This was my work.
As the months passed—endoscopies, infusions, blood tests, scans, hospitalizations, port flushes, infusions again—I could no longer fantasize as I once had about escape, because I could no more escape Jim's illness that I could escape my own skin. There was no separating Jim's story from mine any more. Whatever it was that lay ahead, Jim and I would go through it together. Lying in bed next to him one night, I could hear the beating of a heart and no longer knew to which of us it belonged.
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