Love isn’t a state of perfect caring. It is an active noun like ‘struggle’. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now. -Mr. Rogers
When my boyfriend texted me last week to tell me that he felt a “vicious” man-cold coming on, I thought, oh good god—here we go again. The sad grey sweat getups, the lethargic responses to any and all questions asked, the air of quiet desperation as he sniffles his way through boxes of tissues. A fairly tough, athletic guy who takes decent care of himself, he kind of melts into a puddle when faced with some congestion and a scratchy throat. “I’m shutting it down,” he’ll say to me when he feels a cold approaching—and that he does. He puts his hat on or his hood up, drinks a lot of fluid, and sinks into the couch for the remainder of the battle. No grocery shopping, no errands, no favors, no dinners. Sometimes no return-texts or family functions.
And it’s all a little much for me.
I’m not exactly what you’d call “maternal.” While I love working with kids and I feel fiercely protective of those I love, I’m much more likely to show that love with a little elbow or a punch in the arm rather than a warm, gooey hug. Think Elaine from Seinfeld (unfortunately, complete with her rockin’ dance moves). Which is not to say that I’m not a good girlfriend—I believe I am. I can be thoughtful and patient and compassionate. I try to listen and put myself in his shoes, and consider what Mr. Rogers would tell me to do.
But not when he’s sick. When he’s sick, I lose all capacity for that “beautiful-day-in-the-neighborhood” kind of mentality. When it comes to illness, I’m just not a coddler. I’m more of a “grin-and-bear-it”er. And so, when my boyfriend first got sick, I gave him my usual level of support: I tossed him a bottle of Vitamin C and asked him to pass the remote.
But when he woke up on Day 3 of The Man-Cold and told me he was going to the doctor to get checked out (something he never does), I started to worry that he might actually be sick. What if it was something serious? That did not sit well with me, mostly because I knew that if that was the case, I’d feel guilty for not being more comforting. Plus, a real diagnosis would legitimize the whole thing in a way that I wasn’t prepared for. (Oh and also, I do actually love him and genuinely didn’t want him to be ill.)
So when he walked in after his doctor’s appointment with a CVS bag and a huge grin, I was relieved. “So you’re ok? Just a man-cold?”
“Nope,” he said, looking like a 5 year-old on Christmas morning. “I have pneumonia!”
“No, it’s true!” I’d never seen anyone so happy to be so sick.
“Well, can I get you anything?” I stammered, not quite knowing how to react to this unforeseen development.
“No, I’m ok,” he said cheerily. And as he sat down and texted everyone he knew to tell them the tragic news, I started to wonder if I shouldn’t try to be a little better. Softer maybe—at least when someone I love a great deal has fluid in his lungs and can’t, y’know, breathe.
Later that night, as we were falling asleep, I told him that I felt bad that I hadn’t been nicer. “Should I be better?” I asked.
“Maybe a little,” he said and raised his thumb and forefinger to indicate just that extra inch of slack he was looking for.
“It’s just that the last time I was sick, I did two interviews and wrote both business profiles that I owed my editor, I went grocery shopping, picked up the dry cleaning, and did laundry. So I’m not a wimp,” I said rather defensively.
“Wait, who said anything about you being a wimp?” Well this just took an unexpected turn.
“Um, no one I guess.”
“So why are you telling me how tough you are when you’re sick?”
It was a valid question and I had a hunch about the answer.
I used to make all kinds of excuses for myself, and they usually revolved around physical maladies. When I didn’t want to face life, there was usually a symptom that could help me avoid it. They weren’t lies—just my mind’s ability to convince my body that things were worse than they actually were.
A little sinus infection? Not going to work today.
Achy back? Can’t make that birthday party.
Headache? No gym today.
Being sick became my get-out-of-jail-free card.
These days I show up for my life, and apparently I feel the need to prove that—despite the fact that no one’s asking to see any evidence. I’m the only one in search of proof that there isn’t still that old Dani in me, lying in wait—the one who’s ready to bullshit her way back to the front of the line as soon as she sees an opening. And so, I am very hard on myself—especially when it turns out that I am, in fact, human.
But the pesky little thing about being unreasonable with yourself is that it rarely stops there. You tend to hold the people around you to those same unrealistic standards. You tend to, oh I don’t know, expect someone with pneumonia not to be so sick.
Turns out, when you’re not nice to yourself, you’re less likely to be nice to other people. Go figure.
Two more quick things:
A) In my defense. In the days leading up to his diagnosis, my boyfriend’s behavior was literally exactly the same as when he has a man-cold. The mopiness, the sad outfits, the wilted-flower energy—I’d seen it all before. How was I to know? There’s truth to that old parable: sometimes you get eaten by the wolf because he thinks you have a man-cold. Or something.
And B) #karma. Can you guess who ended up getting quite sick last week? That’s right, his germs were strong and they took me down—hard. And so, I did the only thing any reasonable person would do: I shut it all down.