Thursday, August 16, 2007

A Pain in the Back

I was sitting at the computer the day my comfortable and predictable life changed. I was checking my blog, desperately hoping to find that someone had commented, when my marriage vows from 18 ½ years ago returned to smack me up side the head. I had my back to my husband the day our marriage went from “for better” to “for worse”.

Never one to pour forth his feelings, it was no surprise to me that my husband handled his part of the incident silently. He simply bent down to pick something up from my son’s bedroom floor and collapsed in extreme, agonizing back pain. He couldn’t move. Apparently, he couldn’t speak either. He had been there a decent amount of time before I found him pale and in the fetal position. In concerned shock, my first words were, “Why didn’t you call for me?”

While on the floor writhing in pain, he had decided he didn’t want to worry me and that he didn’t need any wifely assistance. So, he didn’t get any. I left him there. In the rare moment that he found himself in great need of help from me, he couldn’t bring himself to ask me for it. I was hurt. I was ticked off. I took it quite personally. I stormed out of the room. “What kind of team were we?” I silently questioned. “What kind of marriage was this?” I stewed from downstairs as he lay helplessly on the floor above me.

I would like to say that my failure to rise to the occasion, to be the bigger person, and help out my husband in his obviously distressing time of need was a singular event. It wasn’t. And in the upcoming days I proved even more unsuccessful at supporting him the way I should have. Simply put, my husband hurt his back and it was a big pain for me. It was inconvenient, annoying and so unattractive.

Over the course of the next few days, (or was it weeks?) I did wait on my husband. I got off the couch to bring him his medicine and a glass of water even though I had finally sat down for the first time that evening. I shopped for a back support wrap instead of going for a run. I served him numerous bowls of ice cream to make him feel better. I filled a hot water bottle for him right when my book was getting to the good part. I picked up his book about the arctic explorer from the library when I wasn’t going to be anywhere near the library. I bought him a car magazine that had an almost naked hot chick on the cover even though the hot chick made me feel fat and inadequate. Sadly, however, I complained about all of these things frequently. It wasn’t always out loud. But it wasn’t a well kept secret. It was obvious that I was resentful of my husband and his injury and certainly held him responsible for my current, somewhat exacting and nettlesome lot in life.

Not only was I unhappy helping my husband with the physical demands of his injury, I secretly harbored a few psychological grudges as well. I married a strong, capable and competent man. I was not at all attracted to this vulnerable, needy and silent man. I felt a bit cheated and resentful that he was no longer an unwavering, steadfast constant in my life. He was suddenly somewhat unavailable and helpless. Now, there is no doubt that I am often in charge of many aspects of our daily routine and family life. It was quite a different story however, when confronted with the situation of being forced to be in charge, not by choice, by instead, by absolute necessity. Suddenly, being in charge was not satisfying, predictable and convenient. It was uncomfortable, frightening and nerve racking.

When I muttered the words, “for better or for worse” almost two decades ago, my husband and I were both young and healthy and na├»ve. When actually confronted with a “for worse” situation, however, I quickly became whiny, selfish and mostly unsupportive. My main concern with my husband’s back problem was how it affected me and my life. Of course, my behavior was shocking and disappointing. I was not proud of how I had acted. Even so, I became concerned for the future. Is this what I had to look forward to for the next 40 years? Would we take turns nursing each other, becoming more resentful each time, until one of us finally keeled over? I looked to the example of my older friends and family and found that is exactly what they did. They did help their spouses and other relatives through their “for worse” situations. And sometimes they did get frustrated. It was often exhausting, unrewarding work. But there was a huge difference between them and me. They did it selflessly. They did it with love. They did it remembering that their “for worse” situation paled in meaning and intensity and enormity to the collective “for better” situations they’ve experienced together throughout the years. They seemed so much wiser than me.

“What kind of team were we?” I silently questioned. “What kind of marriage was this?” I felt horrible. I knew then that if I placed any more focus on myself it would be to learn how to be truly selfless. The next time my husband needed nursing I would do it remembering all the good that we’ve had. I would nurse him remembering that the “for better” has always outweighed the “for worse”. I would get him his medicine remembering how grateful I am that he is still with me, no matter how vulnerable he is at that particular moment. Of course, there are still times when I insist on being in charge. I often nag him to do his special back exercises. I nag at him to eat right. I nag at him to drive carefully and put on his sunscreen. Because, while I am determined to be a little kinder and more sympathetic the next time my husband is in need, I’m also secretly hoping that many years that go by before we have to find out if I’m actually capable of that.

Check This Out!
Come Back to Afghanistan: A California Teenager’s Story by Said Hyder Akbar and Susan Burton is a great account of modern Afghanistan through the eyes of an American teenager whose father is instrumental in the rebuilding efforts in post Taliban Afghanistan. It’s a great contrast in life experiences that most Americans will never understand...and probably should.


Anonymous said... two sound just like an *old* married couple! :) I still remember the day you exchanged vows, it was a beautiful thing. We've had a few health challenges to work on too. They certainly give us a chance to slow down a bit and strengthen our bond, don't they? Now play nice.

Anonymous said...

Icing is highly effective for back pains. :)