Cold War

October 16, 2006 at 11:34 am (Uncategorized)

Last week, my husband Jay went out of town. This work trip coincided almost exactly with the first cold snap of the winter. Temperatures dropped down into the thirties at night, and Andrew and I awoke each morning to find a crust of frost on the car windows.

I hate it when Jay is gone. He is my best friend and the person I most like to spend my time with; his absence is palpable. On the nights he’s away, I spend the evenings rattling around our house, feeling unmoored and unsettled, after I put Andrew to bed. I’ll usually go to sleep early simply because I don’t know quite what to do with myself. I miss the emerging ritual of our family dinner, with Andrew “setting the table” as I imagine Jackson Pollack did as a child – flinging placemats and utensils with a practiced randomness – and each of us talking about our days. I miss unwinding with Jay after Andrew has fallen asleep. We watch television or simply read together in bed. The rustling of his magazine pages, his feet fidgeting under the sheet, and finally, his snoring next to me, are like a familiar poem. I miss his warmth in the bed.

On a more practical front, it’s exhausting being a single parent for even a few nights. Cooking dinner, washing the dishes, mopping up the rice Andrew somehow compressed into the floorboards under his chair, coaxing Andrew into the bath, coaxing Andrew out of the bath, convincing Andrew that brushing his teeth is almost as exciting as watching a bulldozer in action, reading nine bedtime stories and then listening to Andrew cry mournfully because I won’t read “just one more book” for the tenth time, waiting for Andrew to fall asleep so I can tiptoe out of the room and check my e-mail, fold some laundry, and feed the cat. I don’t see how people do this by themselves day after day.

As much as I missed Jay on this recent trip, there was a piece of me that was relieved he was gone, simply because there was a break in our heating wars. I am not the only woman I know who prefers her house to be kept a good ten degrees warmer than her husband does. I have friends who claim there is some genetic difference that makes men want to spend their winters in the modern equivalent of a cave – damp, cold, and gloomy. One time, I arrived at a couple’s house for dinner, only to find the woman wearing a hat inside, and the man grumbling about her wasteful use of central heating. Whatever the reason for this gender dichotomy, it is real.

Jay and I have bickered about the heat for most of our relationship. When we first started dating, I was amazed at how cold and damp his house could be in California. You could practically see your breath in the winter. Soon after we moved in together, we launched our thermostat wars. I inched the temperature up five degrees; he’d bring it down seven. It wasn’t just about numbers on a dial, though. For me, the word home connotes warmth – both physical and emotional – and the thought of swaddling myself in a down coat in my living room isn’t just unpleasant, it feels like a betrayal of my sense of home. Jay is more practical and less symbolic. For him, heat means money, something which we’re always short on. When I reset the thermostat, Jay doesn’t hear the comforting clanging of the pipes warming up, and he doesn’t revel in the coziness around him. Instead, he hears the rustle money wasted – burned up in the vents of our home.

We don’t wage our war by yelling at one another; instead, we eye each other warily, watching vigilantly for the other to tamper with the heat setting. We amused our friend Amy, who was visiting for a few days, to no end. One of us would casually pass by the thermostat and raise or lower the temperature; a few minutes later the other would just as nonchalantly reverse that action. I’m sure that viewed from the outside, our antics are pretty entertaining, a sort of I Love Lucy send-up. But the way that I was beginning to feel about the matter was changing. I started snapping at Jay instead of cajoling him to make it warmer. The stakes seemed immeasurably higher.

As I’m sure most people lucky enough to ingest high doses of prednisone know all too well, mood swings are one of the drug’s most pernicious side effects. Depression, erratic shifts in mood, and anger are fairly common not only when starting the drug, but also with any increase or decrease of the dose. In Jay’s absence, I had the space (and the body heat) to reflect on my waspishness about matters as mundane as the thermostat. Over the past few weeks, as my daily dose of prednisone has decreased ever so slowly, I have become enraged at him over insignificant things – a tone of voice, an assumption he makes about my schedule, leaving the floor unswept, arriving home late from work. I’m not proud of these outbursts, and I’d like to blame them solely on the various fluctuations in my brain chemistry caused by prednisone. But that’s not really true, even though Jay teases me, “It’s not you, honey, it’s the prednisone.” No, I have been mean to him precisely because I can be.

I’ve done a fair amount of reading about chronic illness. Most books on the subject devote at least a chapter to the partners of the chronically ill. The standard line is that it’s not just the person diagnosed with the disease who suffers, but the entire family. Everyone has to deal with loss, anger, fear, and sadness. This is certainly true in our experience. Although Jay is too kind to remind me of it, his life has changed immeasurably in the wake of my diagnosis. His incredibly fit, independent, and self-sufficient wife morphed into this bloated, exhausted, needy woman, who can scarcely attend to the household chores each day. Instead of playing basketball after work or training for a marathon or taking a photography class, he dashes home to help care for Andrew or cook dinner. And he gets very little recognition for his efforts. While friends and family are quick to recognize how difficult my life has become, few seem to even consider Jay. If they ask him how he is, they’ll accept his answer of “fine,” without even pondering how utterly not fine he must be. Jay, like other family members of the chronically ill, exists in a constricted and tenuous space without clear-cut rules. There’s no question that sarcoidosis has stricken him just as much as me, but there is no room for him to acknowledge this. He must remain steadfast, earning our health insurance and the money to pay our bills, propping me upright at appointments when doctors discuss my mortality, making plans with my sickness always in the back of his mind.

However, one thing the books never discuss in their chapters on families is the dirtiest little secret of the chronically ill. We can be complete assholes. People who are sick and tired get mean. They get angry. They lash out. Let me be more specific. I get mean. I get angry. I lash out. And the person I take out most of anger on is the very same person who keeps me alive and who sustains me – Jay. Why? I ask myself over and over. I’ll say it again: Because I can. When you live in chronic town, it’s difficult to yell at a doctor for telling you that you might not live to see your son turn ten. You need that doctor to keep you as well as she can, to keep writing the prescriptions for the drugs that keep your illness at bay. Moreover, you and the doctor exist in a socially sanctioned space that doesn’t allow for your screaming. Doctors have tested me unnecessarily, kept me waiting for what must add up to days of my life, misinformed me, and scared the shit out of me, but I’ve always maintained a veneer of calm and respect with the white coats. Because I have to. But all that anger and despair and bloody fear goes somewhere. Lately, it’s been burning out of my eyes in a cold stare whenever Jay turns down the heat.

I hate it that I can’t keep my family separate from my illness. It makes me want to cry that when Andrew is running pretend errands on his toy taxi in our living room, he usually makes a stop at the pharmacy to “pick up Mommy’s medicine.” How can it be that my little two-year-old is a perfect gentleman with me, always asking solicitously about my health and my latest doctor’s appointment? Even more, I hate it that I take so much out on Jay. We pledged to remain by each other’s side in “sickness and in health,” but no one explained that sickness can linger for so long and make a person unbearably grouchy.

This weekend, after Jay returned from his trip, we spent some time just talking. “You have to trust me,” he said over and over. “I’m not going anywhere.” I was upset because I am fat, because I don’t have a full-time job, because I need him so damn much. “You have to trust me.” He loves me even though I am occasionally mean; he loves me even though I look like a different person; he loves me even though I am sick.

I want to never lash out at him again. The odds of this happening are slim. But I need to try. Just as he tries to hold together the house of cards our life has become. His mother once asked him how he managed all the stress and sadness in his life. “By putting one foot in front of the other,” he said. I can’t keep my illness from hurting him. I know that. But I need to try – better and harder than I have been. “One need not hope in order to undertake one’s work,” Sartre wrote in Existentialism and Humanism. He should have added that you can always put on an extra sweater. That’s what I’ll be doing this winter.

3 Comments

  1. Marianne said,

    Kevin actually turned to thermostat down so low one time I visited my parents with the kids, that he slept over friends’ house so he could be warm at night. I’m not sure, but that seems to delete the purpose.

  2. Will Choy said,

    As a product of a traditional (read “frugal”) chinese household, my parents almost never turned the heat on. Cold enough last night that the thermostat doesn’t go low enough to register the temperature in the house? Put on a sweatshirt. Needless to say, that sort of training turned me into the polar bear I am today. Now Maile, being from Hawaii, is absolutely frigid when the mercury drops below 68 in the house.

    So, when we got married, we sat down and negotiated our “compromise” temperature. 72. For the first 2 years of our marriage, I only needed to wear shorts and a t-shirt, and I still was hot. Now, I wasn’t happy because I don’t like being hot, but also because heat does cost money. Since, the alternative was Maile moving out… hot I stayed.

    Today, our compromise temperature is still 72, but she’s a little more thick blooded and I’m a little more thin blooded. Now, every so often during the winter, I’ll need to put on sweats. Checking the thermostat, I am utterly shocked to see it read “70.” Damn.

  3. Will Choy said,

    When Maile pulled the “I moved to frigid San Francisco from warm LA just for you” card, I was on the ropes. Then, she reminded me of how during the first 4 months of our marriage, we had no heat during the remodeling of our downstairs and that she would scurry home, take a hot shower and sit shivering in front of the space heater in the only habitable room in the house. Finally, she said that unless I agreed to 72, she was going to leave me and move to San Jose to live with her sister. So, yeah, she went all in and I folded. Sorry dude.

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