Marriage is old-fashioned. You've heard this. Just the thought of it is too obdurate for some, too get-this-thing-off-me. For others, of course, the oldest of institutional and spiritual partnerships (is this even true? i'm not sure.) offers remarkable support and companionship. And yet for others still, it's considered an achievement. We all see things differently. But isn't fidelity more the curiosity? Marriage, in some ways, just makes it harder to be with someone else if you ever find yourself wanting to be with someone else. Yet is fidelity even natural (i.e. biological)? After all, lots of people have said that none of our primate relatives are monogamous (though this is not actually true).
I follow the FB page of a celebrity couple who has been on the social radar for years. She was a lifestyle guru (à la Martha Stewart) and he was her business manager. They owned restaurants, hosted television shows (or she did, anyway), even launched various product lines. A commanding and handsome pair, their union was the picture of an ideal marriage and business partnership. During the last decade, however, the wife had been inhabited by and diagnosed with Alzheimer's, and her husband has since adopted the role of her primary caregiver. Navigating this new terrain with as much grace as any of us could hope to muster, the two have co-authored a poignant memoir recounting their initial descent into the disease, but as her health continues to decline, their shared FB page has slowly evolved into a space for him to commiserate with other caregivers. This observation should not be construed as a criticism. Alzheimer's caregivers, bastions of support for their identity-dwindled and increasingly incapacitated loved ones, all too often fold up and put away those things that feed their own souls. In other words, Alzheimer's caregivers need support, too.
Recently on this FB page, the husband inferred that he is, in some way, engaging with another woman. He is still his wife's primary caregiver, and, judging from the posts made before and after the confession (if that's what it was), he still very much loves his wife. While a romantic affair was not explicitly stated, its allusion nonetheless generated a scroll's worth of comments that largely spelled support for this turn-of-events. Caregiving is soul-stripping. It's ugly and lonely and totally unrewarding. There is no fuzzy feeling in force-bathing your recalcitrant spouse. But on the other hand, it's what we swear to do, right?
Of all the comments on this post, only one hovered near the gently critical, reminding, amongst other things, that the vows we make are to be upheld through "sickness and health." I found myself an oscillating hoverer, too, trapped like a hummingbird between two different nectars, both equally seductive. After all, he is still caring for her, he's just wanting to satiate some of his own basic needs, too. I thought, of course, of my own parents. More specifically, I thought of my mother. How would she feel, I wonder, if my father chose this? If she could comprehend its significance, what would her reaction be? Quite decisively, I am certain that it would hurt her feelings. It would make her feel sad.
And yet, in this hypothetical and very difficult case, I would still want to understand and support my father.
I imagined other scenarios where spouses are forced into the intensity of the full-time caregiver grind. Take cancer, for example. Chemo, I know, can make you feel sick – in some cases, sicker than cancer itself makes you feel. With chemotherapy treatment, nausea, weakness, irregular bowel movements, and appetite loss are some (among many) symptoms likely to haunt a patient. If those wretched symptoms persisted, it would not be too farfetched to presume that not only could private and basic pursuits become too difficult to perform without assistance, but that a love life might have to be put on hold, as well. That's partly why we nearly instinctively detest illness, no? Not only because it might make us leave, but also because it sometimes possesses the capacity to rob us of our autonomy, our very dignity?
I might be wrong, but I have a feeling that, in a similar position of divulging extramarital affairs, a cancer-caregiving spouse might find less understanding and support than an Alzheimer's-caregiving spouse. Alzheimer's patients tend to linger longer in an incapacitated state, unintentionally placing a burden on – and sometimes instilling unwanted resentment in – his or her caregivers. But perhaps even more indicative in the differential treatment of our hypothetical philanderers is that Alzheimer's patients just aren't completely there. You won't be caught fooling around, because there's not really anyone to catch you. Even if you are caught, the transgression will be quickly forgotten. Short-term memories are the first to evaporate. That furtive, icky, stomach-churning moment when you realize you're about to be caught for something and you're already trying to figure out how to talk your way out of it? None of that here. There's less of a person to offend.
Less of a person. Is that just what we tell ourselves because it can't be contradicted?
In Hinduism, there is a concept called swaraj. Gandhi utilized this notion to rouse millions of Indians into the movement that would ultimately bring about their independence from the British. Swa means self, while raj refers to rule. Embodied, the concept evokes a fervent urgency to empowerment within the sanctity of one's own skin. Autonomy. Agency. Freedom. These are the delicious principles we so often associate with our very being-ness. But like millions of people, the wife in this story, as well as my mother, are losing their swaraj. Along with their swaraj, we assume that they are also losing their swa.
While my mother's palette to express herself slowly loses the vivacity of its hues, she is nevertheless still in possession of a palette. I know that when we visit, she is happy. Her smile tells us this, so does her laughter, and so do her eyes. I know that when my dad leaves her alone for too long (even in the company of another family member), she is unhappy. Her crying and yelling tell us this and again, so do her eyes. Someone is there, but the nuances on which we often rely to finesse communicative exchanges are diminishing. What do we owe them, those we love who leave this world so haltingly, perversely re-babying, unlearning everything they have acquired and losing hold of swaraj? What do we owe them, when we already have given so much, more than we even give ourselves? And what do we owe ourselves, particularly when handling the sticky question of fidelity?
I speak, of course, from the perspective of spousal caregivers. That is to say, not myself.
Somewhere in there, a swa is still present. It may be easier to trick and manipulate (more child-like, they call it, but that's mostly just adding sugar to a very bitter tea), but a swa is there nonetheless. Even in the profound depths of the disease's ugly yet merciful end, they say, it can be found in the eyes.
You write so beautifully. <3
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