Tuesday, September 27, 2011


“Don’t run away,” she said to me. She pierced my heart.

Last night [14 July 2011], I stopped in at my wife’s bedroom to see how she was. Quadriplegic and ventilator-dependent, Tina Su Cooper has outlived medical expectations, thank God. We are still very much in love after twenty-seven years of marriage, another blessing. When I am at home and awake, I check on her almost hourly. Often she is asleep and unaware that I have looked in. Last night she was seemingly engrossed in a romantic movie I was pleased to note. Commercials began. I asked her how she was doing, gave her a quick update on myself. We restated our love for each other. Commercial break over, the movie restarted, and I headed out of the bedroom.

“Don’t run away,” Tina said.

“I’m not running away. Your movie is back on. I’ve got things to do.”

“What things?”

“Among others, finishing the payroll receipts and checks for the nurses.”

I could have added that I wanted to do more email corresponding and to read some more of Stephen King’s On Writing, which I had just begun.

In various forms, this conversation between the cared-for and the care-giver is like many others of a similar pattern: the request; the refusal; the questioning, with it’s implied accusation; the defense, with its underlying guilt. Both sides have merit. Both have legitimate needs or desires. Each cares about the other. Neither wants to be a burden or to feel burdened.

I sat back down beside her. We spent a few minutes more together. When her eyes wandered back to the movie on the TV screen, I knew I could go without disappointing her, and so I did. This morning, I still feel a bit bad that she had to ask me to stay longer. I don’t want her to have to ask. She doesn’t want to have to ask, either. That’s just the situation we find ourselves in.

Our brief interaction is a microcosm of a distressing phenomenon: well spouses deserting their disabled mates. More often a man deserts a women than a women deserts a man. I wrote about desertion in my memoir, Ting and I:

“Around this time, when Tina was newly paraplegic, we were introduced to a couple from a church [which] we had visited from time to time. Namie was an attractive and articulate Japanese American, wheelchair-bound with Parkinson’s, and Doug was a handsome, charming and intelligent Ph.D. chemist. We were in our fifties, and they were about ten years younger. We had them over to have lunch, and they were able to come because we had a convenient ramp into the porch where we would be entertaining them.

“Parkinsonism is a progressive neurological disorder affecting primarily the motor nerves. The jerky motions characteristic of the ailment can be controlled with medication, but this often leads to lethargy. There is little loss of thinking ability, if any at all. Namie was very active during lunch, and I found myself –to my shame –wondering whether she was going to knock our nice China cup and saucer off the table. Her husband was uneasy about that, too, unfortunately. The conversation flowed readily, however, as we had lots in common. We parted on good terms, and Tina and I expected to get invited by them to get together again. This never happened. Instead, we learned a few months later that Doug had taken off, putting her in some faith-based nursing home. This did not raise churchgoing to a higher priority for us.

“Recently, I checked the Internet to see where Namie was. I found her picture in a publication put out by a charitable nursing home in upstate New York. She had continued her hobby of painting (!), and some of her pictures were in the photograph. I have read that a large fraction of marriages (perhaps 85 percent) with a disabled spouse do break up, especially if it is the wife who is disabled. Shameful.”

Perhaps there are “two sides to every story.” Perhaps the departing spouse has a defensible position. Leaving certainly seems to violate the wedding promise of staying together “in sickness and in health.”

Where is one running to? Can one out-run the memory of someone abandoned? Can one be proud of what one has done?

I won’t run away.

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