When my life partner Josie took a freak fall one evening, while walking home from dinner, the words from our marriage vow “for better or worse” took on a whole new meaning. One moment, she was fine, the next she was flat on her face in the street. Fortunately, having broken the fall with both arms, she had escaped with only a few bruises to her face and her head uninjured. Unfortunately, she had managed to completely shatter her right elbow and break her left wrist. As the doctor in the emergency room described the extent of her injuries, I tried to stay calm as I processed the information internally, weighing each word. I could see the neurons flashing a fortune cookie message in my brain: Your life will be filled with new adventures.
Whenever I heard about such stuff happening to other people, I would try to imagine how I might deal with it. Would I be up to the task when, these days, getting out of bed is challenging enough? I mean, how does one deal with your spouse developing Alzheimer’s? Or terminal cancer? Would I be able to face the fact that I was now a 24-7 caregiver for an indeterminate future stretching into a life unknown? What if I ended up having to do everything for my spouse and, like most of us, couldn’t afford to pay someone to do it? My mind reeled with the daily realities. Dressing. Feeding. Bathing. Hair brushing and tooth brushing. Walking, including to and from the bathroom, followed by ass wiping. That last part gave me pause. I have enough problems wiping my own ass, but to think I might have to do this for my spouse and also have to deal with how she might feel about it was not something I wanted to think about.
Our situation was only temporary, but I knew that, for months ahead, the carefree retired life we had enjoyed was about to go on hold.
Luckily for me, Josie’s mind was still sharp as ever. It meant that I would not have to face this test alone. More than ever, we were a team, devising new strategies to meet daily challenges. Of course, with both arms incapacitated, she was forced to play a more passive role and could only advise me on what to do, gently informing me when I screwed up, and cheering me on when I got it right.
First, we had to establish a base camp for sleeping. We live in a townhouse apartment, and going up and down the stairs to our bedroom was just not an option. Fortunately, we have a guest bedroom with two single beds on the first floor. This meant that Josie could have her own bed without the danger of my rolling over and crushing her arms during the night. Also, I could be in the same room to help her to the adjoining bathroom.
Having secured safe sleeping quarters, I began to reevaluate all those little daily tasks I perform automatically for myself and to consider how best to perform them for another person. Take bathing, for example. You just jump in the shower and start cleaning yourself without so much as a game plan. You don’t think about the most efficient way to apply the soap and rinse, or whether you are getting yourself clean enough. But it’s different when you’re cleaning someone else, especially someone who’s wearing bandages that can’t get wet. The problem was resolved with a trip to the drugstore where I purchased plastic sleeves to fit over each arm, and a sturdy bathtub seat. Then it was on to Lowe’s to pick up a handy shower attachment so I didn’t end up flooding the bathroom every time I bathed Josie. But it took us both several weeks of splashing, thrashing, and cursing to figure these things out.
Eating was fun. Not only was Josie totally unable to pick up a fork, but she was still suffering from a recent flareup of orofacial nerve pain as a result of a botched root canal procedure a few years back, and her fall did not exactly help matters. So we took it slow. I would cut up her meal into bite-size portions and wait until the pain subsided enough for her to eat. We had always enjoyed our dinners together, enlivened by wine and intelligent conversation, but it was painful to watch her struggle now to get a bite down, made even more so by the look on her face from the realization that I had to feed her like an infant. Meals took twice as long. We eventually worked out a routine in which I would alternately feed her a few bites, then take a few bites myself. After a while, she started experimenting with two unbandaged fingers on one hand, and was soon able to pick up small pieces of food herself, though she still could not pick up anything as heavy as a glass in order to drink. Thank goodness for straws.
Funny how you adjust to things and find new insights. After the first week or so, as we settled into a new reality, we started enjoying our much-extended dinner times. No longer would she have to remind me not to wolf my meal. We learned to savor each bite and our time together, made more precious by the knowledge that we had survived this setback and were both still alive and kicking. And if takes us an hour and a half to eat our dinner, hey, so what?
We’re both very active people, and Josie knew she had to get moving again. The first few days, she would take walks around the first floor of our apartment, with her trusty guide at her side. The fear of falling was very much on our minds. We were still the same people who had fearlessly tackled rugged trails in the wilderness together. But now that one of us had taken a bad fall, it reminded us how vulnerable our increasingly brittle and fragile bodies can be. I hate that! And I hate writing that line. Reality sucks.
Before leaving the hospital, the physical therapist had given us a broad nylon belt, which could be buckled around Josie’s waist while leaving just enough room for my hand to be slipped behind it, giving me a way to hold her firmly in the event of another fall. Such a simple thing, yet an invaluable tool in getting us walking again and conquering our fears. It was a little awkward getting used to, at first, but with me holding on tightly behind her it gave me a way to get us safely down the concrete stairs leading to our apartment and to resume our walks in the neighborhood.
It did feel kind of weird. With my hand planted behind her back and both her arms extended uselessly forward, I felt in complete control, directing her every movement. By turning my hand ever so slightly and applying gentle pressure, I found I could make her turn in the direction I thought we should go to avoid obstacles or rough surfaces as we attempted to walk in unison with some degree of dignity. It was a totally different kind of walking for both of us, and for a brief time I was in charge, whether I liked it or not.
Gradually our walks extended further afield in the neighborhood, as we gained confidence. Walking had always been a vital part of our life and now, more than ever, it was essential to get back into the routine.
One thing I noticed. I seemed to tire more quickly. At first, I thought it was just stress. After a couple of weeks had passed and I was able to leave Josie alone for a short time to visit the nearby gym, the normally ten-minute walk now took twice as long and I had to cut my workout sessions short. I always came home exhausted. What was happening to me? Suddenly I felt ninety years old. Then it dawned on me. The older you get, the more time you must devote to the seemingly endless series of routine tasks just to care for oneself each day. Only now, I was doing them for two. Not only did I have to put on clean underwear, but I had to put hers on as well. I had to go to the bathroom, and take her there next, followed by grooming, feeding, drinking, toothbrushing, walking, and whatever else I did for myself. A tiny epiphany, but it gave me both a sense of relief that I was not facing total decrepitude, and a sense of awe at the work that full-time caregivers do.
Not that there weren’t compensations. After a few weeks had passed, we settled into a manageable and at times even pleasant routine. We took each day at a slower pace, trying to find some new insight or small pleasure we had overlooked. I began to see things I had never noticed before. As I tried my best to comb Josie’s hair, according to her instructions, at first I felt hopelessly lost. It dawned on me, then, that I really didn’t have a clue as to how my life partner of over forty years wore her hair, except for the fact that it was short. How she combed her front bang down slightly to cover her high forehead. How she brushed the hair behind her ears and shaped the back into a point. Had it not been for her fall, I would never have known these things. After a while, I got pretty good with the hairdryer. I imagined myself as some handsome and suave hairdresser—just call me Ramone—getting her hair to fluff up just right. My flight of fancy lasted but two weeks, at which point she decided she could manage her hair without me. Guess I wasn’t really cut out for hairdressing.
Bathing presented even more opportunities for new insights and intimacies. Once the basic problem of how to get Josie’s body clean efficiently without stressing us both out and flooding the bathroom floor was solved, we gradually settled into a smooth rhythm. I now new the drill and could devote myself more fully to the appreciation of my spouse’s lovely body. Not that I hadn’t appreciated it before. But this was different. I was performing a necessary basic task which I had initially viewed as somewhat onerous, but it had taken on a wholly new dimension. Like that first time we had made love, I was clumsy in the beginning, but as my hand glided over her body with a soapy washcloth, I began to see and discover it anew. You do not really know your lover’s body until you have washed every inch of her and gently patted her dry. It was a different kind of sexual pleasure, an arousal more of spirit than of body. We both grew to enjoy this gentle touching, as I explored parts of her body never really noticed before in simple lovemaking. And while I am glad that I don’t have to wash her anymore, I will remember it always.
Wiping my lover’s ass, however, is hardly a memory to cherish. Damned if I could find any compensations there. The only thing I can say looking back on it now is that it wasn’t nearly as unpleasant as I had imagined, aided considerably by the use of latex gloves, but largely by the fact that my spouse has a cute ass. But don’t take my word for it. During our first year of marriage, I found I needed a new dentist. So I made an appointment with Josie’s dentist, who I was quick to discover was a lecherous old man with a wicked sense of humor. As I sat agape in his chair, his instruments probing my teeth, out of nowhere he suddenly exclaimed, “You know, your wife has a great ass!” I almost choked, as I mumbled some unintelligible reply, then reluctantly nodded. How could I disagree? I had always especially treasured that part of her anatomy. But now that I had to keep it clean each day, I learned to approach the task as a sacred honored duty. It couldn’t have been a pleasant experience for her, but once again Josie came through with calm, clear instructions on what needed to be done and where, and got me through it. Hard to believe that such a simple basic thing as wiping my lover’s ass could bring us closer and make me feel more needed and worthy than ever.
But for real intimacy, nothing beats dental hygiene. I thought I knew all the hidden mysteries and intricacies of Josie’s body, after all these years, but I still knew nothing of the world inside her mouth. Now Josie is a real stickler for proper brushing, flossing, and rinsing, dutifully spending over half an hour each night in front of the mirror while cursing its relentless monotony. And here I was, stepping up to the plate, in hopes of performing this duty at least passably and getting it done before midnight.
The first few nights were a struggle, compounded by the fact that Josie has extremely sensitive teeth. In brushing your own teeth, of course, you can just bend over the sink and spit, but in Josie’s case this was impossible. Not only was she unable to rest her hands on the sink, but there was no way for me to see inside her mouth while standing at the sink next to her. So I sat her on the toilet and covered her torso with a bib, as I played at being dental hygienist. Then I used our electric toothbrush, with one hand gently brushing from tooth to tooth and the other hand holding a small plastic spittoon beneath her mouth to catch the overflow and allow her to occasionally spit. It was not a pretty picture. Often I would have to slow down to let her catch her breath or go back to reach a tooth missed.
The real challenge came in flossing. It’s difficult enough to floss my own teeth properly, holding a long strand of floss between two hands and then manipulating it in my mouth, rhythmically rubbing up and down against each tooth a half dozen times. When done correctly, it’s a painfully boring task, but vital to tooth and gum health. But trying to get my two big paws and that strand of floss inside Josie’s mouth proved awkward and frustrating for both of us. Fortunately, I discovered a handy little plastic tool called a dental flosser, which holds an inch or so of floss taut, so I didn’t have to put both my hands in her mouth and risk choking my dear wife. Disposable plastics to the rescue, again.
Having previously experienced periodontal disease during my wasted youth, I am also a stickler for dental health and pretty much knew the drill. But the only teeth I knew were mine, and I had to fast learn about a whole new set of teeth and gums. Indeed, I can say that I know them now almost as well as my own.
Coming at the end of the day, and taking even longer than Josie’s usual half hour, it was probably the most tedious task for both of us. But together we learned how to better navigate around her mouth, and gradually it became less strenuous. And when the job was finished, she would look up at me and flash a grin with her now sparkling teeth and I felt a communion with her that transcended all that had gone before. We were more than lovers and friends, we were comrades of tooth and gum forever.
After two months, the bandages came off and slowly our life returned to normalcy. Josie began to resume her daily routine, taking pride in again performing her own daily maintenance and freeing me up to go back to doing all those things I had put on hold, which in retrospect seemed less urgent. She embraced weekly sessions of physical therapy with a fierce determination to regain all her strength and ability. She had always been a strong woman, but I now watched in amazement at my new wonder woman surpassing herself each day with daily feats of recovery. And evildoers better beware of that sharp right elbow, newly reinforced with metal brace.
Our experience left us more aware of not only the possibility, but the probability of falling as well as our ability to survive it. Not that we dwell on it. But I’ve noticed a certain tendency to nag, whenever one of us goes up or down the stairs without grabbing the handrail or makes too sudden a turn. According to government statistics, one out of four Americans aged 65 or over falls each year, and every 19 minutes one of us will die as a result. Those are not good odds. Makes you almost afraid to go out the front door. Not what we seniors need to hear, especially when we’re also told to not sit so much and to keep on moving. So what’s an old fuck to do?
For one thing, I’m going to make damned sure I don’t fall. At heart I am a coward when it comes to being a care recipient. I can’t begin to imagine someone having to feed, wash, and dress me each day, let alone—horrors—wipe my ass. I am sadly deficient in all the social skills my life partner possesses in spades—patience, grace, good sense, and fortitude. I know full well that, in the event I did fall, my loving spouse would be there to take care of me. All I can say is, good luck with that, Josie. I would not wish that monstrous fate on anyone.