Definition of a Wife or a Valentine to My Wife

This piece came to me after reading a thread in a lesbian political group on Facebook. The thread was not about marriage or what you call your spouse but made in a conversation about a political topic. The comment was not argumentative, really it was rather simply stated that this woman would not call her partner, were they to ever marry, her wife since the term “wife” was part of the language of the patriarchy. I filtered this comment through my experience. You see, my late wife warned me before she died that her family would turn their backs on me no matter how supportive they seemed presently because they did not see our relationship as being equal to a heterosexual one, our love was “less than.” She said they would do this even though they had participated in our wedding. I was convinced they would not. Her prediction came true. They did see our relationship as less than, and based on their actions, I believe they would have taken everything from me if I hadn’t had that marriage license. Let’s face it, some in straight society will never want us to have rights or see us as equal. But some will eventually see our love, our grief, our struggles in the same light as their own if we use their language, their terms. Language is how we define and compare experiences. Language is our filter. My wife was my wife. No other term conveys the struggles, the grief, and the love contained in the time we had.

We all wanted the equality of marriage.
Yet some struggle with the titles and terms.
To say wife brings images of June Cleaver,
Perfectly coifed, perfectly applied makeup,
Wearing pearls as she cleans and cooks.
To say wife embraces the chains of the patriarchy,
At least, some say.

If we embrace the equality of marriage,
And not the trappings of a wedding,
What is the definition of a wife?
What does it mean to be a wife?

Doing the daily things to keep a home going
That’s what a wife means.
Yes, it means the cooking, cleaning, laundry,
And more. Sometimes it means staying
When you feel like walking out.
Even before the government says
It is legal to call
Your wife your wife–
It means pulling yourself together
After you hear your wife has stage four ovarian cancer,
So you can be the one to break the news
When she wakes from the anesthesia
Of an emergency surgery.

That’s what it means to be a wife.

When a month later,
Late at night,
After another surgery,
Your wife turns her frightened eyes to you
And says that she doesn’t want chemo
Unless you are home to care for her.
Your choice—your career or her chance at life.
You resign the next day.

That’s the definition of a wife.

And so, it goes—
Surgeries and chemo—
But a prognosis of eighteen months
Turns into nearly five years—
In those years,
The Supreme Court says
You can finally call each other wife.
And marry to make it so.
Your daughter, thrilled,
Speaks eloquently about the love
Between the two of you encompassing her,
Protecting her.
You both cry. Neither of you had any idea
What the thirteen-year-old would say
When she stood to speak.
You kiss your wife’s bald head as she bows it
To wipe tears away.

That’s what it means to be a wife.

And then, very near the end,
You find them among
A mass of papers and bills
Your wife had run rampant through.
Hotel receipts. Hotel receipts
When you thought she had gone
To the casino with a friend.
You watch your wife sleep peacefully.
Heavy doses of morphine now.
Rarely does she wake. When she does,
She is thirsty and hungry.
She is wasting away.
Skin over a skeleton.
If she eats or drinks,
She vomits green bile
And the pain is like nothing
You’ve ever seen.
There will be no confrontation
Over hotel receipts.
So, she had another fling
With her high school flame,
A woman she first loved,
A woman who, for spite,
Married her husband
On your wife’s birthday.
Yes, your wife turned selfish this last
Year. Some dying turn generous and
Some turn selfish.
But you couldn’t deny the logic.
Afterall, your wife was the one dying,
As she was to always remind you.
You shred the hotel receipts.
Your daughter should never find them.
It would destroy her to know this.
And then you feel it.
Something is chiseled out of you,
Sharp edges remain.
Your wife cries out.
You run to the bedroom.
She has fallen and shit herself.
You get her up and to the bathroom.
You clean and bathe her.
Get her back into the bed.
She begs you for enough morphine to end it.
When you tell her you can’t do that,
She calls you a selfish bitch.
You give what’s prescribed by hospice.
She sleeps and so do you.

That’s the definition of a wife.

Hospice increases the morphine dose and strength.
To be given hourly.
The nurse wants to know if you want a nurse
Around the clock.
You say your wife said no.
She said she didn’t want that.
You honor every wish she had.

That’s what it means to be a wife.

For five days she does not wake.
For five days you do not sleep.
Energy drinks and coffee are your magic elixirs.
You administer the morphine as the hospice nurse instructed.
You know what they are having you do.
Slowly, slowly, this increased strength and hourly dose
Is killing your wife, shutting down her organs.

Yes, it is a mercy.
She couldn’t drink or eat.
The hospice nurse visits every day.
She says the pulse is weak in your wife’s ankles.
24 to 48 hours at the most she says on day four.
The nurse clasps your shoulder on the way out.

That’s the definition of a wife.

Your wife mutters,
“I’m sorry, so sorry.”
Three times before
Midnight of the fifth day.
You do not know to whom
Or for what your wife apologizes.
Her words have no reference point
And never will.
Your daughter comes home
From a friend’s birthday party
At ten o’clock.
She checks on you and your wife.
“I’m sorry, so sorry,”
Your wife mutters for the last time.
Your daughter asks why she’s saying that.
You say you don’t know.
The rain starts. It’s pouring down.
Eleven o’clock– a dose of morphine.
The rain hasn’t stopped.
Midnight. Your daughter checks to see if you need anything.
You ask her to make a pot of coffee.
Another dose of morphine.
You swipe your wife’s lips with a sponge
To keep them moist.
As you are rinsing the oral syringe,
You hear the breath, the rattle.
You walk to the bed.
Place your hand on your wife’s chest.
It is still. No rise. No fall. Still.
Your head falls upon your hand.
Your daughter comes in and asks
What is wrong. You tell her it is over. Done.
She places her hand next to yours.
She feels the stillness.
She screams no.
And runs to her room,
Slamming her door
As if it would shut out
Time and death.

That’s what it means to be a wife.

You call your wife’s parents next,
The hospice nurse after them,
The funeral director is called last.
You endure the parents
Because you can’t imagine their pain.
They must bury a child.
The nurse certifies the death and tosses
The drugs and leaves. She handles it all
Efficiently. Then the funeral director arrives.

It is still pouring rain.
They wait patiently in the hall.
The parents leave.
You ask your daughter if she wants a moment
To say good-bye.
She takes it, telling you she’d like to be alone with your wife.
You wait patiently with the funeral director and the assistant
In the hallway.
Something hollow settles in your chest.
Your daughter leaves the bedroom
And you take your turn.
Your wife is gone.
You stroke her forehead.
Take her hand.
It is over. It is done.
Five years of grieving,
Losing pieces of your lives together,
Watching plans melt away,
Watching the woman you love disappear
As the cancer spread to the brain
And behavior became irrational,
Accusing, and you became the
Whipping post for all the things lost,
All the things your wife felt slipping away.
You wonder how much grief there could be left,
How much more could be felt after all this?
You let the funeral director and assistant
Take your wife away. They tell you to look away
And so gently close the door.
She is covered on the gurney when they open the door.
It is still pouring rain
As they take her out the front door and into the hearse.
You close the door. There is much to do.
You drink coffee until sunrise. It stops raining.
You will sleep today, you suppose. Later.
After…After so many things to do…
After the hollowness inside is hollowed out
After the sharp edges wear away
When feeling returns

That’s the definition of a wife.

For better and for worse.
In sickness and in health.
Love and cherish
To have and to hold

This is all of it—
The equality of love.
This is a marriage.
This is the definition, the meaning
Of what it is to be a wife,
And what it can convey of a heart.

13 thoughts on “Definition of a Wife or a Valentine to My Wife

  1. My heart goes out to you for yr loss. I’m starting to experience.I love someone, too far away to have a direct influence, who has decided she does not want to go all she needs to treat her breast cancer. She wants her last days not spent on hospital visits. She seems quite content, now that she had decided to go on her own. I am sick about this decision. Losing her leaves me in a world empty of her special presence. I dread the lost soul I may be.
    Jeez, this has opened me up like I haven’t opened up.
    gray

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I understand how you are feeling. But when each of us is face with a terminal illness, we have to decide how to face it for ourselves. When my wife stopped chemo, I supported her decision to do so–not because I wanted to, but because I had to since it was her body and her decision and since I loved her. We each decide how we want to live, but we , unfortunately don’t always get to decide how we wish to die. The one you love is deciding how she wishes to live with cancer. She is not deciding to die. Cancer took that from her. Find comfort in the control she has taken from cancer.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you once again. When I read that some women would not call their partner’s wife because of a feminist objection to the word, I wrote this because I can’t imagine calling my wife by any other term. The word conveys more than what any feminist or patriarchal ideals can pigeon hole it into. Again, thank you for your kind words.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I can’t believe I am truly feeling all that you have written. My eyes are weeping from your truth……this is so much more than what it means to “be a wife”. My prayers are with you and your child. May the next world be kinder.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow! Left my heart beating soooo hard. Sory for your loss. Your words are so strong! That’s the definition of a wife. So true!
    I’m not comparing, I never do, since I believe that we are built differently, but I couldn’t wonder if a man would dedicate his life to be for his wife. Just a thought that came to me.
    I agree that we have to use terms which are used by society, as we are part of it. It’s like visibility: as more as we are visible, the more society will get used to us. I can but hope for it to happen, and dream of the time we all weill be treated as equals, Awomen!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your kind words. I am honored the poem touched you. I do believe there are men who would be as dedicated to their wives. I’ve known a few women who left their partners/ wives because they couldn’t handle the journey on which breast cancer was taking them. I believe that in the end we will discover that we are just all people flawed in some ways and perfected in others with varying degrees in between within each of us.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Beautiful tribute to love & loss.

    It’s a tortuous task: the larger war to make patriarchy obsolete all the while fighting battles to retool its warped language for the sake of all that is worthy of being called human.

    Liked by 1 person

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