The last time I had the flu as a single person, I spent a lot of time lying there, contemplating my life choices. Too sick to drive to the store, all I had was whatever was in my fridge. I had nobody to bring me a glass of water or go to the pharmacy, much less anyone to fuss over me or stroke my fevered cheek. Much as I value my independence, there’s a line between freedom and foolish isolation. Thus, when my husband and I recently went through the flu together, I found some small measure of comfort.
I also felt guilty that he got it from me.
Our nine-year wedding anniversary is this year, and in the twelve years we’ve been together, I don’t think we’ve ever been ill at the same time. In all those years, my hubby has called in sick maybe three times that I know of. It’s weird that it took us this long. I was watching a video on my phone, I started laughing, and that laugh suddenly turned into a deep, hacking cough. Uh oh. Three days later, my man came in the door from work, I took one look at him, and I knew.
Every symptom he had, I had just gone through three days before. This is an easy, basic lesson in empathy. When he coughed all night, I literally knew just exactly how it felt. When he lost his appetite, yep, I knew what he meant. I’d been so shaky I had to crawl on the floor to get a drink of water, with chills and fever that brought me to tears, and I didn’t need him to tell me how bad he felt. I felt it too.
I lost three pounds in a week. He lost six.
We were lucky. During the three days I was sick and he wasn’t, he was able to go to the pharmacy and the grocery store and do the laundry. We were stocked up enough to hold us over. Then I started feeling better when he was in the worst of it. We also have reverse biorhythms, where he feels relatively better early in the morning and declines the rest of the day, and I feel worst when I first wake up, perking up late at night.
We made each other soup and tea. We opened pill bottles for each other. We traded off walking the dog and taking out the trash. Somehow, we even got clean sheets onto the bed a couple of times.
The day we both felt well enough to clean the apartment felt like a huge victory. We would each do a chore and then lie down for an hour before doing something else. By dinnertime, we had vacuumed, cleaned the bathroom, and done all the laundry. It felt like medaling in the Olympics!
At one point, he turned to me and said, “If I had to be sick with somebody, I’m glad it was you.” Aww! I said I think that might be the most romantic thing he’s ever said to me.
When I was single, I set up a huge boundary. What’s In It For Me? After my early divorce, I wanted to just do everything myself. I was determined to live alone, go on my own vacations, plan my own retirement, and eventually buy my own house. I didn’t want to be vulnerable to another person, disappointed by another person, annoyed or frustrated by another person. I had a lot of tests and hurdles for any man who was determined enough to get through those barriers.
Being married does require a certain amount of vulnerability. Your spouse is the roommate you can’t kick out, the new family member you see the most often, the business partner whose financial choices affect all your accounts. Ah, but your spouse is also your ally, your friend, and, at times, even your nurse. When this person you’ve chosen to share your life shows up at your lowest moment, carrying a box of tissues or a bottle of cough syrup, you wonder why you ever thought you could make it alone.
The truth is, I always knew I had it in me to be the giver in the relationship. Giver of flu germs, apparently... That’s why I was so protective of my liberty. I didn’t want to open myself up to a taker and start to feel resentment toward him. It never really occurred to me that I would marry another giver, someone who would always go above and beyond, someone who would want to take care of me the way I would take care of him.
It’s scary to think of ourselves on the march into old age, and how the seasonal flu could wipe us out, even after we got the flu shot. (Quite certain this was a different strain). The thought of Elderly Us coughing in bed, side by side, is sobering, but it also elicits a certain tenderness. Oh, you poor man, I would never want you to go through that alone.
Now that we’re over the worst flu of our lifetimes so far, we’re moving a little slowly. We’re both feeling a fresh wave of gratitude toward one another, relief that we made it, and appreciation of what are really the simplest pleasures in life. Being able to breathe! Standing up! Walking into the kitchen and back! Cooking and eating a real dinner! Wearing pants! It’s a beautiful springtime, and how sweet to spend it with the one person you know will always be at your side, no matter what.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.