A friend of mine was telling me about how her weekend had been ruined by her husband's bout with the flu. In short, he was an immense infant about it. "He was even moaning," she recounted, rolling her eyes. "I wanted to say, 'Take it like a man! It's not like you had open-heart surgery. And throw away those dirty tissues while you're at it!' "
I laughed, but I would have laughed harder if I hadn't known my wife had made similar comments the last time I was sick. I can't say what attracted her to me in the first place, but I'm pretty sure it wasn't my ability to lie facedown in bed in a dirty bathrobe, pleading pitifully for another glass of ice water. And, oh, yes, moaning.
Even in a great marriage, through the years you've reached a delicate balance between obligation and reward. You have to pay the bills, but she'll come and rub your shoulders while you're writing checks. She'll do most of the cooking, but you're the one who will clean up after the dog or root around under the kitchen sink to fix a leak. It's a finely tuned ecosystem, and, if you're lucky in love, it hums right along until it seems eternal. It's shocking how quickly a partner's illness can turn your Garden of Eden into a Pit of Despair. Yes, you're genuinely concerned, for a few hours. Then it hits you that, in addition to the hand-holding and water-fetching, you need to continue to execute all your usual duties and cover all of hers, not to mention stay up all night listening to the hacking and wheezing.
When I encountered the story that begins on Page 10 about Dave Kendall, whose wife, Diana, discovered she had an almost totally debilitating disease eight years ago, I reacted the same way most of you will: a stunned moment of awe at Dave's devotion and sacrifice, followed by some very uncomfortable questions. If I were in Dave's position, would I be able to react so selflessly, so honorably? Could I give up almost every single perk of marriage in return for an ever-increasing list of responsibilities? And the trickiest part: If I even attempted it, could I do so without falling into a swamp of bitterness and self-pity?
It doesn't take long to figure out that those are questions -- like "How would I react in combat?" -- that are unanswerable in the abstract. The answers must emerge, if, God forbid, you ever find yourself in that situation, in the day-after-day-after-day reality in which you learn things about yourself that only those under fire can know.
Tom Shroder can be reached at email@example.com.