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Margaret Wente

In sickness and in health … Add to ...

I was always vain about my wrists. They were the only part of me that was delicate and slim. Now, after a bad fall and surgery, they're lumpy and deformed. The surgeon had to cut me open to put some metal plates inside. The scars remind me of the Bride of Frankenstein.

But for every downside, there's an upside. "You'll definitely lose weight," said a girlfriend when she saw me with my broken wrists strapped into a pair of splints. She wasn't meaning to be insulting. She was envious. My male friends, not surprisingly, had a slightly different first reaction. "You can get voice-recognition software!" they said.

After I went home from the hospital, I couldn't do much for myself. I was as helpless as a two-year-old. My wrists were too weak to lift a glass, so I had to drink through a straw. I needed somebody to feed me, brush my teeth and pull up my pants. This somebody was obviously my husband.

"This will be a bonding experience," I told myself. "We will learn patience, caring and resolve." I had to admit that my husband and I were unpromising material. He is not exactly the nurturing type. Nor am I especially patient or resolved. I hate dependency on anyone. Nonetheless, I was hopeful that this temporary setback would improve our characters. I am very big on character improvement.

The experiment did not start well. I am an early riser, and my husband likes to sleep in. I need my coffee right away. He hardly ever makes the coffee. And when he does, he never grinds the beans enough.

"Get up," I told him at the crack of dawn. "I need you to give me my pills and make the coffee." In response, he tenderly rolled over and went back to sleep. We repeated this routine six or eight times, until, screaming like a banshee, I hounded him to his feet. He did not act nurturing. He acted surly. He made the coffee - sort of - and went right back to bed. But then I realized I had no way to get at it. I had to get him up again so that he could pour it from the pot into a cup and find a straw.

By that time, I wanted a divorce. No doubt the feeling was mutual.

I've always been touched by stories of faithful spouses who become caregivers to their husbands or wives, tending them through years of incapacity. I honestly don't know how they do it. Being the caregivee, I now know, is no picnic either. The potential for festering resentment on both sides is enormous. No matter which side you're on, it's hard to avoid feeling either aggrieved or guilty - and sometimes both at once. Dependency doesn't necessarily nourish love. It's just as likely to destroy it.

The dirty dishes were piling up and our place looked like a wreck, but I vowed to bite my tongue. My husband was doing all the shopping, driving me back and forth to the hospital, running to fetch my drugs. On top of that, he was keeping me supplied with straws and Chardonnay. Who could ask for more than that? "I will not complain about the mess. I will not complain about the mess," I repeated to myself.

But then I did. I couldn't help it. Needless to say, he wasn't all that grateful for the feedback. Deliberately (or so I suspected), he piled the dirty dishes higher. Luckily, my girlfriends came along to save our marriage. They invariably arrived with heaping platters of delicious food, and they were always delighted to clean up. "You poor thing," they'd say to me. "I can't imagine how you cope. On the other hand, you'll definitely lose weight."

My husband did get loads of praise, though not from me. My girlfriends praised his caregiving. His poker buddies regarded him with awe - especially when he told them that he had to give me sponge baths and wash my hair. They were deeply sobered by the thought that they too might one day be called upon to give their own wives sponge baths - or vice versa.

The good thing about our situation was that we knew it wouldn't last forever. Gradually, my wrists got stronger and I grew more independent. My husband got me some voice-recognition software, and it's really great (except when it erupts into spontaneous free verse). One day, he suggested that I was well enough to wash my own hair. I felt like throwing the shampoo at him. But it turned out he was right. I had to admit I was less helpless than I thought.

Whenever I go to the hospital for therapy, it's impossible to feel sorry for myself. Some people in the clinic have lost their fingers. Some have lost half their hands. Not all of them have other people to fetch and carry for them. My therapist presses and rotates my wrists and shows me how to do the exercises for myself. If I do them faithfully, my wrists will be almost as good as new.

"Do you think your husband would like to help you with your exercises?" she asked. I doubted it. The work is tedious. It takes close attention and a lot of patience - not his strong suit. But to my surprise, he said he'd like to try.

He turned out to be a natural. I guess I won't divorce him after all.

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