When we marry, we bring with us our own scripts, experiences, preferences, and needs. It may take quite of few years before a couple can come to a place of sufficient understanding of each other. We may not even know our own needs at first, but marriage is a great platform for self-discovery as well. We also come into a marriage thinking the way we grew up was normal. We may learn, however, that we all grow up with some peculiarities and biases.
That brings us to the topic of throwing up. I grew up believing that throwing up was a private matter. In order to protect one another’s dignity, my family of origin left each other alone to suffer through the event–saving each other from embarrassment. There is no dignity in the way I and other members of my family upchuck. It’s like listening to an exorcism.
The first time my wife heard me get sick, she laughed. She thought I certainly must be joking or playing the drama queen. She also did not understand that I was to be left alone. But she learned my ways. But it was several years into our marriage before I learned her ways.
We were living in Tulsa where I was beginning my programming career. We had our daughter and perhaps our infant son. Was she pregnant? My wife will remember. We planned a date. Anniversary? Valentine’s? Or just a regular date night? I do not remember for sure. But I wanted to make it special. Jennifer’s dad was kind enough to drive up to Tulsa to watch the kid(s) while we went out for dinner.
I asked around at work for the nicest restaurant for a date and I was told that the Warren Duck Club was it. It was on the first floor of a swanky hotel. I was told to be prepared to pay at least a hundred dollars. For us, this was a time when even hitting a fast food drive through was an economically precarious endeavor, but I wanted to give my wife a first-class evening.
We dressed up as well as we could. I told her to order exactly what she wanted, something I’d never in my life said to a date. If memory serves, she ordered a steak for an entree and chocolate mousse for dessert. It was a rich meal and I felt rich ordering it. I remember little else other than it was a very nice evening.
But soon after we arrived at our two-bedroom apartment on the edge of Broken Arrow, Jenn began to feel sick. When she reached the apex of her nausea, she hurried to the kitchen sink and I made my respectful exit to the bedroom. Standing in the bedroom I began calculating the cost of her sickness. All that money spent on our fancy meal down the kitchen sink drain. After a minute or so, I took a peek to see if she was done and I saw something I’d never seen before–something perplexing. Her dad was with her, holding her hair and patting her gently on the back.
I was a little stunned. I just couldn’t believe someone would want this! Was this what she had been expecting from me in our five or so years of marriage? Had she been quietly suffering feelings of neglect in these times? From then on, I adjusted my handling of her times of illness.
But I still had my ways until a few years later after we had returned to OKC for me to continue my career at the FAA. I had taken a hiatus from the FAA campus gym and was just returning for my first workout in months. I mistakenly believed that I could just jump right back into my strenuous routine, but after my workout, standing under the wet heat of the shower, I began to feel sick–so much so that I had to cut my shower short and dash to one of the toilet stalls in nothing but a towel.
I dislike few things more than nausea and throwing up. It was a miserable moment and I felt my dignity slipping away knowing that other men in the locking room were hearing me. I felt embarrassed that I didn’t gauge my workout well enough to avoid this. But then something extraordinary happened. In the heat of it, a felt a cool, damp towel being draped over my head and back. Then someone began rubbing and patting my back. It was so soothing. I felt comfort–loved, and by a total stranger. To this day, including today, I tear up when I tell this story. It was a gift of extraordinary compassion.
When it was over, I turned around and there was no one there. I went to my locker and put my clothes on hoping maybe someone would introduce themselves as my comforter, but no one ever did. But I did find something: understanding. I understood then why my wife needed my presence when she was sick in this way.
I believe that the best parts of our imperfect, human selves truly want to understand each other. We want to be compassionate, loving people, but it doesn’t always click. We can go through the motions, follow protocols, but sometimes we just can’t understand until we’ve received it. And once we have? We are changed forever.