“Don’t run away,” she said to me. She pierced my heart.
That night, I had stopped in at my wife’s bedroom to see how she was. Quadriplegic and ventilator-dependent, Tina Su Cooper has outlived medical expectations, thank God. We are still very much in love after 28 years of marriage, another blessing. When I am at home and awake, I check on her almost hourly. Often she is asleep, unaware that I had looked in.
That night, she was seemingly engrossed in a romantic movie, I was pleased to note. Commercials began. I asked her how she was doing, gave her a quick update on myself. We restated our love for each other. Commercial break over, the movie restarted, and I headed out of the bedroom.
“Don’t run away,” Tina said.
“I’m not running away. Your movie is back on. I’ve got things to do.”
“Among others, finishing the payroll receipts and checks for the nurses.”
I could have added that I wanted to catch up on some email correspondence and to read more of Stephen King’s On Writing,which I had just begun.
This conversation between the cared-for and the care-giver is like many others of a similar pattern: the request, the refusal, the questioning with its implied accusation, the defense with its underlying guilt. Both sides have merit. Both have legitimate needs or desires. Each cares about the other. Neither wants to be a burden or to feel burdened.
I sat back down beside her. We spent a few more minutes together. When her eyes wandered back to the movie on the TV screen, I knew I could go without disappointing her, and so I did. The next morning, I still felt a bit guilty that she had to ask me to stay longer. I don’t want her to have to ask. She doesn’t want to have to ask, either. That’s just the situation we find ourselves in.
Our brief interaction is a microcosm of a distressing phenomenon: well spouses deserting their disabled mates. I wrote about such a desertion in my memoir, Ting and I. Perhaps there are “two sides to every story.” Perhaps the departing spouse has a defensible position. Leaving certainly seems to violate the wedding promise of staying together “in sickness and in health.”
Where is one running to? Can one be proud of having left? Can one outrun the memory of someone abandoned?
Tina cannot run away … and I will not.