I roll over in bed, the light telling me that it is morning, my glasses well out of reach, the cat, hungry, swatting my nose with just a hint of claw, not yet fully annoyed with me. My wife coughs, once, twice, her full-blown case of the flu now in its third day. “You’re beautiful,” I tell her. And she is. And it coaxes a smile even through the misery.
We’re both exhausted after five late night hours in Urgent Care, my wife one among a full house of masked people, all coughing and sneezing and feverish. Next to us, behind a white curtain, a nurse and mother have moved on from gentle encouragement to threatening a young boy with a shot if he purposefully (“I can tell you did that on purpose!”) throws up his medicine again. The doctor, who had been running from patient to patient in the midst of a triage room bursting at the seams from a flu epidemic, finally found us, me standing at the door, arms folded, trying to look imposing and annoyed at the wait. The damn guy was cheerful. Kind. Compassionate. Thorough. Helpful. I sat down like the exhausted lump that I was and let the awe of his upbeatness wash over me.
The nurse gives my wife something for her pain. And now we must wait longer to make sure she doesn’t have a reaction to it. Prescriptions find their way to us, one, two, three, four. Thank God there is a pharmacy down the street that is still open at 1 AM. We know this because the doctor told us about it. He alone may be the tipping point for justifying human cloning.
The pharmacy seems as busy as the Urgent Care, not from the flu epidemic, but from an epidemic of people needing to buy heart-shaped balloons and bouquets of flowers and Hallmark cards and chocolate. Valentine’s Day is an hour old and they are just catching up. “Is your insurance up to date?” asks the pharmacist. I pull out my insurance card and look at it. I can’t remember the last time I had to show it at my regular pharmacy. “I have no idea,” I say. Honestly, I don’t. Cheerfully she scans it and tells me to come back in five minutes. I shop the nearby vitamin counter. Who on earth would willingly take a daily dose of Krill oil? Isn’t that whale food? Apparently it is better for my heart than fish oil, but they are also selling fish oil. Just in case.
I wander back over to the window and use the counter to prop up my body, which technically might already be asleep. I must be dreaming since the store is filled with young children who wander the very cheap toy aisle while a parent grabs a balloon that says: “LOVE.” The pharmacist is interrupted by a request for the bathroom to be unlocked. The pharmacist moves to the microphone and announces this request over the loudspeaker. It is 1:15AM. And she is still smiling. My name is called, I search my wallet for my debit card, which I swipe just as I remember that we have a different debit card for our health savings account. I look up and say that I have used the wrong card. She smiles and says no problem and I empty my wallet on the counter looking for the correct card. The young woman who needed the bathroom returns to report that it is still locked. As I find the correct card the loudspeaker once again requests that someone unlock the bathroom. Transaction complete, the pharmacist goes over the proper way to take all of the medication and wishes me a good night and hopes that my wife feels better. I walk past the long line of red mylar balloons at the regular check out counter and head home.
The rest of the night is a mixture of all that a full-on case of the flu brings. Hint: it may involve continuous trips to the bathroom. During a lull I wish my wife a happy Valentine’s Day, trying to be sweet. She turns and looks at me. Her expression is inscrutable. “I love you,” I say.
And I do.
I can’t remember the last time my wife was sick, let alone this sick. On the balance of our marriage, the last few years I have so tipped the scales from illness that they may have very well fallen over. I do not know what goes through the mind of a spouse when the other in the relationship suffers as long as I have from bouts of depression and anxiety. Honestly, it is a question I have never been brave enough to ask. And if it were only just depression and anxiety. I cannot count the number of afternoons she has come home after a full day of teaching science to middle-schoolers and all that accompanies education in this day and age, only to find dinner not made, a sink full of dirty dishes, a dinning room table piled high with unfolded clothes and me asleep in the recliner, exhausted by an auto-immune disease that pits my body against itself.
There is not enough gratitude in the world to right the balance, to make up for the days, the moods, the disappointments. There was a day, many years ago now, when we looked into each other’s eyes, holding hands, and laughed while we promised to love one another in sickness and in health for as long as we both shall live. Such vows, when we make them, we so often have no idea on their depth; how they will be etched into our soul; the full-on cost of a few simple words truthfully held in trust and faith. I think we are learning.
I love you, Piper. Always.