Wednesday, May 01, 2013

FIDELITY & MORTAL ILLNESS

How would you feel about your mate having an affair if you were stricken with a mortal illness and  uninterested in having sexual relations?





The usual first response for people who love their mates is that their sexual drive would die, too.  But what if your loved one was not hooked up to tubes and drains?  What if they were functioning, yet with death hovering?

In graduate school, I did an internship in a tutorial center.  My boss was a kind and knowledgeable man who loved his wife and family dearly.  She'd had two heart attacks and the prognosis was not good.  You would have never suspected it to look at her.  She was robust and cheery, the affection between them palpable.

At that time, I had no experience with grief of the death-inspired sort, but one of the tutors in our group was dying of leukemia. Everyday he appeared paler and weaker, but he still attended classes and reported for work.  "You can tell his family has made the separation," Dr. Jackson, my boss, said one day after meeting the tutor's family. Responding to my expression, he added, "It's not that they don't love him, but when you know someone is going to die, you go through grief while they're still walking and talking.  You protect yourself from the finality."

"Does that mean you become more feverish about your own life, about living, and everything that that means?" I asked.

"I hope so," he said, "but you also pull back a little.  Your love is there, but a boundary is there, too." That's when he told me about his wife, and how a hardening within him had taken place.

Over a decade later, I hooked up with a cheap bus tour of Italy. The tour was packed with Europeans. . . Germans, Irish, British.  The only Americans were a Sikh family from Silicon valley.  There was also an Iraqi couple.

But it was the Irish couple who fascinated me.  They were in their forties, possibly early fifties. Attractive in a dull, settled way.  The wife was a bit tight-lipped.  Pissed, actually.  The husband was in a constant low-key frenzy trying to please his wife.

After a short time it became obvious that there was something wrong with her.  I decided she was mortally ill, and that this vacation was supposed to be a last hurrah for them.  Not that she ever got sick in front of us.  It's just that his behavior became more frantic at the same time that she glared at all the art and beauty around us.  It looked as if she were saying angry goodbyes to everything, as if she hated the way life just went on ready to skip right by her.

I was wallowing in my European jaunt, one of the happiest periods of my life.  One night in Rome, the three of us had dinner together.  She ordered a lavish meal and didn't touch a bite of it, just jousted with me all night, looking like she wanted to scratch my eyes out.  And not because of her husband (with whom I had no attraction whatsoever), but because I was so damn cheerful.

Death had a grip on her and she had a death grip on her husband, ready to drag him into the grave with her and not because she loved him.  Because she hated that it wasn't him dying instead of her.

Those were my thoughts, then.  Now, even though she was clearly punishing him, perhaps she wasn't dying.  I don't understand the kind of negative vehemence she had, nor do I understand her husband remaining under its power.  Only if she had a death sentence would it make sense for him to stand by her side.  If he'd chosen to seek affection elsewhere, could you blame him?

Why would I think of this now?  Just finished Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, which is a treacherous tale of a sick marriage.   The wife in it reminded me of the Irish Wife in Italy and her forlorn husband.  With the passage of time and lessons learned from my own marriage (a happy one, but not without bumps), and my friends' marriages and divorces, I've reconsidered the death sentence I'd given her at the time.  Maybe they were just miserably bound for life.