Clare Saumell VanderWeele

essays on living

I Am Not the Hero

It is a year ago, and the stomach flu has hit our household. Except, it only hits Mike. He can’t eat. Everything makes him nauseous. His doctor said sometimes it can last a week. I coax him into eating soup and bananas, drinking coconut water in tiny sips. I am being the good wife. The one who vowed to be there both in sickness and in health.

Incredibly, neither Nicholas or I catch it. That’s quite the miracle, really, as we all know how eager the stomach flu is to spread from hand to hand, mouth to mouth.

After two weeks, Mike is still sick. Somewhere in the back of my mind, my empathy starts to break down. I wonder if he is exaggerating, getting carried away by hypochondria. Buried by work, by kindergarten homework, by 4-month pregnancy hormones, I rebel – just a little. I make my sick husband carry the laundry from the basement to the second floor. He is out of breath half way up, doubled over in exhaustion. I frown. I force more bananas on him.

After three weeks, the most I can do is keep Nicholas out of his way and beg him to go back to the doctor. It is a Monday morning, and, instead of the doctor’s office, he drives himself 45 minutes to work, where he almost passes out just sitting down at his desk. He goes to the doctor. And the doctor tells him to go the ER.

At the ER, they admit him, roll him up to the second floor and tell him he is staying there. His blood pressure sits snug at an insane 80/30, and the doctor struggles to calculate just how many frantic beats per minute his heart rate is.

Meanwhile, I drive to the hospital, interrogating the rear view mirror to make sure I look put together. Like I’m not falling apart. Because that same Monday would also have been my 7th wedding anniversary with Chris.

It’s October. It’s the month when everyone posts that L.M. Montgomery’s Ann of Green Gables quote on their Instagram and Facebook feeds, “I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.” I am not particularly thrilled about Octobers. It’s a month of anniversaries. The wedding anniversary, when the number of actual married years becomes a smaller and smaller fraction compared to years spent without him. And, a few weeks later, the anniversary of his death, when the numbers seem ever more impossible.

It’s October and I’m in the hospital, confined to a corner of the room where I’m least in the way of the nurses, techs, and three separate doctors. Hands on my belly as the baby shifts, I realize how pale my husband has become, how much weight he’s lost.

We meet the most eccentric doctor I’ve ever known, a real life Dr. House, who regales us with stories of Amsterdam’s Red Light district and appears delighted to diagnose Mike with a rare, potentially fatal autoimmune disorder. His adrenal glands don’t work. Stress is literally killing him. If he’d waited any longer to go to the doctor, he would have been in a coma – at best. It also turns out that his potassium levels are critically high. Apparently I was killing my husband with all those potassium-rich bananas and cartons of coconut water. I fear I had a bigger hand in this crisis than his mere biology.

They start pumping hundreds of milligrams of steroids into him. I sit in the armchair, breathing in the sterile air and wondering how I made this man climb two flights of stairs with 20 pounds of laundry when he should have been a fall risk, confined to an alarmed hospital bed with an IV and no-slip socks.

At this point, my confession is of no surprise. I suck at the “in sickness” part of in-sickness-and-in-health. I am not the hero I’d desperately like to envision. I am not a good caregiver. I harbor resentment at the drop of a hat. I fall so quickly into denial when things go wrong.

And when I finally admit that things have fallen apart, that the seams of my vision have frayed irreparably, I have a tendency to plunge right from denial into cynicism. When I am faced with something huge – quite literally matters of life and death – I am stunned by the blunt recognition that I cannot be the hero. I am not the doctor prescribing a lifetime of drugs. I am not rescuing anyone. All I can do is sit down at my desk, stare at a blank word document, and wonder at how frivolous a life I’ve chosen. How can writing solve anything? What is the point?

This is ridiculously egocentric, of course; the laziest form of self-absorption there is. I am not the hero, so what’s the point. I have nothing to say, so I’ll say nothing.

Something tiny and almost forgettable in my soul whispers that this is a lie. And I know with reluctant certainty that I’m not alone in this feeling.

William Faulkner famously noted in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech that writers should do more than write from a place of fear and chaos. He said, “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.”

And so I do the only thing I know how to do. I write.

It is October, and the maple trees are choosing brilliance over mediocrity. Two weeks after being discharged from the hospital, we wander around a local forest preserve, a more conservative version of our annual hike in remembrance of Chris. Mike slowly getting stronger with seven pills of steroids a day. Me slowly growing bigger with the weight of new life. Nicholas at our sides, and the three of us enduring the chaos together, building something stronger.

I am not the hero. But I am a wife and mama. I am a writer. I have courage and faith and compassion. I know what sacrifice looks like. I choose to believe.

 

Photo by Guilherme Stecanella on Unsplash

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3 Comments

  1. Clare, I love you. I love Mike, Nicholas, and Isaac. I love that Chris brought you all to my heart. It’s interesting that you have such a connection with October. I always have, as it is my birth month, and fall is so colorful and beautiful to me. Since I was a little girl we celebrated my birthday by going to get apples, cider, and pick out a Christmas tree to be dug before the ground froze. We would retrieve it in December. In the fall we celebrated my father’s memorial in Bridgeport, CT. Again, in the fall, we celebrated my mother’s memorial in the same place. That was when I met you. That year we all went to Westport, where Damon had fished and Janie had once lived. We shopped for socks in the same area where we went to a deli and had e really fun lunch. We went to the Silvermine Tavern shop, where all of you secretly chose something for my birthday… you all surprised me later. Someone has photos. It was grand.

    Five years ago Dave and I went to CT for my 45th high school reunion toward the end of October, and stayed for 10 days. It was heaven! I kept saying how wonderful it was that we could go to CT for fun and joy, and to not celebrate a family death. We spent 4 days in Plymouth Rock…. we would have gone to visit Boston, but the World Series was going on, so we chose Plymouth instead. Amaro called ant told me to pull our car over. I thought it was odd because it’s Damon who calls me when something has happened. It was the 25th. The next day was my birthday. I was in shock. Not Chris. Not Clare. Not. I cancelled all plans except dinner with Deanna. Deanna had lost her brother, Bert, the same day that you and all of us lost Chris.

    Whenever October rolls around, I love it. And it makes me think of you… shooting rifles in Damon and Janie’s backyard, and celebrating my birthday in October. And you being 6 months (?) pregnant with Nicholas. You, Clare, are tied in with some of my best as well as my most bittersweet memories of October. And your writings keep you close to my heart. Your expressions in writing, and your photos always make me smile. ❤️

    • Clare

      October 15, 2018 at 8:29 pm

      I love you, Aunt Donna! Thank you so much for sharing all this, it means so much. Octobers are certainly bittersweet -lots of beauty and celebration help with the pain of it all.

  2. Beautiful as always. I’m soo glad you’re a writer. Thank you, Clare!

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