In Sickness
(and In Health)

by Amy Peterson 

"Debi" by Deborah Weinreb, 1987

Iím lying on my side, my back stuck against my husbandís naked back, my sore ear facing down toward the bed. I try to concentrate on his back and press into it with my own so that our heat will reduce the frequency of his spasms. An hour goes by and another, and we sleep fitfully, turning over now and again, repositioning ourselves with a grunt or a moan, snuggling again, and waiting for the throbbing in my ear and the spasm in his back to subside.

As I am drifting off, I think back three days to the Redi Care when his back, still bothering him after five days prone, brought us to the waiting room. And I, sitting there, leaning against his spasmed side, realized that my ear bothered me, indeed, hurt, and badly, and I had ignored it for how long now? because his back had so debilitated

him and I had been so busy, helping him shower and dress in the morning, rushing off to work and back again to tend to food and other needs of a husband and a house and a dog and four ferrets. And then Saturday and cleaning and laundry and slowing down like a music box in need of winding. Then Sunday and not even moving until 10 a.m. and only then because his back hurt so much.

Leaning against his spasmed side at Redi Care, I was thunderstruck with this pain in my head that hurt so much I stood and signed my name on the chart, and waited an hour, maybe more, until the nurse called for my husband and he grunted and wambled down the hall. An eternity later, the nurse called my name and after a few questions and checking my blood pressure and my temperature, the doctor came in, checked my ear and said, yup, an infection, hereís a prescription, good luck. I followed him to the checkout room, paid my co-pay, then looked around . . . for the man with the bad back? I asked the nurse. I followed her to another room where she announced me to the doctor as the manís girlfriend or wife or somebody, and inside, my husband, lying flat on his back, looked up and said, Hi, girlfriend or wife or whoever you are. How long have you been married? the doctor asked, and when we told him three years, he said heíd been married four years and whatever was there to bind him to his wife four years ago was gone now, his marriage as flat as a can of old soda.

And then, as if heíd said nothing of significance, the doctor continued talking to my husband, kidding him for pulling his back doing laundry, for crying out loud, not something manly and macho like fighting a ninety-pound fish while bobbing on choppy seas. No, laundry. Go figure.

He stopped at the end of this badgering, looked up at me and said, We were deciding about x-rays before you came in, to see if something serious has happened to that back of his, a fractured bone, a dislocated disc. . . And before I could voice an opinion, he added that first, though, weíre going to do something about that blood pressure, because itís 170 over 120 and normally when that bottom number gets to 110 we take people to the hospital. Probably temporary, that high number, him fighting the pain in his back and all, but we donít want him stroking out on us now, do we?

No, I mumbled, we sure donít.

As the doctor jotted down a prescription, he rambled on about other options for my partnerís back, something about muscle relaxants, pain killers, physical therapy, and I held my partnerís hand and said, whatever you decide is fine, in the hopes that he would decide quickly and we could go home soon and I could give him a back rub and help him relax. Get that blood pressure down. Because I didnít want him stroking out on me.

I helped my lover up and he wambled to the checkout room, where he opened his wallet and found a wrinkled one-dollar bill, tried to shrug and was trying to free his checkbook from his back pocket when I stepped forward with my wallet and said, Iíve got you covered, honey, why donít you just race yourself out to the car. He smiled and I caught up to him at the car, where he moaned loudly as he bent to get inside. Home was five minutes and seemed an hour away, with prescriptions to fill and the physical therapist to see, and finally, he was flat on the floor, sighing deeply, the TV controls within reach, turned to an old movie which filled up the silence so that he might sleep.

I curled up around him, pulled a blanket on top of us and felt his muscles relaxing, his breathing slowing. As I tried to fall into the rhythm of his breathing, I thought back to an April night about three years ago, when I repeated the words the minister spoke, not thinking about them, just saying them as if I knew what was meant by in bad times and in sickness and in poor times. The poor times I knew, for my groom came with four kids and an ex-wife who made sure she got what she could. But not the bad times, the times like last winter when our gentlest ferret named Chunky got sick and one veterinarian tried and another and another, each giving up, each simply saying, Iím sorry, good luck. We took our pet home and tried all we could to bring back his life, rising at one in the morning, at four, and at six. I had the first shift and when I rose in the night and called Chunkyís name he didnít open his eyes, didnít lift up his head. Sure he was dead, I cried to my partner and he rose so determined and raised Chunkyís head, stuffed food in his face and told him to eat. And some more.

And as our sick ferret ate, I thought to myself, how wonderful my partner in bad times.

And my, how precious life is in sickness.

As my partner rolled over and I pressed my back against his, I became reverent about simple things, like the warmth of bare skin, and standing and bending to get into a car, and being able to leap into the air like our little ferret did when life took hold again. And hearing. And breathing.

In tune again with my sweetieís breathing, I drifted off to sleep, content in believing my gentle touch slowed the pressure in his veins, my warmth slowed the spasms in his back, my love permeated his soft skin. And that he would not stroke out on me.


There is no counting the hours, the days we snuggled and loved and held each othersí miserable selves as his muscles spasmed and my ear throbbed and we moaned and laughed at ourselves in what should have been misery but was instead a sort of vacation, he said, just you and me and our naked little selves just loving each other. And itís too bad about the doctor and his wife, we agreed, and how their love had disappeared, perhaps because they were never sick together, sharing a bed, a futon, a floor, she never helping him get dressed because he couldnít bend down, he never helping her with ear drops, holding her as she wiggled to get away. Yes, loving each other in sickness.

Entwined around each other again, our pain lessening all the time, we are about to drift off again when the phone rings. I say, why donít you spring up and get it, and my husband says, youíre real funny. I answer and itís Tim, so I hand my husband the phone and I hear Tim say, whataya doing, you lazy bum, lying on your back with your woman and what kind of spasms? oh sure. Wish I had thought of that.

To which my husband says, you should try being sick with your spouse sometime. Iíve rather enjoyed being sick here with mine.

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