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I'm a big believer in going to the doctor -- as long as my wife is the one who is going. And she feels pretty much the same way about me. So when one of us gets sick, we have a lot of inane discussions like this:
"You should've had a physical," I tell Diane as she sits, wrapped in a comforter, trying to get down some soup to quell the antibiotics churning her stomach.
"I told you, I'm not getting a physical until you see the dentist."
"Well, I'll go to the dentist once you get your physical."
"Why should I get a physical when you still haven't done those smear-test things from your last two physicals? You do understand that they won't detect internal bleeding while the samples are sitting in an envelope on your dresser, right?"
And so on.
We've been having some version of this exchange for years. But as couples age together, the same exact conversation can end up being about something completely different. Before, they were just preventive medicine "double dog dares." Now what underlies them isn't so funny. It's the unspoken fear between loved ones that says: "If you die before me -- of something that could have been prevented -- I will never let you live it down."
I do so miss the days of "it's probably nothing." When I was single, and even after first being married, whenever I didn't feel well I always assumed it was probably nothing. And, if I did worry, there was always someone around to reassure me. Headache? Backache? Probably nothing. Quit your bellyaching. And, by the way, that bellyache? Probably nothing.
But now my wife and I -- and all the couples we know -- seem to have changed the default setting to "it's probably something." Fungus on my foot? Could be toenail cancer. Itchy scalp? Could be follicular Ebola.
Not long ago, whenever my back would go out, as it has periodically since puberty, I always anticipated a speedy and complete recovery. Now when I have back attacks, I am nearly paralyzed by fear that I will never walk erect -- or do anything else erect -- again. Actually my back just went out. This happened because...well, who knows why? It's never because I was lifting an anvil or a piano and forgot to bend at the knees. It's always because I slept on it the wrong way or inhaled too emphatically.
In general it's always better if married people get sick one at a time. If you have kids or pets, it's always preferable that one of you is well enough to feed them. And within the couple itself, it's best if both are clear on who is the caregiver and the caregivee. During illness defenses are down and hypersensitivity reigns, and it's easy to say mean things you don't necessarily mean. Only one spouse at a time should be able to invoke illness -- "sorry, babe, it was the drugs talking" -- to get out of such emotional jams.
When both of us are ill, we see all the gender differences in nurturing -- and in suffering -- up close and personal. Diane will be the first to tell you I have a spectacular bedside manner (when I am actually able to sit by the bed without lightning bolts shooting up my spine). But when my back is all twisted up, I can be cranky, annoying, and needy. I don't think I ever quite reach the stereotype of the whiny baby that men are supposedly reduced to at the slightest hangnail. And I'm sure none of my basketball buddies ever think they do either -- although I wouldn't want to eavesdrop on a conversation among the hoop wives on the subject.
Actually, we've reached the point in our marriage that whenever I act testy, Diane will look at me compassionately and ask, "Your back's sore, isn't it?" (Only an idiot would say, "No, my back is perfectly fine.")
Diane, on the other hand, believes that no matter how sick she is, she must do the laundry and clean the kitchen. I ask her not to, but she seems strangely uncompelled by my suggestion that surely we can survive in our own filth for a few days. Instead she stands there lecturing me -- and then, when I go back to the couch, yammering to herself -- about the countless chores that women get stuck with no matter the situation. If she were in an iron lung, with both arms in casts, she would still be trying to figure out a way to scotch over to the kitchen sink so she could keep tidying.
Last night she dragged herself, sick with aches and chills, into the darkened bedroom and because she had insisted on doing one more load of whites, tripped over the pile she had sorted out and literally flipped right into the empty basket. If that happened to me, the paramedics would have needed to get the Jaws of Life. But not my wife. She got up, dusted herself off, and proceeded to collapse into bed.
There's a resilience about women, even at their sickest, that I find inspiring and a little scary. Today, completely out of the blue, Diane decides that the best way to treat my symptoms is to challenge me to an ask-your-doctor discussion about the safety of my painkillers. I try to convince her that this little debate, while lively and fascinating, is probably not the best way to alleviate my pain and ask if maybe we could discuss epidurals.
She nods as if she understands. But I can see that she is humoring me, and in the game of marital chess she's already three moves ahead.
"Okay, fine," she says, "I'll stop harassing you. But only if you agree to call the doctor tomorrow and schedule a physical."
"All right already, I'll do it."
"I want it in writing." She reaches for her desk calendar and writes the following: "I, Stephen Fried, promise to make an appointment for a complete physical" and draws a line where I can sign. And I do.
Oh, she's a crafty one.
So in two weeks I have a doctor's appointment. I'm hoping to God that my back is no longer sore by then. (In my experience, most serious symptoms abate about an hour before you finally see the doctor.) But Diane had better be careful. Because she knows that part of the reason I hate going to the doctor is my fear that it'll awaken my secret medical fantasy. Deep inside, I actually want every diagnostic test known to man. I want everything from my eyelashes to my toe hairs analyzed. I want dye sent through every vein, artery, and capillary in my body, and then I want to be x-rayed and CT-scanned from every conceivable angle. Then it's on to the total-body MRI. And not just once. I want an MRI machine set up at the front door of my house. I want to be scanned every morning when I leave and every evening upon my return.
My computer gets a virus check every day. Why the hell can't I?
So you want me to go to the doctor, dear? Like so many things in marriage, be careful what you wish for.
Next month: What naked men talk about.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, March 2006.