The Day I Realized I Wasn't My Husband's Wife Anymore

by Elaine Roth
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Marriage is, at its heart, a partnership between two people. It’s a promise to thread your lives together, to hold hands, face the world, and not let go no matter what is thrown in your direction. It’s not easy. Sometimes it feels as if the world is conspiring to pull you apart, to create space between your clasped hands where once nothing might have slipped through.

Marriage is two people making a choice to love each other and choose each other, to weather together the storms that inevitably roll in and through a life.

For nine years, my marriage to my husband was like that. I was his wife, which meant that above all, I was his partner in life. We made decisions together. We made mistakes together. And when the universe tried to pull us apart, we pledged to hold on tighter.

There was a day, a few weeks before he was diagnosed with a brain tumor, when I reminded him of that. We had been off—the usual banter and humor and late-night talks had ceded. I assumed, as anyone might, that we were going through a marriage rough patch. After another night of bickering and tension, I sat beside him on the couch and told him something felt off between us. He agreed. I told him we would work on it, that I was in this—our marriage, our life—with him, no matter what. He confirmed he was too.

We didn’t know then that the change between us was due to the brain tumor affecting his personality. When we found it, and understood the depth of the situation we’d found ourselves in, there was no question that we were in this together no matter what, that we would stand, as husband and wife, hand-in-hand, and face whatever was coming.

That all changed months later, on November 16.

We’d spent the entirety of the day and night before at the hospital. Twenty hours in an emergency room. The hospital had no available beds, and he desperately needed a MRI. Not only were his cognitive changes concerning—he wasn’t himself in any way I could recognize—but also, he couldn’t see. An eye test had confirmed there was something physical internally blocking his vision.

When we received the preliminary results of the test, only enough to know that no immediate action was necessary, the emergency room doctor told us that we should go home. To our kids. To be there for our son’s birthday which was the next day. He said a doctor would call us to discuss next steps. The unspoken words in his sorrowful permission was clear: be there for this birthday, because you may not be there for the next.

I drove us home. In the morning, I tried to talk about the day and night before, to plan our next move, figure out the next weapon we’d wield in this fight for his life. But when I made a remark about the long hours in the emergency room, he looked at me with confusion. He didn’t remember being in the emergency room. He didn’t remember the very long night, the MRI, or the way the doctor skirted a truth that I wasn’t willing to admit aloud anyway. The tumors—because at this point they were multiple and, we’d learn soon, devastatingly widespread—had corrupted his ability to remember and impaired his ability to understand the world in front of him.

In that moment, I made a choice not to remind him about the night before. In some ways, I made that choice simply to avoid frustrating him right then—soon enough we’d meet with the doctor and discuss options and the frustration would be inevitable. But in many ways, I made that choice to protect him.

And in that choice—the one to shield him from the vicious storm coming—I realized I wasn’t his wife anymore. I was his caretaker—his advocate and his safe place, his anchor, and hopefully, his home. I still loved him. I’m sure the part of him that was still him loved me. But I wasn’t his wife; that quintessential part of a marriage that was a partnership was gone. We were not standing, hands clasped, weathering the storm together. He was living the storm and I was standing by, desperately, unsuccessfully, trying to bat away individual rain clouds to get to him.

Somehow, the universe had succeeded in pulling our hands apart.

A few months after that long night and that choice, I sat by his bedside in a hospice room. It was a rare moment when no other visitors, not the kids or members of our family, filled the room with us. For the first time in months, I didn’t look at him and assess his cognitive state for the day. I didn’t take note of his temperature and blood pressure. I didn’t watch the clock and dole out medication in precise doses at exact times. Sitting in hospice, just the two of us, there was nothing left to do. My job as a caretaker was over. All I could do was sit beside him, and hold his hand.

Hold his hand, and weather the storm coming for us.

Because the day I stopped being his caretaker, I again became his wife.

And the truth was, whether I was wife or caretaker was never as important as whether I meant the words I’d said to him all those months before: we were in this together, no matter what.

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