3 min

Help from unexpected quarters

I’ve been recovering from a serious illness and the burden of maintaining my domestic establishment has fallen on my best friend. For the most part, he’s been saintly to the max — buying the groceries, picking up the prescriptions and even washing the dirty underwear. But every once in a while he gets frustrated and says something like, “You need a lover.”

Yeah, right, I’ll just step over to the corner store and pick one up.

That’s the 21-year-old’s vision of love — not just a modicum of psychosexual bliss but a great big happiness pill for life in general. Not just a lover but a gardener, houseboy, butler and maid all wrapped into one.

We can all expect illness at some time in our lives but designating romantic love as our chief caregiver strikes me as foolish. The minute you start expecting practical benefits from love you scuttle the whole enterprise.

There are many good reasons to take a lover, chief among them the idea that you like the other person and want to spend serious time with him, but it’s probably silly to expect too much more.

For one thing, people have an unsettling tendency to change. They leave, die, get bored and sometimes even turn out to be something less than the person you thought you were marrying. The sexy hunk who swept you off your feet may not be the best person to empty the bedpan.

As my mother is fond of saying, “Some people don’t do illness well.” She’s usually talking about straight guys; callow types who leave their wives after the wives develop breast cancer or some other illness. But I suspect the problem is more widespread than we let on. For every saintly spouse who sticks around during the bad times, there’s one who bolts, unable to deal with sickness, hospitals, disfigurement or merely the messy imperfection that illness entails.

Illness, like travel, has a habit of revealing our essential nature and often it’s not a pretty picture. That’s probably why they stuck that phrase “for better or worse” in the marriage ceremony. It’s a recognition that people need encouragement to do good. It doesn’t come naturally.

On the other hand, it’s probably unwise to choose somebody entirely for their nurturing skills. It’s kind of like marrying somebody because you know it’s cheaper to live as a couple than alone. It’s undoubtedly true but basing your decision on that knowledge isn’t likely to win you any friends.

Sad to say, most people don’t like to be used. Most people go into a relationship hoping to be appreciated for their endearing smiles and sexy come-ons, not their bank accounts or their nursing skills. When they find out it’s the other way around, they may balk. I have it on good authority (my mother, actually) that older women have little interest in remarrying because they’re convinced that the men in their age group (the few that remain) only want a wife as “a nurse or a purse.”

Besides, help never quite emerges from whence you expect it. A friend who recently suffered a painful attack of kidney stones found himself ferried to hospital not by his current boyfriend but by the ex he’d been screaming at just hours before. It was the ex who darted from hospital to hospital in search of the quickest relief from the pain (reportedly the worst this side of childbirth).

My own recent experience provided a mix of the expected and the unexpected. There was the expected pleasure of finding people I already thought were pretty wonderful even more wonderful under duress. People showed up to make me dinner and do the dishes and if you think that’s small potatoes, believe me, you haven’t been sick. When you’re ill it’s the small things that matter.

Even the pros outdid themselves. I got stuck in emergency for a couple of days before they found me a bed in the hospital proper and my bed was lodged in a rather ramshackle quarter of the unit. One day a nurse I hadn’t even met before walked into my room and started to make things right. She tidied the room and then handed me what turned out to be the world’s most perfect pillow — a pillow so soft and comforting it changed my day. I hadn’t asked for anything and her intuitive gesture was a reminder of how often the best things arrive out of the blue, born on the whims of strangers.

We’re all going to have to deal with illness at some point in our lives and with luck we’ll all have somebody around to comfort and guide us through it. I just wouldn’t place any bets on who those people are likely to be.