The Ballad of the Sick Husband

His throat was sore on one side, the Husband said, sniffling.  Also, he had a small headache.

The Wife looked up from something she was doing.  Reading the newspaper, say.  She was the kind of person who was always reading newspapers.

The Husband sniffed again.  Louder, this time.  He cleared his throat and coughed a little.

The Wife shook her head.  Maybe, she said, you shouldn’t go to the conference in San Antonio if you’re sick.

I have to go, the Husband said.  I’m speaking there twice.

But you’re losing your voice, the Wife pointed out.

I have to go, the Husband said again.  My voice is all right.

The Wife went back to her newspaper to read about how the whole damned world was falling apart.  She had had conversations like this many, many times in the decades she’d been married to her husband.  She had finally learned not to waste her breath.  She could exhaust herself pointing out why it was foolish of the Husband to go on a business trip when he was coughing and constantly clearing his throat.  He had once hopped on a flight to New Zealand when he had the flu, hadn’t he?  Yes, he had.  Forget about pressing the point on San Antonio, a mere 100 miles away.  Read the newspaper and brood: That had more possibility of success than nagging.

So, the Husband went to San Antonio and he spoke twice.  He was better, he said, wheezing into the phone on his nightly calls.  Yes, he was taking good care of himself, sleeping a lot.  Going to San Antonio had been a good thing.  Definitely, he said, coughing.

Before he got home, the Wife left on her own business trip.  She was gone two days.  When she got back, in the late evening, the lights were low and the heat was blasting.  In the dim light, she could see a figure on the couch shrouded with blankets.  She heard a voice she barely recognized.

How are you? she asked.  She put a hand on his hot forehead and told him he had a fever.  He asked her to find the thermometer.  His voice sounded like someone was grating sandpaper.

She had seen it happen before: Once the Husband finally, grudgingly, gave into illness, he had a certain enthusiasm for it.  He took his temperature constantly, the thermometer beeping on and off throughout the day.  He demanded orange juice and chicken broth.  He moved into his bathrobe and wouldn’t move out.  He commandeered the couch and the bed and every other horizontal surface.  Even though he didn’t seem to move, he was everywhere.

She bought orange juice and chicken broth, she offered sympathy and kleenexes, she fussed over him.

Days passed and his color returned and he walked upright.  He was going back to work, he announced.

She nodded.  Then she mentioned something in an agreeable tone of voice.  Don’t you think it would have been better, she murmured, if you hadn’t gone to San Antonio?

He was silent for a few seconds.  Then he said, well, yes, maybe.

Goddamn right, she thought.  I told you so, dammit.  Why do you have to be so fucking stubborn, so male?

The door closed behind him, as he left for work.  There were a couple of lessons here, she thought.  One was code: Well, yes, maybe was almost as good as You were so right, honey!  I’m going to listen to you the next time!  I was an idiot!

The second was a harder lesson about human relationships in general and marriage in particular: In many defining ways, the other person was simply going to do what he was going to do — because those actions and characteristics made him what he was, for better or for worse.  What you loved about someone was, in essence, what often drove you crazy about him.  Sometimes, all you could do was stock up on the chicken broth and orange juice and wait.

(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)

See two related posts about marriage here and here

26 comments… add one
  • Love this. My husband is the same way and I agree that a husband is a whole package. The things you love are the things that can make you totally nuts too.

  • YES! I don’t think my husband has taken a sick day in his life.

  • I love “Even though he didn’t seem to move, he was everywhere.” Isn’t it odd how a sick husband fills the whole house.

  • Donna Link

    I too loved the line “Even though he didn’t seem to move, he was everywhere.”
    It brought a good belly laugh.

  • “Every horizontal surface” hehehe.

  • msue Link

    A sick husband cannot be reasoned with. It is easiest to get out of the way and let the story unfold. Then again, when I was once bad sick with the flu, I asked for a cup of chicken broth. After much commotion in the kitchen, he returned to my feverish bedside proudly holding – no kidding – a broccoli pizza. For someone with the flu. My only thought was, “I have GOT to get well.”

  • I’m on my second husband and this post certainly rings true for both.

  • Whenever anyone castigates me for “letting” my DH do one thing or another, I reply simply … “I married a sentient being” … and leave it at that.

  • got such a kick out of this post! especially “…he had a certain enthusiasm for it.” fun writing!

  • I like Brette’s comment that you marry the whole package. My husband can’t be reasoned with while he’s sick either.

  • Sheryl Link

    I dread when my husband utters “I don’t feel well.” The whole process then becomes long and drawn out and he is the WORST patient. I enjoyed reading your take on this, Ruth. Very amusing!

  • Merr Link

    This is terrific. I remember a professor telling us in graduate school – a course about family/couples relationships – that what attracted the person to the spouse would be the thing that ended up driving them crazy. Fascinating.

  • Oh yes! And the wisdom is in the knowing of your husband. And of marriage… Working on it, here.

  • Love it!

  • Susan Link

    “What you loved about someone was, in essence, what often drove you crazy about him. ”

    So true! I love that my boyfriend is committed and passionate about his work, but I also wish he’d set boundaries and not work so many weekends and late nights just because he’s such a perfectionist.

  • When I’m sick, my husband balks at running up to the QuikChek for a couple cans of soup. If HE’S sick, on the other hand… Lord.

    Loved this post. 🙂

  • The view from the seventh floor window may be unsettling. After all, you have relocated your theatre guild to a new stage. But isn’t it reassuring that the old, familiar repertoire is unfolding behind the footlights of orange juice and chicken broth?

  • Just. Beautiful.

  • Loved reading your post. It seems that every man I know behaves just like this when they’re sick.

  • Hilarious. Goddamn right. It’s nice that you can suffer through this for so many years and still be happily married! Glad everyone has recovered…

  • So true. When mine is sick, he reminds me at every opportunity of how miserable he is. Of course there’s the possibility that he might not even live into the next hour. Men, gotta love em.

    Ruth, congratulations on being named a finalist in Best Writing for the 2011 Bloggies. The honor is well-deserved. Thanks for keeping us all entertained with The Geezer Sisters.

  • Not wasting breath and learning when to hold your tongue…perhaps one of the secrets to a long marriage?

  • The husband’s responses and actions are just as predictable as the wives’ and never the two shall change. We are just wired that way.

  • Steve Link

    “In many defining ways, the other person was simply going to do what he was going to do…”

    When I first read this sentence, the gender-specific “he” didn’t register, partly because, with some passion, I avoid the unnecessary “he or she.” So, I thought, there’s at least honesty here at the conclusion of this funny story. The other person, of either sex (another passion of mine–words have gender, people have sex) is simply going to do what the person is going to do.

    In a relationship of more than 40 years, I cannot count how often I’ve said aloud to my spouse, much less thought, “Why did you ask me, when you’re gonna what you’re gonna do anyway?”

  • Yep, we’re likely going to do what we’re gonna do.

  • Vivienne Grainger Link

    I have been reading your past columns (yours was cited in “Rocking the Silver,” another blog to which I subscribe, and as I respect that person’s opinions I trotted on over to check it out). This resulted in laughing my a** off repeatedly. Wonderful, and much much less expensive than liposuction!

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