The words of the traditional marriage vow might just as easily apply in any circumstance in which we join our lives with another's, through marriage, civil union, or any other long-term domestic partnership, through birthing or adopting. The promise is not always explicit, but it's there. I will not abandon you in your time of need. Of course, we often do. We're human and imperfect after all. Of all the people to whom we might owe this obligation, in sickness and in health, there is one we often don't notice, one who we cannot abandon, except through the most radical means; and that is our self.
I am stuck with me, no matter what. I've recently had a disconcertingly up-close-and-personal engagement with my own obligation to myself in sickness.
Five weeks ago I was colonized by bronchitis. All during the week prior I'd been clearing my throat to the point of annoyance, my partner looking at me sideways as I ahem-ahem-ahem-ahemmed, as if I was trying to get everyone's attention to make a very important point. Out for a morning ride with a friend, I felt exhausted and cough-y and finally gave up on the workout and headed home after only two of our usual three loops of the park. I got into bed and there I stayed, for one week, then another and another. And the bed became the couch, because in the end I couldn't get in and out of bed. My coughing so severe, that I fractured ribs on both sides.
I have been very lucky in life. I've never broken a bone. I've never been sick for anything longer than five days and even then, not felled. Even when I had chicken pox a few years ago, an experience that can be gruesome for adults in a way it apparently isn't for children, I slipped through the illness with relative ease. Last year when I sliced open my knee and had stitches, I was unable to do anything but walk for a couple of weeks, but the pain was manageable, the end clearly in sight from the outset.
So these past weeks have been unlike anything I've been through before.
I should start by saying -- I am still very lucky. Bronchitis and fractured ribs are nothing, in the grand scheme of the available perils and yet it is the very mundane-ness, which caught me short. For so little, I felt that I had stepped out of the current of my own life. The world was moving on around me, but I had slowed to a near stop. Week by week, I cancelled everything on my calendar. My most important obligation was to myself, to get well.
Things I couldn't do with bronchitis (or at least not without inciting coughing almost to the point of vomiting):
- Breathe deeply
- Roll over in bed
- Eat dairy, or vinegar, or anything spicy and any number of other foods, which seemed to change by the day
- Drink seltzer, or juice, or alcohol
- Breathe deeply
- Lean over the sink to wash my face or brush my teeth, not to mention spit out the toothpaste with any force...wash my hair
- Open and close the front door of my apartment and my apartment building
- Put on and take off underwear
- Pick up my cat for a dose of purr-therapy
- Take a full jug of homemade iced tea out of the fridge
At some point along the way, I read a Buddhist blog, which encouraged slowing down, savoring, for example, each small sip of a glass of water -- something I was forced into doing by circumstances. And while I agree that stillness and noticing the moments in our lives is a practice worth cultivating, I recognized too, as I hadn't before, how much joy I take in gulping down my water, of devouring life with gusto. Noticing the small pleasures does not always require that they be slow and measured. It is the noticing that matters more than the stillness. But until I can zoom and gorge and guzzle again, I am noticing slow-style.
Almost daily I re-jig my expectations of myself. I've been walking in the morning. At first I walked at quarter speed. I wanted, still want to cry at times, when a fleet woman glides by, legs roped with working muscles. But I'm also enjoying the new pace. I have had time to notice the morning dogs -- the big white dog of uncertain breed, with the turned out front right paw, the panting bulldog, the fresh shaven yorkie. Just yesterday as I caught up to a man walking slowly ahead of me, I smelled his baby before I saw the infant in his arms, that sour-milk-powdery-sleep scent of the first months of life. Running, I would never have caught that whiff, I would have passed by too quickly.
In low moments, when I longed to sink beneath the waters of self-pity (I hope I am beyond that stage now, but nothing is sure), I wondered if I'd ever get better. I wondered who I was. I wanted an explanation of why I was sick, but one that would jibe with who I thought myself to be. In the beginning, I tried to deny the pain. I like to think of myself as having a high tolerance; therefore I shouldn't feel so much pain from coughing. When I learned that I'd fractured several ribs, the lens re-focused. Oh yes, this is painful, but I have a high tolerance, so I'll get through this without depending on the prescribed painkillers. Not so easy. I needed to re-assess. I wanted, in sickness, to hang onto some preconceived notion of strength and resilience with which I identified myself. As if I might lose myself.
But I am right here, where I have always been, by my side, in sickness and in health. I have some weeks to go. I don't know how many. I know that one day I will wake up and go about my day. At first, I won't notice that there is no coughing to notice, no pain to notice. Then I will. Notice. I will think, "I'm myself again." But it won't be true. I'm myself now. That is a thing worth noticing.