21 years ago today Joanne and I got married. She was 19 and I was 21. And as young as we were I don't think we were really able to comprehend what our vows really meant. When we said "for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health" there is no way we could have known what that vow, that promise made before God, really meant. I think when I said it I figured it meant that if Joanne caught a cold I would bring her soup. But I know now that it meant, and means, so much more then that now.
If you are reading this you know the whole story. But maybe you don't know about this:
It was late in the ICU. Visitors were supposed to get kicked out at 11 but I rarely left that early. The nurses, John or Erin mostly, were ok with me staying a little later because I stayed out of the way, sat in a chair in the dark corner of Joanne's room and wrote this blog and thought about what all this meant. Sometimes I would get writers block or get tired of sitting so I would go for a little stroll around the ICU floor. There was always a hum to the place, even so late at night, as nearly everyone was hooked up to some sort of humming, pulsating, beeping machine that was keeping them alive in some form or fashion. But it was void of human sounds. Just machines.
So one night, about a week into this mess, as I was walking I thought to myself, "What's changed?" At this point we had no way of knowing how Joanne would pull through. She was still in a coma, her inter-cranial pressure numbers were still high, and she was missing half her skull. Not a rosy picture. Doctors told us so many different and conflicting things. One would tell us that within a few weeks Joanne would be walking out of the ICU under her own power. Others would say that she might never come out of her coma and that if she did, she would be vegatative at best. And everything in between.
So on this night, the little voice in the back of my head kept asking, "What's changed?" And I remember thinking very clearly: everything and nothing at all. Having a massive stroke is a watershed event after which nothing can return to the way it was before. But in a couple of very important ways, nothing had changed. Joanne and I were still married, we still had two beautiful kids together, we still shared a life, she was still my favorite person in the world and the one I wanted to be with more than any other. Oh yeah, and we had this vow, taken 19 years before, that meant that when this thing happened, this very event, this stroke, that we were going to stick together. Nothing changed that.
I think I almost literally slapped my hand to my forhead as it dawned on me, "This is what 'in sickness and in health really means.'"
And it has become my mantra. I think it to myself every day, most often when I am putting Joanne's socks on her after a shower. You see, to do this I sit on the tile floor between the toilet and the shower--I sort of get wedged in there, I am a good sized guy pushing 225 so this is no easy task. And I pull on her socks and put on her night AFO (ankle-foot orthotic) and I think, "in sickness and in health." and when I get up with her in the night I think, "in sickness and in health." And through other various challenges too numerous to mention, those words, that vow, comes to mind. And it calms me and gives me perspective. It reminds me that I'm not doing Joanne any fovors by caring for her, I'm just keeping a promise. If I was doing her favors, I think I would easily tire of that and could go bitter very fast.
Maybe that doesn't make sense but to me it is the equivalent of the serenity prayer that addicts are taught to pray to steady them when things get tough. For me it is the same thing. When I remind myself and repeat my mantra it keeps everything in balance. Because there is no "but" or "if" in that vow we took now 21 years ago. It is purely declarative. I will stick with you, I will be by your side no matter how sick you get, no matter how much you lose. And not just for today or this week but for the rest of our lives.
Now to be clear, repeating this mantra doesn't make things easier. It doesn't cheer me up when things are difficult. All it does is remind me of a promise I made. And then I have to go inside myself and ask this question: will I keep my promise. Becasue doing it and saying it are two very different things. So I have to look to my own character, to my own sense of self, to answer the question. I made a promise but am I a guy who keeps promises.
So far I am and with God's mercy I intend to be going forward until the end of this crazy ride. So we will pass the 21 year mark knowing one thing for sure; where ever this journey takes us, we're sticking together. We have a ritual almost every night when I tuck Jo into bed. We lock pinkings and one of us will say, 'We made it through another day." And the pinkies? That's our way of reminding each other that we are going to stick together. A pinkie promise. Not sure how that got started but I know it did before Joanne could even talk. Non-verbally we figured out how to affirm our vow.
It's ironic to me that I am writing this post at 1 a.m. which is about the time I would be wrapping up to go home when Joanne was in ICU. I never stay up this late any more but for some reason, tonight, here I am taking this trip down memory lane and this look deep inside me, remembering that everything has changed and nothing has changed at all.