By Kristen M. Ploetz
Thirteen years ago, I passed the bar exam and got married.
Needless to say, I was not quite paying close attention when we planned our wedding. I was spent. Four long years of law school at night followed by the bar exam eroded my capacity to make decisions, especially those with multiple choice possibilities. Plus, after living together for nearly all of our eight years together, marriage felt like a mere formality. I’ve always leaned toward practicality more than passion, and our wedding was no different.
Still, we indulged in some creative control. My bridesmaids would wear crimson and carry candles instead of flowers. Letterpress for the invitations, seafood instead of steak. Otherwise, I just didn’t have it in me—time or desire—to let the planning of those eight hours consume my life.
A few weeks before our wedding, we met with the officiant to discuss vows and readings. I knew that I didn’t want to hear “I now pronounce you man and wife” (feminist!), nor did I want any religious anything (atheist!). But beyond that, and the fact that I would not be changing my last name, we were pretty much traditionalists—and pragmatists. Just give us the bare minimum required to make our bond legitimate in the eyes of whomever it matters for taxes and ratify our mutual trust to make life and death (and life after death) decisions for each other. And then let’s party.
So when we got to the part about selecting vows, we skimmed over the book of options. We took the steadfast road already traveled by millions of others.
for richer or poorer,
in good times and in bad,
in sickness and in health.
I know these are not hollow words. They encapsulate a deeper covenant and lifelong promise. In my post-bar exam state, I was also thinking contract: irrevocable, iron clad, unambiguous. Not getting out of this. Permanent.
When it came to “sickness”, I wasn’t envisioning a runny nose or a case of food poisoning. No, I went full throttle fatalist, as I’m wont to do.
Cancer? Yes. I love this man deeply. I will be there for him no matter what.
Alzheimer’s? Bring it. I am not going anywhere because he is the one, even if one day he doesn’t know who I am.
Paralysis? Disfigurement? I’m ready. My heart beats for only this person. I will endure any life-altering (or ending) illness that may befall him. I will not leave.
In sickness. Of course. Of course.
I might have been exhausted and the vows unoriginal, but I was clear about the solemnity of the undertaking. I meant it then. I still mean it now, thirteen years later.
A lot of the usual married life stuff has happened since we exchanged those vows. We’ve supported each other’s sometimes meandering career goals. We bought a house, had a daughter, and got a dog. Check, check, check. He lost some grandparents. I lost the ruby earrings he gave me. We’ve compromised and sacrificed for the greater good of our extended families. We’ve bitten our tongues and let it all hang out. We’ve carved out lives that are both intertwined and independent.
Yes, seemingly for richer—in all senses of the word.
In good times? Undoubtedly, mostly, thankfully, yes.
I have not had to test the extreme outer limits of taking him “in sickness”. Less than a handful of colds and some bad chicken got the better of him maybe once or twice. It’s been fairly convenient for me when the hardest thing was sleeping in another room or assuming some of his usual household chores during those rare, brief times. I do not for even one second take this for granted.
And yet in the shadow of this complacency and relative ease, I have a confession to make: I know I am not holding up my end of the “in sickness” bargain as graciously as I once proposed to do.
Another confession: I don’t like what that says about me.
This summer, more than a decade after taking those vows, my husband got sick. He had to stay in bed for the better part of three days while we were on vacation away from home. Nothing major, thank goodness.
He came down with pneumonia (that I gave him, no less) halfway through our long-awaited vacation to Vermont. About a month before our trip, patient zero in our house was our daughter, and I was soon to follow having taken all the direct coughing hits while caring for her. Once she and I recovered, there was a reprieve in our house. Somehow he had escaped.
Or so we thought.
He wasn’t gravely ill by any measure, but he was sidelined with a high fever and increasingly worse cough for the last half of our trip. It meant I would be the sole parent available to entertain and take care of our daughter. At almost eight years old, she’s relatively easy to be with, but it still meant I wouldn’t be getting the down time I so desperately needed.
Suffice it to say, I did not relish my new roles as nurse and camp counselor. We were nestled deep in the Green Mountains where any kind of decently sized grocery store or urgent care facility was at least twenty minutes away and closed by 9:00PM. The irony was not lost on me that one of the very reasons we love Vermont made it difficult to tend to my sick husband. Our everyday lives of relative convenience and access to necessities at almost any hour suddenly took on a new shimmer. I coped by eating the souvenir chocolate all by myself on the first night of his fever, and muttering swears under my breath when I had to be the one to take our daughter swimming.
The spectrum of my emotions during that time, in increasing order of duration: surprise, pity (for him), empathy, irritation, annoyance, fatigue, anger, pity (for me), selfishness, and resentment. All because of an inconvenient spell of fever and phlegm.
With those stark hues of my mental state and mood fixed on my palette, I painted a picture of what it all said about me. It wasn’t pretty. These were not flattering colors. I was being petty and petulant. I now understand it wasn’t him I was holding a grudge against. It was myself.
As I meander across the landscape of my marriage, the autonomous, resilient woman I originally held myself out to be seems nothing more than a mirage. A duality of expectations crystallized only after I’d been married for a while: be an independent woman and accept the inherent merging and reliance that marriage requires, or at least aimlessly drifts toward. Where are these two sides supposed to adjoin, exactly? Their edges often feel jagged and irreconcilable. These factions meet at a wide, amorphous line, it seems. Or perhaps it is an impassable chasm. The once sovereign muse lurks somewhere out on the horizon, seemingly untouchable.
As our marriage winds its way through a second decade, the divide only seems to widen along these dichotomies of independence and cohesion. Somehow I keep my maiden name despite being married, but I couldn’t suck it up and load the dishwasher like he normally does. I can argue a case before a surly judge but have a silent tantrum when I need to track down ginger ale in the mountains. I used to earn my own paycheck, a solid chunk of self-sufficiency and security, at least until I traded it in for other things like my daughter and my sanity. I second guess myself about how much I rely on him. I fear this is all learned helplessness on my part.
The message I heard while growing up was to think and do for myself, no men need apply. Then I fell in love and didn’t want to be alone without him. I have too swiftly moved from a solitary sphere of confidence and self-reliance to a shared mutual space of “I’ll do the grocery shopping if you mow the lawn.” My confidence plummeted during some of the longer hours of our truncated vacation fun. Maybe I should have lived on my own for a while to find out what I am really made of (or not). Maybe it was all an unattainable ideal for me, that fierce siren standing in the distance. I too rapidly reached the thought, “am I married just to make my life easier?”
Nobody tells you any of this before you walk down the aisle and make those promises. Nobody counsels you how to work around the gritty, granular details—the grunt work—of living an entire life with someone else, much less how to undertake it all with an air of grace and unconditional love. You sit in the blind and observe how others before you did it (if you’re lucky), but you don’t truly know until you’re knee deep in it for yourself. Only then do you realize their silence was because they probably don’t know either, even all those years later.
Soon after the cough took up residence in his chest, a torrent of hypotheticals and hyperbole flooded my mind, but especially this:
Am I really going to be equipped should worse ever find a toehold in our otherwise ordinary existence? Can I really do this?
Turns out, even a happy, ordinary marriage is not immune to moments of self-doubt. Somehow, I’ve let an egalitarian ethos obscure my ability to be a sensitive and caring wife toward my sick husband. I feel ashamed looking at that cranky version of myself. She was not whom I predicted seeing some ten or twenty years ago. I am hopeful her presence is temporary.
Even though I’m no longer practicing law, the contract doctrine of novation comes to mind: the substitution of an old agreement for a new one. It is apt for marriage too.
At the outset of a marriage, the wind is strong in your sails, a deep breath drawn to blow you both gently toward some distant golden anniversary. You each grow older and the weather of living softens sharp edges and contours latent features hidden beneath. You yield to the new forms taking shape within you and right beside you, however subtle the changes may be.
Time passes and you watch movies and read books about spouses falling into tragic, irreversible illnesses. You hear about a friend enduring a spouse’s grave condition. While your spouse sits next to you on your well worn couch, you convince yourself you could manage as well as the healthy heroine. You remember the adage about rising to the occasion and believe you have a similar fortitude. You resist the other mindset, the pessimistic one. It’s the only way, really, to come through on your end of the deal until it all happens for real which, eventually, most likely, it will.
This is what you set out to do when the candles were lit and the rings were exchanged. Only now, you realize that every day requires its own set of marital vows, the ones between the two new people waking up side by side each morning. So each day, you make a fresh promise: in sickness. It sounds the same, but it’s different than the first time. You better comprehend the terms of the agreement. You’ve read the fine print. You know what’s at stake. This time, there is more love in the bargain.
Kristen M. Ploetz is a writer and former attorney living in Massachusetts with her husband and daughter. Her writing has appeared online and in print, and she blogs at www.littlelodestar.com