Funny what a little sweating can do to the heart. I remember our palms sweating when we held hands in the beginning, the pure euphoria of skin touching skin. Actually, the first time felt normal, like how it feels to hold hands in a circle to pray, and you’re next to someone else’s husband and think every casual thought about it. Nothing special. But later. Later holding hands was like magic. And magic is sometimes sweaty.
This morning he woke up when the baby cried to nurse. I refused him the last time. Trying to help our fat five month old learn how to sleep a solid night without stopping to eat. Everyone else does. But this time it had been at least 8 hours, so I rolled over and asked him to let me have the baby. He told me the bed was too wet, and walked into our shadowy bathroom holding the baby to get a towel. This wasn’t the first night of sweating through sheets. We have three piles of formerly-wet sheets, and a guest bed upstairs waiting to be stripped of the same problem. I counted six nights, last night was the sixth, and then I did the thing you should never do when the person you love most in the world has a strange symptom. I read about it online. Some website with “Med” and “RX” in the title, so you know it probably isn’t trustworthy. They said the penicillin he’s been taking for strep could be causing it. A commenter said he has night sweats and cancer, so in 3/4 of a second I have seen my never-gets-sick husband grow pale and thin from the chemo, his wife a church pity case, his children asking questions that make you cry. A whole life passes as I nurse the baby on a brown towel over his wet side of the bed.
We went to sleep last night in a disagreement. Our night had not gone well. I asked him to help me clean up the kitchen after a day I’d spent preparing food for 150 college students and also a quick dinner with friends. He told me how loved he feels when I ask him for help instead of doing the work myself and stewing on the inside because he isn’t helping. I told him I hate asking for help, want him to love me enough to notice when there’s work to be done and join me, or better yet even beat me to it! Then it was 45 minutes of the same conversation played dozens of ways, every little thing two people who love each other can do opposite ways and appear instead to not love anyone at all. He kept telling me he wants me to compromise, leave the dishes and love him by feigning interest in whatever nonsense he’s into at the moment, always on the computer and almost as certainly on a topic I’ve long considered the Most Dull Thing Ever. I told him dishes are not actually “mine,” that I’m not doing something I’d rather do but rather something which Must Be Done, by all grown-ups everywhere. There was no resolution, although I told him I’m right even if he doesn’t agree. This is almost certainly a way to not win an argument in marriage or in life. He made closing remarks about wanting me to love him more, how he misses me. I made closing remarks by rolling as close to my edge of the bed as possible and saying nothing at all into the darkness. My mind was crammed full of all the things I wanted to say, of an essay about how I understand why people quit on their marriages, because in the moment it felt like a choice a person could make and have just cause for, if ever there could be just cause to quit on a thing you’ve expressly stated you will not quit on under even the most dire circumstances. I would not be quitting, of course, but in my frustration wanted to commiserate with the quitters.
And then I fell asleep, next to my husband with the night sweats just a few days out of what he calls the sickest he’s ever felt. Surely not a person to pick a fight with. A person I should be making nourishing soups for and putting back to bed, not someone to split hairs with over whether I do or do not ask for the help before he cleans all my dishes and even wipes down the counters. I could have, should have, just said thank you, gone to bed. But somehow my resources were so low in that moment, our patterns of him being on the computer and me doing The Thing That Must Be Done around the house so worn in my mind, I couldn’t even see how he helps me. It took the sweating for me to see.
It’s funny what a little sweating can do to my priorities. I pick up my fat baby, patting his back, put him back in his little crib. Walk into our steamy, dark bathroom to make sure he calls the doctor in the morning, and to tell him I love him. He starts sweating again as soon as I hug him, maybe because of the hot shower, maybe because of whatever mysterious illness is making me take inventory of my life.
I’ve spent the past few weeks talking with one of my best friends about ways she can save her marriage, how she can pull up from the screaming nose-dive of motherhood and find balance, joy in the toddler chaos, fulfillment on her own so she can fully enjoy her marriage too. Such irony, for powerful women taught to Figure Things Out, and Take Charge, and Get That Degree; now full-time mess-managers, entrepreneurs of nothing much at all, wielding absolute authority over the dishwasher. It feels frantic to find you’re not who you planned to be. Panic sets in and the closest thing to claw at, to manage, to structure the life out of, is a husband.. Even deeper irony is the kind of person I married wants nothing to do with my schedules and lists, wants to go camping this weekend with four tiny children and take a night hike to star gaze at the top of a huge rock. And that would sound like pure magic if only I could think about anything other than how we’d make it back down off that rock in the dark with those four tiny children.
I see my gaunt husband again, suffering from his night-sweat mystery. We’re crowded on a hospital bed together, reading something and laughing. The kids come in and want to join us, squeeze into the imaginary hospital bed. I see light between us, how happy I am to be with him in that moment, and I understand what he was saying to my darkness last night. He doesn’t want to be sick, doesn’t want to have to die for me to stop in our days and take pleasure in what he takes pleasure in. But isn’t that what happens in all the stories? Two people never quite see each other until one of them almost dies, or dies slowly, and they suck the marrow out of their short life together? Only he has vision to want that without any disease. Wants that kind of intimacy without the threat of death. He’s a better person than me. He can see happiness where I see trash that needs to be taken out and dirty dishes clouding my blue skies. He loves me well enough to know I could love him better. Loves me enough to believe I can grow an interest in even The Most Dull Things. Loves our kids enough to want those parents for them, ones who really see each other, who really enjoy each other, a thing that can never be pretended.
He’ll go to the doctor today. I asked him to promise me he won’t be sick. He told me he’d try not to be sick with anything serious. I cry into his back as I hug him, hoping he notices and also hoping he doesn’t.
Funny what a little sweating can do to my heart. I want to keep hugging him, ask him what kind of Dull Things he’s been reading about lately. Only he’s been reading about night sweats, a topic I’m keenly interested in at the moment. And also I have to let go, because he’s sweating again.