We are peeling the next layer of the cohabitation onion. Healthcare. My partner is saying goodbye to one of his knees, which will be replaced by modern magic. Obviously, the process will require temporary changes in our household logistics. But there will also be more nuanced emotional changes. We know this. It’s our first endurance test as a couple, but it’s our second time around with caregiving a lover. Both of us were previously married and we’ve each had the experience of caregiving the person we sleep with. We know that dependency changes relationship dynamics. We can idealize our commitment, but the actual day-to-day process of caregiving is a tangle of consequences, some unintended. And the outcome, whatever it is, will stay with us; will be woven through our self-image and the fabric of our relationship. We are co-creating our history. A startling statement of the obvious, perhaps, but not something we understood the first time around.
Decades have passed since we’ve been in this situation. But those marriages are still with us like old tattoos. They are the invisible baggage that informs our choices, hardens our resistance, and stokes our fear. I am witnessing the changes in my own behavior. My mental model for caregiving the first time around was a feisty hen arching her wings to shelter her beloved chicks, offering herself in their defense, instinctively taking on the brave duty of self-sacrifice. It was very romantic. But it didn’t end well. The second time around I am acutely aware of my separateness, the limits of my impact and the folly of idealizing love as heroism.
In this episode of caregiving, I’m exchanging that model of selfless duty for something more like roadside service. I’ll be there when he needs me, but I’m not devoting my life to hovering over him. He makes his own choices. I make mine. This is new for me. I’m witnessing myself evolve. The idea of adults making their own choices independently is a distinctly different approach than the conjoined body I lived in for 32 years when I was married. But I’m so much older now. I made my first lifetime commitment in my 20s, inspired by fairytale notions of permanence. I was all in for being half of a couple. Then when the other half died, the loss took too much of me. I’m making my second lifetime commitment in my 60s. Now firsthand experience with mortality moderates my world view.
Surviving loss is the hard-earned benefit of age. These bags of goo we’re born into are fragile. But we don’t feel the uncertainty until illness strikes, body parts malfunction or break, and our goo fails to produce good health. That failure spooks us. We don’t go on forever. We die. Soon my partner and I will fill out the paperwork for our advanced directives, the wishes we have for our treatment as we near death, naming each other as a proxy, our do-not-resuscitate orders, the donation of our relevant parts, the return of our goo to dust, the distribution of our ashes. We don’t consider this morbid. We’re just being practical, keeping it real, taking responsibility for ourselves and preparing for our deaths so others don’t have to.
Of course, knee replacement is not considered a life-threatening procedure, but shit happens, and a Girl Scout is always prepared. The second time around we have shed our idealistic notions of partnership continuing on happily ever after. We know this too shall pass. And we see the beauty of it. This moment means more to us precisely because it will not last forever.
Healthcare underlines the uncertainty we accepted when we chose to be the life partner of a person over 60. Now we shall see exactly what that means. Our boundaries are shifting. Already we are talking about our future differently, strategizing how we can collaborate to keep these bags of goo in working order for as long as possible. Sharing ideas for building our resilience and shedding risk. Recognizing how it’s complicated to mix caregiving with a romantic relationship. This is how we co-create our future. The second time around we hold the beginning and the end in one embrace.