We are at home. I’ve just made her some soup and a toasted cheese sandwich. I add some yogurt on the side and a banana, knowing it’s too much food for one sitting, but figuring she can graze. One of the things that the oncologist said comes back to me – “Eat by the clock.”
Most of her hair is gone now – her beautiful hair that I love so. She gets winded going up or down the front stairs. We have a towel down on the bed in case she bleeds during the night. She bruises like a banana. I am continuously struck by her frailty, the suddenly tenuous nature of her continued existence in my life.
Until I see her eyes.
They are bright, full of intelligence and beauty and joy de vivre. They are mischievous and alluring as they always were. Dancing, crinkling with laughter, alert, sharp. With contact lenses or behind glasses. They are the gateway to the rest of her face, leading me to explore but always drawing me back. They are eyes I fell in love with.
Today is our twentieth wedding anniversary.
I didn’t expect to be spending it like this.
Intellectually, I should have. By the time we married, I was old enough to know what aging was like. I saw it in my parents and their friends. One of my parents was dead, the other one suffering from cancer. My grandparents were mostly gone. I had even taken classes on death and dying and ageing. So I had all the intellectual and experiential knowledge I really needed to picture what older life would be like. But the part of my brain that integrates knowledge and experience seems to have failed with this aspect of life, because sitting at home with her, making soup, watching tv, on our 20th wedding anniversary I was mentally floored.
The media deceives us about this. We see older fictional characters having their silver and golden anniversaries, or read about them in books, and they always involve parties and getting together with friends of many years, and retrospectives. They involve dancing and hugging and kissing and long, lingering looks. They involve old wedding photos (often artistically sepia toned) and cake and balloons. They DON’T involve chemotherapy, anti-nausea medication, white blood cell injections. They don’t involve machines that go whir and beep and ping. They never seem to mention Pedialyte and electrolyte balance and Imodium and stains on the sheets. Increased trips to the bathroom are cause for an occasional punchline, and never seem to intrude otherwise or come into the narrative.
They involve the tenderness and love borne of long and satisfying relationships. They do not involve the tenderness and love borne of care and compassion and sadness and the sweetness of stolen moments when everything in her body is working pretty well and the drugs aren’t eating away at her.
Love changes in its expression as we grow older. If we are lucky it changes slowly, giving us plenty of time to assimilate the alterations. If we are not so lucky change comes faster and leaves us puffing and gasping in its wake, trying to catch up.
But though it changes, love remains. Love is loyalty. Love is shared experience. Love is facing the changes with humor and optimism. Love is not saying that everything will be all right, but that everything will be good in the end because she and I will make it good as we go through it. Even the hard times can be cleaned and polished until they shine. Just so with our 20th anniversary – celebrated with soup and toasted cheese and naps instead of cake and balloons and dancing.
She and I have always prided ourselves on walking our own path instead of following the herd. This isn’t any different really. We learn, we assimilate, and what was unusual becomes commonplace. Chemotherapy? We invite friends or play games. Nausea? We stock more soup. Afternoon naps? Hell, isn’t the afternoon nap the REWARD you get for growing older?
It takes some time, but we can adjust to anything. Because I love her and she loves me.
*It’s a coincidence. I wish I could claim to have planned it.