I write this in a cramped airplane seat, smooshed between an amicable teenage stranger and Glenn, the love of my life. We are on a return trip to our honeymoon destination to celebrate a milestone, our 25th wedding anniversary. I’m feeling thoughtful.
My inner feminist contemplates the heterosexual privilege that enabled us to marry so many years ago when others were forbidden by law to marry their sweethearts. Love is love! At the same time, my mushy heart reflects on what has enabled us to sustain our relationship for so long, with the good times far outweighing the bad.
For me, romance is what keeps love alive, but not the Hallmark variety. Instead, I understand romance in a way that I think will resonate with long-term cancer survivors and people who live with other chronic illnesses (and presumably some non-sick people as well).
Here’s how I explain romance to my undergraduate students. I teach a course called “Gender, Health, and Sexuality,” a more grown-up version of high school sex ed that features research on interpersonal communication about sex and sexual health. One of the exercises I use to help students think about their (possibly unrealistic) expectations of romantic or sexual relationships is having them write responses to this prompt: “Three things Disney movies never taught me about romance…”
Students’ answers are inevitably wonderful, running the gamut from “condoms are messy” to “how not to get pregnant” to “what to do when the prince cheats on you” and “sometimes two princesses fall in love.” I never horrify students by talking about my own sexual choices, even those made 30 years ago, but I deliberately gross them out with a particular story about romance.
A couple of years after the amputation of my right leg, I woke in the middle of the night, sweat beading along my forehead, nausea roiling in my stomach. I panted, trying to catch my breath as I grew increasingly certain that dinner would not remain in my stomach much longer. I reached for my crutches but fell back onto the bed, dizzy and unable to stand up. “Glenn,” I moaned. “Glenn! I need your help.”
“What? Huh?” asked Glenn, groggily.
“I’m going to throw up and I can’t get up. I can’t get my crutches,” I groaned.
My stomach started to convulse, and I slapped a hand over my mouth. Glenn sprang into action, grabbing the waste basket from his side of the bed and thrusting it in front of my face just as I threw up.
Turns out that above-knee amputees, weak with stomach flu, cannot maneuver our radically off-balance bodies (when we aren’t wearing a prosthesis) to the toilet (and even if we could, we certainly cannot kneel or otherwise get close enough for precision targeting of vomit).
After I lay back weakly, Glenn emptied the plastic basket of its vile contents, then lined it with a fresh trash bag, actions he repeated every few hours throughout the night and following day as I waited miserably for the flu to run its course. “Thank you,” I whimpered again and again.
“Of course, my love,” he answered each time.
“Now THAT is romance,” I declare to my students. “That is a love worth celebrating.” I see a variety of responses among the 20-21 year olds. Some nod, getting it. Others look thoughtful. A few look queasy or bewildered.
I ask them what romance means, scrawling key words of their responses on the board—whirlwind emotions, desire and love (or at least like) converging into passion, being swept off your feet, soul mates, being wooed with sweet words and flowers and special nights out.
“And how do you feel when you know that special person is being really romantic, going all out to let you know how they feel?” I ask.
“You feel special,” says one woman softly.
“You feel like they really get you, like they care about you,” says another.
“Exactly.” I respond.
If all goes well, we will celebrate our anniversary tomorrow night by dressing up and enjoying a romantic dinner in an upscale restaurant. I doubt it can compete with the flu for making me feel loved, but I’m willing to give it a try.