This is a long post, months in the writing. Bear with me, y'all.
Back in December, Shaun was sick again.
A week and a day after Thanksgiving, I took the girl to school, and came home to my beloved in a literal pool of vomit on the sofa. I pushed a towel under him, handed him the bucket (which he already had beside him), and started making arrangements to miss work. It is not a good time for me to miss work: essentially the day before finals week for me, I had 8 conferences scheduled. But there was no other option.
By 10 am he agreed we needed to go to ER. I helped him into his chair, and helped him get dressed. We pulled into the ambulance bay at 11, and they wheeled him into the back. I sat in the waiting room and called Myra to pick V up from school. I hoped they would admit him, but if they didn't, V didn't need to see him this sick.
When I was 12, my father had a massive stroke. I was in the seventh grade, and when Carol, our school secretary, stopped by the gym to tell me during laps in phy-ed that he was in the ICU, I felt the earth fall from beneath me. My childhood ended on January 10, 1986. The first time I saw him after the stroke was 2 days later. Riding the elevator up to Shaun's room, I kept thinking of that day, of walking down that cold hallway in St. Ansgar's, of turning the corner into his room and seeing him, my giant, my daddy, hemipeligic and in one of those awful hospital gowns.
This is not the same as that, I said to myself, over and over.
As the elevator opened on his floor, I crumpled up the slip with his room number and shoved it in my pocket, and went straight to the Nurses' Desk. "I'm Shaun Languishing's wife," I said (except, you know, that's not our real last name), "and I need to see his nurse." After a few minutes, she ambled up to me, and smiled. I took a deep breath. "So, okay, I don't know if you know this, but his vomiting is not really viral or bacterial. It's mental and anxiety-driven, and you should stay on top of his Xanax or whatever he's allowed to have here. And I am available if you have questions, but his therapist is leaving on vacation tonight, so maybe you should do a psych consult, but I don't know how he'd respond to that. And also, I don't think he wants to see me, but I brought his CPAP machine and this NintendoDS and the new issue of Sports Illustrated that came today, in case he wants those. So can you bring these to him and tell him I'm here if he wants to see me?" (When Shaun's in the hospital, he tends to throw up at the sight of me.) Her smile had faded some at "viral or bacterial," but she took what I gave her and nodded. "I'll be in the waiting room," I said.
I'm sure I seemed like the craziest wife on earth, because he'd only been admitted an hour earlier, and for all his poor nurse knew he just had a bad case of the stomach flu. But to her credit, she listened carefully, and when she came to the waiting room to tell me that indeed, he did not want to see me right now, she answered all my questions patiently with no discernible eye rolling. His heart is fine; he's on a constant EKG-type monitor to make sure. His admitting diagnosis is dehydration. They have a script for Xanax three times a day, and they'll give it that often.
V was at Grandma's for the night. I had no where to be. In my family of origin, when someone's in the hospital, you go to them, hold their hand, watch lame cable tv alongside them. I sat in the waiting room and cried.
After Dad's stroke, his brother and both sisters came straight to the hospital, from Hendrum and White Bear Lake and Arizona. They rented a spare room down the hall, and slept in shifts, so Mom could be home with us at night and Dad wouldn't be alone. My mom's brothers and sisters came too, and bought us ice cream from the vending machines downstairs, and asked us about school. I felt surrounded by love and completely terrified at the same time. In the first few days, a handsome doctor told us Dad would surely walk again, and would probably speak just fine after some rehabilitation. He's young, the doctor said, and very strong.
After a lonely night with the dog & Big Bang Theory reruns, I stopped by the hospital mid-morning, and the nurse said Shaun would see me. I was so scared, but I missed him, and kissed his face when it was clear he wouldn't vomit at the sight of me. We talked about how he felt, how the nurses were treating him. He was still sick, hooked up to machines and an IV, feeling very weak, but I stayed for 45 minutes. I told him how lonesome I was, and he said V and I could come for awhile the next day, if we wanted to. This was huge progress over his last hospitalization, where he couldn't see us for days.
In the elevator on the way down, I thought, "See? This is not the same."
A week after the stroke, maybe a little less, Dad fell asleep and the nurses couldn't wake him. At least, that's what they told Jess and me. After a day and a half, it was clear he was in a coma. "He's so young," the handsome doctor said, "his brain hasn't shrunk like an old person's, and there's no room in his skull for the swelling. We'll try to bring the swelling down, and then he should wake up." A day and a half later, he did. We were so glad to have him back, or the part of him, anyway, that the stroke had left behind.
He never walked on his own again, and he never spoke clear words beyond "yes" and "no." He lived for another fifteen years, though, and I was glad for almost every single day.
V and I went to visit Shaun on Sunday. We bought him a silly smiling helium balloon in the gift shop, and the shop lady gave V a sucker and me a sample of hand lotion. We walked to the elevators hand in hand, and rode up with several nurses and doctors. V skipped up the hallway, and climbed up beside Shaun in bed, minding the tubes and wires. We talked about how much we missed each other, and how much fun V had at Grandma's, and when Daddy might get to come home. She looked out of the window of his 5th floor hospital room in awe. He put his arms around her and they watched a little Spongebob and laughed at the silly balloon.
When we left, I asked V what she was thinking of, and if anything worried her. She said "I get worried that you'll get too tired taking care of me by yourself." Oh, sweet girl. I promised her that if I got tired, I'd get Grandma or Auntie Jess to help, and we would be okay. Besides, Dad would come home in few days, and we'd all go back to normal.
It is not the same as it was when I was a girl. It is not the same.
Tuesday evening, after I talked to Shaun on the phone and we figured he'd be coming home on Wednesday, I was folding laundry and thinking of how relieved I was for him to come home. How good it would be to be back in our little family routine. How thankful I was that he was feeling better. How glad I am that his anxiety is not the same as my father's stroke.
Except it is.
Shaun's not paralyzed, and doesn't have aphasia. Hopefully V will never have to help him dress, and will never need to know how to fold up a wheelchair & slide it into the trunk of our car. But Shaun's anxiety, his profound, crippling anxiety, is a part of him, as much as that injured brain was a part of my dad. Shaun has learned to manage it better, in the last few years, and he continues to work to manage it, every day. But if I'm really honest? It will never go away. He will miss social engagements that I really want him not to miss. He may lose jobs because of it. I will need to clean up his vomit again. Sometimes, V and I will have to go to the hospital to see him, incapacitated. Sometimes we will be lonesome for him because this illness keeps him from being the kind of father and husband he wants to be.
It was a awful realization. For thirteen years I've been telling myself it's not that bad. For thirteen years I thought if we just went to more therapy, if we just got him on better medications....but in the end, his diagnosis is as permanent as a stroke. He may recover, in bits and pieces. But it is a part of him, and so a part of us. It had been two years since the last breakdown, and almost 6 years since the last hospitalization. It's chronic, but not usually acute. But it is the same.
In a strange way, after it really sank in, I felt better. It sucks. I wish it weren't true. But pretending isn't going to make it go away. I will gather my mom and sister closer to me, and his family, too, and our dear friends, and together they will help me, and V, and Shaun. I will try, for all of us, to be glad for every single day.