Until today, I thought I knew everything about love. After all, I love my husband Steve and have loved him for seventeen years. I love my family. I love my friends. I love my cats. Love is the feeling I get when Steve holds my hand. Love is the pot roast my mother makes when she knows I’m coming to visit. Love is the side-splitting laughter I share with my girlfriends when we’re gossiping about somebody we shouldn’t.
But today, while visiting Steve’s sick grandmother in the hospital, I met a man named Mark. Mark’s wife has multiple sclerosis. She occupies the bed next to Grandma’s. But unlike Grandma, who’s 86 and has only been in the hospital for a couple of months, Mark’s wife is in her mid-40s and has been in the hospital for four years.
I didn’t get the chance to ask Mark what his wife’s name was. I wish I had. Because today, Mark and his wife taught me a new way of looking at love, and it was a way I might never have learned otherwise.
Mark’s wife can no longer speak. She can’t eat or dress or bathe or use the toilet or do any of the basic things most of us take for granted. Her hair, once long and beautiful, is shorn down to a crew cut to make it easier to wash. Her fingernails, once long and always painted with the latest trendy color, are now kept short and bare.
But her eyes are open, and she can hear. And when we walked into the room to visit Grandma, she watched us with eyes that saw everything. Her head turned to follow us as we filed in, and she watched our faces as we reunited with family members we hadn’t seen in years. She listened to our laughter and easy conversation.
Mark came into the room shortly after we did. Grandma told us he visits his wife every day in the hospital. Every day. And today, like every other day for the past four years, his step was lively and purposeful.
I watched her face as he approached. Her mouth didn’t curl into a smile, because it can’t. She didn’t lift a hand to wave, because she couldn’t. But her eyes lit up when she saw her handsome husband.
He leaned over the bed. He took her face in his hands and looked straight into her eyes. He smiled brightly and spoke to her in a clear voice. “Hello, my love. How are you today? I’m so happy to see you. I love so you much.”
And then he kissed her. On the lips. It was not a chaste kiss. It was not an obligatory kiss. It was the kiss a man gives a woman he loves deeply, with all his heart. I felt like an intruder watching them, but I couldn’t not look. The room was too small, my chair was facing in their direction, and they were only a few feet away. So like a peeping tom, I watched… not that they cared. They were in their own little world built for two.
Mark spent the next few hours making sure his wife was comfortable. He straightened her pillows. He massaged her bare feet. There were plenty of nurses available, but he changed the fluids in her IV himself. He bustled around her bed making sure her blankets were neat. He pulled out a spray bottle of disinfectant and wiped down the bed railings so she wouldn’t get the virus that’s been floating around the hospital for the past week.
And every few minutes, he would pause to kiss her. To stroke her hair. To look into her eyes and tell her how much he loved her, how beautiful she looked, how happy she made him. To smile at her.
Grandma says he does this every day. Every day.
Steve didn’t have to ask what I was thinking as I watched Mark and his wife. He already knew. And when my husband took my hand and said, “Yes, I would do that for you,” that’s when I realized that everything I think I know about love is just the beginning of what love really is.
God bless you both, Mark.