A hummingbird’s nest was swaying precariously on the tip of a slender branch of cactus on our front porch. I looked at it and started to say something almost ridiculously optimistic to my husband.
“Look, honey, a hummingbird is bringing new life our way.”
But, given the diagnosis he’d finally gotten from the doctor that morning, I myself wouldn’t have believed what I was saying.
Deep inside I didn’t feel like anything new was heading my way at all. Deep inside I was afraid that my husband’s Parkinson’s disease, like the hummingbird’s nest, was too heavy for the branch.
I can do this, I repeated to myself. Trying to make myself believe that I could. I can do this.
As it turned out of course, I could do it.
I could do the bathing and the shampooing, the shaving and the buttoning, the cooking and cutting up of food and I could do all the driving. I could also get the car and the air conditioner fixed and manage all the things that I had at one time relied on my husband to manage.
Doing the practical stuff wasn’t the hard part. It was the emotional stuff that I hadn’t counted on that was the hard part.
Two or three years after we’d settled into a routine, I brought my husband’s dinner to him in the family room and checked to make sure the TV remote was next to his chair and that his water glass was full.
“Thank you,” he said, reaching out for his plate with trembling hands.
As I walked back into the kitchen, an uncomfortable feeling come over me and later that night in bed I kept seeing those awful trembling hands reaching out to me.
Turns out they were asking me a question.
Was I feeling “motherly” towards the man I was married to, the man I was supposed to be having a sexual relationship with?
The question made me squirm and I had the horrible presentiment that my sweetheart/wife/lover feelings for my husband might have fallen away while I wasn’t looking.
A few days later, I was combing his long hair when I glanced into the mirror and saw a vision of myself standing in front of various mirrors through the years.
I’ve done this kind of hair combing before — for my children.
In that moment I knew that no matter how much I tried to deny it, sexual intimacy with my husband would feel to me like I was acting out a taboo—the taboo of a mother behaving erotically towards her children.
I had stepped over a line.
Pushing the knowledge down didn’t work. The awareness had changed everything for me. I grieved anew over having lost my man — and then on top of that grieved over having lost the sexual self I had known myself to be.
I struggled. I prayed and I even talked to my husband about it. I went to therapy and wrote to my support group and hoped that I could learn to live with my new self and my “new” marriage.
“It happens,” was the overall consensus. “It happens.”
My husband and I would manage to find our way to a kind of brother/sister bond that made room for my nurturing-self as well as for his physically debilitated self but I would never recover the passion that had once fueled my responses to him.
We had lost the physical bond and particular kind of intimacy that sets a marriage apart from other relationships and couldn’t recapture it.
Finally, we recognized that we each wanted that aspect of love in our lives again and that it was too late for us to have it with each other.
One morning, in the midst of packing, I saw that the cactus on the porch was sending out shoots again. I recalled the hummingbird nest that had been there that day when my husband had gotten his diagnosis.
As I’d thought, the nest didn’t survive.
Maybe the mother hummingbird just didn’t know. Maybe, like me, her one thought had been “I can do this. I can do this.” Maybe she didn’t think of anything else, she just clung to the hope that everything would work out.
But in the end. She couldn’t do it. And in the end, neither could I.