When "In Sickness and In Health" Is Put to the Test

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It’s March—and almost exactly a year since I heard the ominous words, “There’s a mass in his brain.”

Prior to that day, all of my pre-wedding disasters were filed under subjects like, “Bridesmaids might get distracting sunburn,” or “No one will dance!” The last thing on my mind, merely three months before the wedding, was that my fiancé would have to be admitted to the hospital for surprise brain surgery and that I would get a glimpse into the stark reality of the vows we were about to make.

Long before those foreboding words were spoken, however, there were clues. I wish I could describe how sympathetic I was when he first expressed his unrelenting headache, or how I kindly encouraged him to rest without making him feel guilty or planning more things for him to do. But that is certainly not the case. To put it quite candidly, I was really, really annoyed with him.

Specifically, when he told me for the third day in a row that he “felt miserable,” and couldn’t help with wedding invites, nor come to a concert that we had been aching to go to for months—I was exasperated. How could he! After all, I was the busy one. At the time, I was working two jobs: one at a time-consuming startup, and the other, a full-time marketing position. On top of that, like most brides-to-be, I had been conducting the majority of the wedding planning in a (comparatively) condensed time frame of only six months. He, too, was working a stressful job in a competitive design agency and certainly knew how important it was to me that he’d help out with the wedding, but I was too busy to understand his physical pain and far too time-crunched to see his perspective.

After a week of a fever, continual irritability, and constantly taking ibuprofen, we finally decided—begrudgingly—that he should probably go see a doctor, who in turn, told us that he should probably get a CT scan. “It’s probably nothing, but just to be sure,” the doctor told us.

“This is not convenient, I know,” he said while we waited for the results. In my mind, I imagined all of our PTO slowly being drained from us. At this rate, he might not have enough left for our honeymoon. But as a second doctor walked into the office, and solemnly told us that we should sit down, our frustration was instantly replaced by shock, then fear, and then, strangely, hope and focus. “We don’t know what this mass is, exactly, but we do know he needs to go to the hospital now.”

He was immediately taken in an ambulance, and all I was left with were his apartment keys. As I drove to his place to pack a bag for him, I was dazed. This? Now? Yet, I felt a strong sense of clarity. Perhaps it was merely survival instincts, but I’d like to think it was faith. I imagined looking through the lens of a camera, and finally focusing on the clear picture in front of me. Quite suddenly, I knew what—or rather, who—was the most important part of my life. It was this epiphany that emboldened me to put away my bride-to-be juggling game. I emailed both of my bosses that I wouldn’t be available for the next several days. I finally knew what was important.

“We think it’s a tumor, a 'glioblastoma,'” said the first young neurosurgeon late that first night. “But due to its location, we’re optimistic. It’s the right prefrontal lobe—that’s mainly just the personality part of the brain.” Just the personality part of the brain? I must have looked visibly upset, as the young resident, who wasn’t much older than us, sympathetically replied, “It’s the best place… for something like this.”

But I was marrying this personality! Isn’t his personality who he is? Will the man I marry be different from the man who proposed?

That night, we received no answers to such philosophical and physiological questions. But there were phone calls, texts, emails. Some inspiring, some encouraging, some heartbreaking, and some wallowing in negativity and effusive emotion.

As I exercised my PR skills on his behalf (all drugged up, he really didn’t want to talk to anyone), I was reminded of what I heard said about marriage. “The most intimate moment you’ll have won’t be under the covers. It won’t be sexy, it won’t be clean. It will be wrapped in sickness, sweat, and uncertainty.” I looked at him, asleep on the hospital bed, hooked up to IVs. I’d never felt closer to him and more in love. The more I thought about the vows we planned to say, the more my anxiety—from the wedding, to being accepted by the future in-laws, to my job, and now most importantly, to the man laying there—melted away. Marriage no longer felt like a complicated trap we were about to jump into, or an arduous puzzle that so many give up and put away in frustration. It was simply this: a total giving of oneself on behalf of another person.

The next several days were a blur. After what seemed like weeks—but was in fact days—the brain surgery was at last performed. It felt miraculous when they confirmed that,  instead of glioblastoma, he had a brain abscess. Incredibly rare, but in the twenty-first century, usually curable. And incredibly noncancerous.

Looking back a year later, I’m thankful for the unique look into what in sickness and in health really means before we even said our vows. Loving in good times and bad means so much more than withstanding actual health or sickness. It points to a promise of lifelong intimacy, the kind wrapped in sweat and uncertainty—and yes, the indescribable bliss of steadfast love. And as for the haunting question, “Will the man I be marrying be different from the man who proposed?” Well, yes. Although my husband (fortunately) didn’t have any marked personality changes, it’s so very clear that, even just a year later, neither of us is the exact same person.