Photo courtesy of the puzzledgiraffe.com.
When my son was little, I often brought him to the Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport, CT.
The zoo is a mom’s dream: not too big, but enough animals to keep your child occupied for an afternoon. Best of all, it features an old-fashioned carousel where you can rest your weary bones and reach for the brass ring.
As we began circling the zoo one hot summer day, we heard a horrendous howl echoing through the park. It was loud, guttural and relentless, originating from the enclosures where the large cats live. As we got closer, it became louder and more persistent. We’d never heard such a horrible sound before.
“What’s going on?” I asked a zoo worker. “What is that noise?” “It’s a male Siberian tiger,” she said. “His mate is sick, so she’s gone for a few days getting treatment. He’s letting us all know how much he misses her.”
That tiger underscored – quite loudly – the importance and comfort of having your mate by your side. Those of us who’ve been married a long time often joke and gripe about our spouses, overlooking our good fortune in being part of a longterm union.
When my in-laws celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, we presented them with a teak bench with a plaque stating, “Celebrating 50 years of being side by side.” It was fitting because they were always together. When my mother-in-law died in 2004, my father-in-law was like the tiger, but internalized his roar. He never quite recovered from her death.
A lot of people don’t get to grow old together, losing their mates to accidents or disease – never enjoying the fruits of a long marriage. It often takes a health emergency, no matter how minor, to emphasize how lucky we are to have our mates healthy, strong and operating on all cylinders.
I felt a tiny bit like the tiger last weekend when my son pulled into the driveway, handed me his cellphone and said, “Get in the car. We’ve got to go get him. And why didn’t you answer your phone? We’ve been trying to call you for 20 minutes.”
I’d been gardening, or my version of it, finally putting plants into a front bed. Everyone was out, and truth be told, I really didn’t know what to do with myself. I treated myself and bought one of those fancy wands for the hose, but it leaks terribly so my socks and sneakers were soaked. The last thing I needed was a wet phone, so I left it in the house.
My son handed me his phone and the Curmudgeon was on the other end. Four games into a doubles tennis match at a nearby club, he ruptured his Achille’s tendon. He was surprisingly calm about it, but something in me felt like crying. I felt terrible that my mate was wounded.
It’s not the end of the world. It’s inconvenient and a nuisance, requiring surgery and his left leg to be in a cast for about three months. He will heal. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a minor glitch. But something has been off since the phone call. My mate is injured, so I’m off my game too.
In the animal kingdom, an injury means vulnerability and it’s not all that different in our world. Besides the pain and inconvenience, losing the use of one leg makes you have to depend on others for simple things like getting a glass of milk or carrying your briefcase. This isn’t easy for anyone, least of all someone as independent as the Curmudgeon.
I can’t joke about him or his curmudgeonly ways because he’s injured and has every right to be grumpy and demanding. I won’t kick a guy when he’s down, even if he’s the star of my show. I will have to search for new material, however difficult this may be, during his convalescence.
Well, most of the time. As he hobbled into the bedroom on his metal crutches this morning, I asked if he was trying to look pathetic. “Yes,” he said. He is also using his condition as a platform to show how much he usually does around here, implying the rest of us are slugs.
I’ve come to believe that one of the greatest measures of a marriage is how people behave when their spouse is sick or injured. The “sickness and health” line is part of most people’s wedding vows, yet many people fail miserably in this department, viewing their spouse’s illness as an inconvenience or burden.
You can tell a lot about a person’s character by the way they treat their spouse (as well as relatives and friends) when they’re ill or on the injured reserved list. My mother set an extremely high example, caring for my father with love and grace during his battle with heart failure. When I pointed out that Dad was extremely demanding with his calls of “Gerry!,” my mom noted “all men are.”
It wasn’t until my Dad was ill that I realized how much he depended on and needed my mom. I always viewed him as the strong, independent type, but his illness showed me a side of their marriage that they kept largely hidden from view. Dad really needed my mom, and she stepped up. After he died, she confided that he was quite compromised physically for years, but didn’t want any of us to know how seriously ill he was.
Mom said she’s not surprised the Curmudgeon is barking orders because most men are demanding when they’re sick or hurt. And I can’t argue. The Curmudgeon is having no trouble ordering us around, but it’s OK. It’s the least we can do for him. He takes very good care of us, so it’s our turn to indulge him acting like a dictator. We wouldn’t have it any other way.
I’m giving him a free pass to complain as much as he wants because of the sickness and health clause in the marriage contract. And while I initially vowed not to write about him during his recovery, I’m rethinking it. Some things are just too good to keep to myself.