Sunday, November 17, 2013

Doctors' Wives

Perhaps this is a good time to tell you about the courageous woman who sat next to me and held my hand when I was a mostly dead, yellow-eyed, ball of bacteria.
     She is my best friend of twenty years, the same woman who encouraged me when I was a hormonal and sleep-deprived young mother, even though she was one, too. She is the caretaker of all my secrets and insecurities, the woman who kept me going during the dark days of my separation and divorce. She is the brave soul who, just before I got sick, accompanied me on a round-trip odyssey from Maryland to Upstate New York to fetch my ailing 83-year-old mother and get her settled into a nursing home.
     Arleen is not an ordinary woman, and the story of our friendship isn’t all that run-of-the-mill, either.
     We met in January 1994, when my Lamaze instructor called to tell me about a perfectly lovely doctor’s wife who was new to town and had recently had a baby. “She’s expecting your call. I think the two of you would get along wonderfully.”
My first thought was, oh, hell – another doctor’s wife.
If you happen to be the wife of a physician, I mean no offense. It’s just that I’d been in town for about a year and a half and, after attending a few events for doctor’s spouses (i.e.: wives of male physicians) I didn’t think I fit in. I didn’t have much in common with most of these women. This was back in the day when pharmaceutical companies could legally bribe doctors with fancy food, drinks, and private boxes at pro sporting events, and I admit I enjoyed all those things just fine. But many such events provided “activities” for wives while the boys talked shop.
Once, we gals were ushered into a separate room and shown how to create something called a “stiffie Christmas bow” by a cheerful, craft-y type lady. I was the only woman in attendance with a mind so dirty I had to muffle my laughter. (Sadly, that festive “stiffie” is as viable today as the day it sprang to life from my crafty hands, which is more than I can say for my marriage.) Anyway, so the idea of meeting our town’s newest doctor’s wife was a less-than-thrilling prospect for me.
“She doesn’t know a soul in town,” the Lamaze instructor said.
Fine. I promised I’d have coffee with the new doctor’s wife.
It was cold and snowy. The address I was given was in the ritzy part of town. I begrudgingly put on a skirt, sweater, earrings, makeup, pantyhose, and heels, thinking that’s what this chick would expect. I show up with six-month-old Conor in tow and knock on the door, and a woman answers. My jaw opens in disbelief.
She’s barefoot, bleary-eyed, wearing faded jeans and a ratty, stretched out T-shirt, and cradling a two-month-old infant. What the – ? This Arleen woman welcomes me in and offers me homemade chocolate chip cookies, which I politely refuse because I’m still trying to shed the metric ton of baby weight I gained with Conor. Because she and her husband had no living room furniture, we sat on the carpet. We made awkward small talk.
Arleen later told me that the combination of my uptight clothing ensemble and my passing on her cookies made her think, I am not going to like this woman.

BFFs, March 2011

Fast-forward a couple decades. At this point, we’ve done it all and seen it all, together. Our second kids were born just days apart, and to keep ourselves sane with four preschoolers, we’d sometimes shut ourselves in the minivan in the driveway while watching the kids play in the yard. Then we’d roll up the windows, repeatedly scream the “f-word” at the top of our lungs, then get out and cheerfully ask, “Who’s ready for some Goldfish and apple juice?”
Our families melded together through the years. We set out on Winnebago vacations together to the American Southwest, the Canadian Maritime provinces, and Alaska. We celebrated birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays together.  We ate at each other’s houses so often that I actually looked forward to Arleen’s pureed, no-fat black bean soup and she knew where I kept my stash of Lorna Doones. Our children share as many memories as biological siblings. Even our dogs were from the same litter. We became sisters of the heart more than just friends, and our comfort level with each other reflects that. I will never forget the day I waited for Arleen to show up so we could walk the dogs together. I texted her. “Still coming?”
“I’m here.”
Puzzled, I looked out my front door. “Where? I don’t see you. Are you out front?”
“I’m in your bathroom,” she texted back.
Arleen and I separated from and divorced our doctor husbands at roughly the same time, and there were years where keeping each other standing was second only to caring for the kids. Things eventually calmed down, and after we turned fifty, we’d often sit on the porch drinking tea and joke about growing old together, two cranky crones sharing a small wheelchair-accessible house somewhere, the only question being who’d be pushing whom in the wheelchair. One evening in the fall of 2011, the topic of living wills came up, and we discussed being each other’s medical representative should anything horrible ever befall us in our old age. It was a lighthearted discussion. I remember we were laughing.
“Just promise you’ll give me some time to come out of my coma before you pull the plug,” Arleen said.
“I promise.”
“Promise me you’ll read to me and sing to me and talk to me and do everything possible to wake me up.”
I nodded. “Of course I will. So how often will I be doing this? A couple times a week?”
“What? No! Every day!” she said, pretending to be shocked.
“In that case, you get six months, tops,” I quipped.
Just weeks later, these issues were no longer humorous or hypothetical. Arleen was the one who was asked to make life and death decisions, and I was the one who ended up in the wheelchair first.
During my illness and recovery, Arleen has been anything and everything I’ve needed her to be – my BFF, my sounding board, my personal shopper, my angel of mercy, and even my bitch-from-hell protector. I thank her every chance I get and she always smiles and says, “It’s been an honor. I know you’d do the same for me.”
She’s right. I would do anything for Arleen. It would be an honor.
But for her sake, I hope I never have to.

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