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Why My Husband Told Me I Don’t ‘Have to Stay Married’ to Him–And Why I Chose To

Drip on the background a hospital corridor concept

In sickness and in health. Those words aren’t actually part of any Jewish wedding ceremony. They’re implied, sure, but they’re never said out loud.

When we got married 12 years ago, it never occurred to me that we’d be faced with so much sickness so soon. I had a strong, strapping husband who could bench press me. His shoulders are easily twice as wide as mine and he towers over me, even now when he leans on a cane. What could go wrong?

Well, quite a lot apparently.

Less than two years into our marriage, I watched him struggle mightily as he learned to walk again, became an expert at washing wounds and changing dressings, and was often awakened by his nighttime spasms of pain. That’s been our reality for most of our married life; while other women complain about how their husbands can’t cope with a cold, I worry about whether mine can still walk, can still work.

My husband has Cauda Equina Syndrome, which, like all syndromes, is really an umbrella term for a collection of disorders and misfortunes that cause damage to the big bundles of nerves that feed the legs. His spine is congenitally fragile and while I would have to do something dramatic or at least something that would leave me with a great story to tell in order to injure my spine, his injuries have come out of the blue and we’re never sure exactly what’s precipitated them. While he has been spared some of the worst impacts of CES because of excellent and timely medical care, it remains a diagnosis that most other medical professionals have only read about, making access to the right kinds of help a challenge.

But Leonard Cohen was right: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” Finding that light isn’t always easy, but it’s there if I look hard enough. This latest round of hospitalization has taught me how wonderful our friends and family are. They’ve brought us food, they’ve taken our kids, they’ve advocated and texted and called and worried for us.

The day he went into the hospital, the kids and I went to Erev Shabbat services and I’ve never felt so wrapped up in love and support. Sometimes, like many congregational leaders, I am frustrated by the day-to-day grind of boiler repairs, Hebrew school organizing, and dues collecting, but on that Friday night, as we sang Adon Olam and ate kugel, I felt so profoundly at home and loved that the gratitude flooded me and I found myself almost in tears. Being Jewish has never felt so right.

When we found out that he’d be going back into the hospital for yet more surgery, my husband waited until the doctor had left the curtained room and then started to cry.

“You don’t have to stay married to me,” he whispered. “It’s OK.”

And of course, he’s right—nothing brings the daily choice of marriage into sharper relief than these crises. I don’t have to stay married to him, but I want to. I want to because of the way he finds grace and humor in the awfulness of his condition. I want to because he finds ways to connect with our kids even though he can’t do a lot of traditional dad stuff like coaching sports or roughhousing. I want to because of the way he teases me and gets me out of my head when I’m locked into my own intellect a little too much (OK, a lot). I want to because, as much as from the outside it might look like I’ve done all of the sacrificing over the past 12 years, he’s done just as much for me.

So I sit in this empty surgical waiting room, the only family member here on a Sunday, and I wait. I wait in my health for him to wake up, less sick than he went in, I hope. I wait to see what this marriage has in store for us next, be it happy or sad, triumph or tears, light or darkness, knowing full well that this, too, shall pass.


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