Take You Me For a Sponge?: How My Marriage Survived Illness and Caregiving
Sea sponges lack heart, lungs, and the ability to move. They perform their ancient tasks because they must.
• There are over 10,000 species of sponges!
• Sea turtles eat them.
For weeks after coming home from the four-month hospitalization for his stem cell transplant, Brad was too weak and deconditioned to walk across a room unattended, much less do the dishes. He had also lost his vision to acute graft-versus-host disease and was severely immunocompromised. Everything had to be clean and sanitary. We cycled rapidly through sponges.
After four months, he was strong enough to stand at the sink for a few minutes, and steady enough on his feet to bend down to put dishes in the dishwasher. He was trying, so hard, to re-enter the normal life of our family, but he couldn’t do the dishes like he used to. He couldn’t see to rinse them, and he didn’t have the energy to stand there scrubbing for long. Sometimes, the dishes he hand-washed still bore ghostly traces of my lipstick or a smear of stubborn food.
As he finished the dishes he faithfully squeezed the sponge, like he used to. But he couldn’t wring it out completely. One of his medications caused hand tremors, and his shaking, weakened hand left the sponge plump with fluid. Most nights, I remembered to come downstairs after the dishes were done and give it another squeeze with my stronger grip. Water and unseen bacteria spilled out, and I rinsed them away down the drain along with the food scraps Brad didn’t know he had left behind. Sometimes I forgot. Sometimes the sponge sat too long and grew musty.
What I really wanted to do, those evenings, was to run away from the demands of caregiving, the frustrations of parenting with a partner too ill to take on much of the load, the tedium of daily details. I was tempted, during what I took to calling my ill-timed midlife crisis, to blow up my entire life. But bound by the entwined tendrils of love and obligation, I couldn’t toss aside the life we had built. I could, however, rebel a little when it came to the sponge. When it developed a telltale mildewy whiff, I threw it in the trash and got out a new O-Cel-O sponge, slightly moist, as the ones in the package always mysteriously are.
Sponges, the more than 10,000 kinds of them, in all their brainless simplicity, are among the oldest forms of animal life on earth. The golden age of sponges, according to the fossil record, was some 635 million years ago, when they blanketed the shallows of the cold oceans. It was some kind of soft, absorbent heyday. The deep parts of the ocean didn’t yet contain oxygen. Scientists have theorized that sponges’ ability to organize and grow different types of tissue was the critical evolutionary advance that underlies the development of all subsequent animal life. Sometimes I wonder if women’s ability to organize and adapt underlies the development of all family life.
Domestic life and love are full of compromises big and small. We love someone, so we choose to stay with them even if life together isn’t quite what we pictured. We make tradeoffs. We take on a little more of the domestic labor than we want in one arena or another. We absorb disappointment or tasks like sponges, hardly noticing as we soak it up, and it festers into resentment if we don’t squeeze it out.
For years, I let our cooking and doing-the-dishes divide turn rank in exactly this way. When we set up the compromise, we thought of it as equal, a successful compromise. Over time, however, I also took on the mental load of planning meals and maintaining our food stores, a project that got more complex as our family grew. I had been naïve about the division of labor early in our marriage. I hadn’t thought about the mental load, which grew and grew as we had two children, as we moved to a bigger house that better accommodated them, as we acquired more stuff, as our work lives got more demanding. When things were otherwise good, I scarcely noticed as our marriage’s balance shifted. Once Brad was incapacitated by illness and everything—plus the added load of caring for him—fell entirely to me, it was almost too late to redress it.
When Brad, still ill and unsteady, started putting a few dishes in the dishwasher, it didn’t seem like much at first. But just as hundreds of millions of years ago, the sponges’ small evolutionary leap of organization gave rise to all the future complexities of animal life, it was for our marriage a crucial turning point.
We were both all but wrung out: I by hard caregiving, Brad by his illness. Somehow, he found just enough energy to take on this old task, the first one we ever compromised on all those years ago. I found just enough love to come downstairs and quietly squeeze out the sponge, knowing he didn’t have the strength. In so doing, I found the space and compassion to meet my partner where he was.
It’s been two years since Brad’s stem cell transplant. He recovered his vision thanks to two corneal transplants, and he’s in remission, though still immunocompromised and medically fragile. He does the dishes most nights, and he’s also learning to cook. We’re doing the work, together, of rebuilding the connection we almost lost. That’s the good thing about both sponges and marriages: They’re both absorbent and, if tended, resilient. However hard you squeeze, if you realize what you’re doing and let go, they regain their form.
Kate Washington is a writer in Sacramento and the dining critic for The Sacramento Bee. Her work has appeared in such venues as Avidly, The Washington Post, Ravishly, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and Dame. She is at work on a book-length memoir and feminist cultural critique of caregiving.