As strong a force as love is, it only got me through the first time I thought my husband was dying. It turned out the motivation that really stuck, what kept me going through the rigors of caregiving, was duty. I would have like to think it would have been love, but no: Outmoded, grim, sexist duty kept me trudging back and forth to the hospital, doing laundry, taking care of all the business of his illness and our lost lives.
In our age of self-care and self-fulfillment, duty has long been out of fashion. The very term conjures up images of indomitable iron-jawed and iron-corseted Victorian dowagers, ramrod-straight back never touching the restful pillows of a chair. My husband used to call me indomitable, but it was usually because I was urging him to keep going on a hike he didn’t want to do—not, I hope, out of resemblance to a dowager. Or one thinks of the wifely and Christian duties of the younger counterparts of those Victorian widows, young wives grimly submitting to conjugal embraces or doling out charitable soup to the ill and the poor. Victorian novels, unsurprisingly, are chock-full of dutiful caregivers: Their audience—middle-class women of the day—would have had painfully intimate experience of caregiving. People were ill and died at home, almost invariably. (Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management devotes whole chapters to diagnosing, managing, and cooking for invalids.) Victorian novels abound with doses of laudanum, the bed-bound ill, the quietly suffering, the nervous invalid, and the angels in the house who dispense care and sympathy to all—while also, presumably, offstage doing backbreaking laundry, dressing bedsores, and emptying foul bedpans.
Hospitals were places of horror, reserved solely for the indigent and quarantined. George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch, set in the 1830s, depicts the faint stirrings of the shift to a more professionalized, outsourced model of medicine and nursing, but it also shows plenty of caregiving at home, particularly in the characters of Mary Garth—a poor relation caring, for pay, for the dying Peter Featherstone—and the protagonist Dorothea Brooke, who is faced with the thorny job of looking after her difficult husband Mr. Casaubon. These subplots in Middlemarch illuminate how difficult the pulls of caregiving can be, and how hard it can be to know and do one’s duty.
I revisit Middlemarch often, and always find something new in it, but I used to think the questions of marital obligations it raised had little to do with my thoroughly modern marriage. That was before my husband had a stem-cell transplant followed by the severe, life-threatening complication of graft-versus-host-disease (GVHD), and I had to make good on that “in sickness and in health” promise I made way back in 1999. In 2016, my husband lost his vision and for a time his ability to eat; he nearly died at several different times, and he required round-the-clock care for a significant portion of the year, both in the hospital and at home.
Fashionable or not, duty is very the essence of caregiving. Love withered and quailed in the face of prolonged crisis. I still love my husband, but duty forced me to the hospital on days when I knew our entire visit would take place with him on the commode, disgorging life-threatening flows of shit by the liter. (The nurses, thankfully, were the ones who had to measure it.) When he started to eat again after weeks without food, it was duty that kept me carrying hot homemade broth to the hospital day after day, and watching as most of the meal I’d worked to make was thrown away. Sometimes I thought about those Victorian caregivers, who laboriously prepared the sort of jellied soups and delicate blancmanges that were the sustenance of the sick in the days before hospital trays and packaged Jell-O. Those women, too, simmered broths and carried them hot to bedsides, hoping to coax their charges to take a few mouthfuls, and then, I have no doubt, sternly quelled an inner flare of resentment when they had to discard most of it. Those women, though, probably gave the leftovers to the servants or the pigs.
It was duty, after my husband came home, that kept me ordering special nutritional powders on Amazon and filling his pill box weekly and keeping the house clean and completing disability-benefit forms by the dozen and answering as kindly as I could the many, many times a day that he asked me what was on the schedule, because his short-term memory remains shot from chemo and he lost his vision thanks to GVHD and he hadn’t yet learned to use the calendar app on his phone with voice commands. It is even duty that has kept me calling the babysitter and setting up nights when we can go out to dinner, because I know that is what he wants to do, and he has been ill, and as much as I would like to be in my pajamas reading a book we should be trying to rebuild the marriage that has been shattered by illness.
Maybe duty isn’t so out of fashion. Maybe the new name for it is that glib truism “fake it till you make it.” I’ve felt like I was faking it for months, on the ceaseless rounds between the medical center (first the hospital, now the oncologists’ office) and home and our girls’ school and errands. I haven’t made it yet.
The notion of duty presupposes that the needs of the ill person are the most important. And of course, all else must bow to keeping a critically ill person alive. But the caregiver also has a duty to him- or herself, and this duty can conflict painfully with that of the person for whom she (in our culture, it’s almost always a she) cares—a conflict that the caregiving plots in Middlemarch expose starkly.
Caregiving is not always the clear-cut, easy situation one might think. There are the simple cases: I must advocate for this man to get chemotherapy, or he will surely die. I must ask these questions of his doctor or we might miss a key bit of information or an opportunity for more effective treatment. I must administer his medications. I must serve him meals. I must take him to medical appointments. But there are also the optional moments, the judgment calls, the demands that could or maybe should be gentle requests. There are exigencies that the ill person perceives as needs and the caregiver perceives as persnickety whims. There are the requests repeated, the passive-aggressive “I wish…”es, the querulous complaints. And there are the times the sick person is whiny, or misguided, or determined to do something unsafe, or just plain wrong. Where, then, does the caregiver’s duty lie? To her (my) charge? To herself? To reality, when the sick person can’t or won’t grasp it?
Middlemarch grapples deeply with questions of women’s love, women’s duty, and the Venn diagram between the two, particularly in its stories of caregiving. Mary Garth and Dorothea Brooke, in their very different situations, is each scrupulously dutiful in her caregiving, and each comes up, painfully, against the rock-hard conflict of duty to self and duty to her charge.
Mary Garth is the eldest of a poor family, with much richer distant connections. As a poor relation, she must earn her keep, and early in the novel does so as a paid companion to rich, capricious, ill-tempered Peter Featherstone. Though she dislikes him, she cares for him dutifully. (“Mary would not be happy without doing her duty,” says her mother.) Featherstone’s threats and promises regarding his will keep dozens of the novel’s minor characters in a state of high alert. Mary has a personal interest in the question of Mr. Featherstone’s will: the man she loves, Fred Vincy, has been all but promised a substantial legacy, and has run himself into debt thanks to his expectations. Mary’s chance of marrying Fred thus turns on the question of Mr. Feather-stone’s will.
One night, Mary takes the midnight watch over the ill man. (A cadre of eager relatives have descended on the Featherstone house, all watching closely for signs of how his estate will be distributed.) She prefers the night shift, the narrator says, for its peace; she is left to her thoughts, and her charge’s testy demands are few. “Her thought was not veined by any solemnity or pathos about the old man on the bed: such sentiments are easier to affect than to feel about an age creature whose life is not visibly anything but a remnant of vices,” the narrator tells us. Indeed, Mary dislikes her patient: “To be anxious about a soul that is always snapping at you must be left to the saints of the earth, and Mary was not one of them. She had never returned him a harsh word and had waited on him faithfully: that was her utmost.”
On this night, Featherstone is quiet until the wee hours, when he awakens and demands a final service of Mary: he has made two wills, and he wishes her to unlock the box in which they are kept and bring him the one he wishes to destroy. She tells him she will not: “I cannot touch your iron chest or your will. I must refuse to do anything that might lay me open to suspicion,” she says. He offers her 200 pounds; he begs; he even weeps: “for the first time in her life Mary saw old Peter Featherstone begin to cry childishly.” This petulant cycle of commanding, begging, and collapsing is familiar to anyone who has cared for a crotchety ill person, but Mary—even though at one point she fears the old man will hit her with his cane—refuses: “I will not let the close of your life soil the beginning of mine,” she says, neatly encapsulating the contrasts at work: his age, her youth; his wealth, her poverty; his illness, her vigor. And, of course, his will versus hers; she prevails only because he is not physically fit, but her will is at least as strong as his. “Mary, standing by the fire, saw its red light falling on the old man, propped up on his pillows and bed-rest, with his bony hand holding out the key and the money lying on the quilt before him. She never forgot that vision of a man wanting to do as he liked at the last.”
Unmoved by love or tenderness, however, even Mary—as sure of herself as any other character in literature—begins to doubt her own judgment when up against the imperious demands of a dying man. Her regrets are not for Fred, although she suspects, correctly, that her refusal to burn the later will shall disinherit him. Instead, she reflects as Mr. Featherstone quiets: “Mary herself began to be more agitated by the remembrance of what she had gone through than she had been by the reality—questioning those acts of hers which had come imperatively and excluded all question in the critical moment.” As she looks back, she is not sure that sticking to her guns, against the dying man’s wishes, was the right choice, even though she knows it was. Feather-stone dies that night and never has the chance to alter his will.
In the case of Dorothea Brooke, the moral imperatives of caregiving are less clear than they are for Mary Garth—and are further muddied by Dorothea’s own tenderness, mixed with ambivalence, for her husband, the object of her caring. Dorothea Brooke—young, beautiful, and idealis-tic—has married the withered scholar Casaubon, to the shock of her genteel relations. There is nothing wrong with the match socially, but they are dismayed by her choice of the dry, much older, never-married man. Dorothea, of course, is lit by “ardent” (her keyword) flames of intellectual interest in Casaubon’s project, but is unfortunately naive about his capabilities. The project, a Key to All Mythologies, turns out to be an antiquated boondoggle; the man, petty and jealous of his young cousin, Will Ladislaw, who forms a friendship with Dorothea. It is Ladislaw who tells her that Casaubon’s research, based on a discredited exegetical theory, is already many years out of date.
When the marriage is already under severe strain, Casaubon suffers a heart ailment and becomes a semi-invalid. He recovers most of his health, but his physician, Lydgate, cautions Dorothea that her husband must be “‘careful against mental agitation of all kinds, and against excessive application.’” Lydgate never tells Casaubon he must stop his scholarly work, but pulls Dorothea, his primary caregiver, into a subtle conspiracy “‘to try by all means, direct and indirect, to moderate and vary his occupations. With a happy concurrence of circumstances, there is as I said, no immediate danger from that affection of the heart.’”
The defects in Casaubon’s “affection of the heart” are figurative as well as literal, but Dorothea immediately asks what she can do for him, and begins to cry, with worry as well as what appears to be frustration; she knows only too well that her husband will not enjoy light reading or games, and wishes only to continue his fruitless studies. “‘I wish I could have spared you this pain,’” Lydgate responds. But, he continues, “‘I wish you to understand that I shall not say anything to enlighten Mr. Casaubon himself. I think it desirable for him to know nothing more than that he must not overwork himself…. Anxiety of any kind would be precisely the most unfavourable condition for him.’”
Medical ethics have changed, and these days a doctor could not confide this sort of information to a spouse without telling the patient. And yet such dilemmas do arise, quandaries in which the caregiver must make decisions for or do what is best for a patient who is largely unaware, or who does not or cannot understand the danger to him- or herself. When my husband was at his sick-est—a time he now has only the most fragmentary memories of—his odds of dying from his GVHD ran about 90 percent. On one day, his oncologist and I had a conversation at the foot of his bed while he was unconscious. His doctor spelled out for me the dangers, and how challenging it would be for any patient to recover fully from this ordeal.
Knowledge of that kind, held alone with nobody close with whom to share it, is a terrible burden. I understand all too well why Dorothea’s next move, after Lydgate leaves, is to burst into tears: “When he was gone, Dorothea’s tears gushed forth and relieved her stifling oppression. Then she dried her eyes, reminded that her distress must not be betrayed to her husband.” Her attempts to “moderate” his scholarly activities only add to the strain between them; the burden she carries only adds to her feeling of aloneness, especially when Casaubon bans his young relative Will Ladislaw from the house. That said, even the querulous Casaubon can turn kind. “‘Come, my dear, come. You are young and need not to extend your life by watching,’” says Casaubon gently to Dorothea, when he has noticed her waiting up for him. “When the kind, quiet melancholy of that speech fell on Dorothea’s ears, she felt something like the thankfulness that might well up in us if we had narrowly escaped hurting a lamed creature.” This compassion—Dorothea’s pity for her narrow, pinched husband—begins a new turn in the caregiving relationship, one that threatens to bind Dorothea for her life, and not just for her husband’s.
Casaubon later lays new conditions on Dorothea, demanding that she carry forward his work. He arranges his papers and notes and asks her to begin “sifting” them, marking as she reads aloud: “This proposal was only one more sign added to many since his memorable interview with Lyd-gate that Mr. Casaubon’s original reluctance to let Dorothea work with him had given place to the contrary disposition, namely, to demand much interest and labour from her.” That night, he awakens her and has her read to him from his papers, explaining the principles he wishes to use in completing scholarly work she knows to be worthless.
My husband, who in the hospital became blind and for a time had his eyes sewn shut to heal, asked me for a voice recorder. I brought in one I had always used for interviews for articles I was writing; I no longer had any time to work. He dictated into it for hours, giving a rambling and graphic account of his hospital experience, and asked me to transcribe it. I refused to do this time-consuming task myself, but did send it to a transcriptionist I used for my own interviews. The transcription ran more than 20 pages. Still heavily medicated, my husband asked me to edit it into a sort of day-in-the-life journal, and post the result on the blog we were keeping to inform friends and family about his condition. I got no further than the first wordy, confused, page, consumed with vicarious embarrassment and frustration at the time-consuming task. I quietly failed to make time to edit it. I still have the transcript; his vision, though somewhat improved, still is not up to the task of reading the transcript. Was I wrong, when I quietly did not do what he asked of me? I felt I was protecting him from his own lack of mental clarity—the voice on the page sounded nothing like his writing, which I know nearly as well as I know my own—but I was protecting myself too. I couldn’t bear to wade through his murky ordeal again, particularly as I was forced to see it, and its fallout, daily.
Dorothea, equally clearly, sees Casaubon drawing her ever deeper into his work, and feels “sick at heart.” He justifies her unease with his next question:
“‘Before I sleep, I have a request to make, Dorothea.’
‘What is it?’ said Dorothea, with dread in her mind.
‘It is that you will let me know, deliberately, whether, in case of my death, you will carry out my wishes, whether you will avoid doing what I should deprecate and apply yourself to do what I should desire.’”
Dorothea is “not taken by surprise: many incidents had been leading her to the conjecture of some intention on her husband’s part which might make a new yoke for her. She did not answer immediately.” Casaubon, perceiving her silence as rebellion, is again angry; Dorothea protests that she cannot make “a pledge to do I know not what,” and asks a grace period to think over his demand and give him an answer the next day.
She then lies awake, thinking, aware that what he wants is for her to complete his life’s work. (She never guesses that he also jealously wishes to prevent her from marrying Will Ladislaw, but control of her future romantic and sexual life is also much on his mind—an analogue for his invalid’s impotence in arenas other than authorship.) “It was clear enough to her that he would expect her to devote herself to sifting those mixed heaps of material which were to be the doubtful illustration of principles still more doubtful…. And now she pictured to herself the days, and months, and years which she must spend in sorting what might be called shattered mummies and fragments of a tradition…as food for a theory which was already withered in the birth.”
When I read of Casaubon’s “mixed heaps of material,” I think of certain bags that have been, for years, in our garage. They are ordinary grocery bags, dusty and stuffed full with crumpled, illegible scraps, some inside second layers of plastic bags. They are my husband’s, and they hold drafts of his poems, scrawled on the endpapers of books or written on fading receipts. Some of these scraps we had shipped from his childhood home in Ottawa, fifteen years ago. I rolled my eyes a bit as his insistence on keeping them. We loaded them up, when going to a friend’s wedding in Vermont, and took them across the border to the U.S. so we could ship them at a cheaper book rate.
Back when my husband was well, he used to joke that he would, someday, appoint me his literary executrix. He said it would fall to me, after his death, to edit his poetry collections, to arrange his papers, to maintain and publish his archive. I laughed and never agreed to this, but I never refused it either. Lately, with his death no longer a far-distant and hazy event but a real and present possibility, he has stopped making this joke. I have quietly declined to promise to keep sending out his current manuscript, a collection of poems about his cancer and treatment. I can’t read the collection; I find it too painful, and it’s impossible for me to judge its literary merit fairly. When he first came home from the hospital, I was worried he would ask me to help him edit and submit the manuscript, but instead he asked his mother, and she agreed. I saw the emotional toll it took on her, the pain it caused.
Dorothea—selfless like my mother-in-law, but with secret reservations like me—agonizes. Casaubon continues to press her to answer him at breakfast the next morning. He goes to take a turn in the garden, and she resolves to bind herself to his requests: “Neither law nor the world’s opinion compelled her to this—only her husband’s nature and her own compassion, only the ideal and not the real yoke of marriage. She saw clearly enough the whole situation, yet she was fettered: she could not smite the stricken soul that entreated hers.” This, in a nutshell, is the trap of caregiving: As a caregiver, I feel bound by both love and unfashionable duty to carry out the wishes of the ill person for whom I care. But I am not a Victorian woman trained to decades of self-denial, and I cannot do it at the cost of my whole self, of all my ideals and ambitions. Dorothea, over the course of her disappointing marriage, has already sacrificed a considerable number of hers.
When I told my husband I was writing about Middlemarch, he immediately responded, “Oh, no. Am I Casaubon?” We met in graduate school; like me, he has studied English literature all his life. He is, or rather was, a professor of literature, with modernist British literature as his specialty. He studied, in other words, the time when duty was flung off. His chosen time period is that of the ascendant, idiosyncratic genius, the writer freed from respectability and dull care by the cataclysm of World War I. If the Victorian era was a time to fake it till you make it, post-World War I modernism was the original IDGAF era (to put it in contemporary Twitter-culture terms). Cancer has robbed my husband of the ability to work and even to read, but it has also freed him from duty and caring about others’ opinions just as surely as the war shattered the norms of the Victorian culture. His stream-of-consciousness recordings, his poems about cancer: he feels free to say it all. He almost died, after all; he can do what he likes, at this point. As he lay almost dying, I was dutifully holding down the home front. I was keeping my mouth more or less shut, taking care of our children, hiding my anger, quashing my rebellions, coping. In his illness, we have each embodied the eras we once studied.
My husband is a true modernist. He may have written his dissertation on the Oedipus myth, but he would never slave away on a Key to All Mythologies, and he would not ask an amanuensis to do his revision. He would never directly and deliberately ask me to give up all my work for his own greater, posthumous glory. He is no Casaubon.
And yet. And yet. The ill are selfish without ever meaning to be.
Last fall, he was well enough to consider returning to work—but, in my view, not really well enough to do so successfully, at least not without using all his energy and what hard-fought shreds of his health he had regained to do so. I asked him if he had considered what returning to teaching would mean for me. That question had never even crossed his mind. So I told him: It would mean that, once more, all household responsibility, all responsibility for the children, and managing the aspects of his medical care would fall to me, as would a considerable amount of coordinating his actual work time. (His vision is still poor enough that he could neither read nor drive himself to his university teaching job.) It would, in effect, prevent me from spending any meaningful time on my own writing, let alone affording me time for leisure.
My compassion for that stricken soul, my husband, will never extend to that much self-sacrifice. The real yoke of our marriage does not require such a constraint. But that doesn’t mean I felt good about telling him it was unreasonable for him to consider returning to work. I didn’t feel bad about it, particularly but it did feel a little like hurting some lamed creature, as Dorothea says of Casaubon—even though doing so was necessary, not just for me but for our family. If he returned to work he would expend all his limited energy and possibly risk his life in the service of his students; was that how he wanted to choose to spend his time? Our family, and our young daughters, have been devastated by his illness and treatment. Our girls and I deserved time to heal, time to reknit our family connection. My role in our modern partnership could not be simply to assent to his wishes, even if he was and is the ill person and I the supportive caregiver. I believe he had misjudged his capabilities, in his wish to recover more quickly than he actually was recovering; I also thought his priorities were misplaced. In my role not as his caregiver but as his spouse I thought it was my duty to tell him so.
In the event, the question of a return to work became moot. A new, aggressive cancer, one that demanded treatment, suddenly interrupted his recovery. His doctor called one day with the baffling news that suddenly his blood tests showed a large quantity of Epstein-Barr virus. In rare cases, that could indicate something called post-transplant lymphoproliferative disorder. A PET scan revealed widespread, explosively aggressive cancer throughout his abdomen, in the bones of his spine, in his liver. Its extent and reach was shocking, coming as it did less than six weeks after a perfectly clear scan. An expedited liver biopsy showed that this was a new cancer: not a T-cell lymphoma, as his original diagnosis was, but something called diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. Normally, this is a relatively treatable cancer. But given my husband’s weakened state, his oncologist spoke gravely of a best-case prognosis of possibly a year, if treatment could keep the cancer at bay that long; a clinical trial in New York might offer some hope. Our wrangle over his return to teaching ground to an abrupt halt as he realized his return to work was out of the question, possibly forever, if the oncologist’s prediction about the course of his disease proved correct.
This sudden turn felt to me as shocking as the narrative reversal that relieves Dorothea’s inner struggle over the promise Casaubon demands. Dorothea, after much reflection, goes into the garden prepared to pledge away her life and future to her husband, in life or in death. But she is saved by coincidence, that hallmark of large loose baggy Victorian novels (though Middlemarch, generally, is not especially baggy). In that half-hour she has asked to consider, Casaubon dies. Dorothea never makes her promise, and thus she is free to set aside the Key to All Mythologies in due course. After discovering her husband’s body, Dorothea collapses in nervous guilt more than grief, but ultimately she is relieved.
I was saved from fighting with my husband over his work and the toll it would take on us both, but also at bitter, painful cost: I would, of course, much rather he go back to work than have a new, deadly cancer. But unlike Dorothea, I never would have reached the inner equilibrium to make such a promise as she contemplated. I know myself; I would decline immediately. I have recycled the bags of illegible scraps that were dusty in the garage. My compassion for a “stricken soul,” though I hope it is real, is not something for which I am willing to sacrifice my whole self. This caregiving paragon, bound to continue giving of herself even beyond death, is indeed an ideal, not a reality.
The plot twist that saves Dorothea from her own idealism and imagined duty does not reflect the reality of caregiving. In real life, its compromises and promises are messier and more contingent, especially in these latter days when women have their own work to do and widows are not expected to don two years of deep mourning, nor to devote themselves to a husband’s legacy.
Dorothea is spared from continuing Casaubon’s work, but her husband has placed what the novel (in the title of this section) calls “The Dead Hand” on her nonetheless: By the terms of his will, she must forfeit the property he leaves her if she marries his younger cousin, Will Ladislaw. Eventually, she does so anyway. (I have always vaguely wondered if such a will would have been remotely legal or enforceable.) Again, she has never made any promise to “avoid doing what [Casaubon] should deprecate,” and again, freed from her “new yoke,” she eventually does marry Ladislaw.
My husband would never tell me not to remarry, much less interdict a specific man. Our wills are drawn up, signed, witnessed, and there are no strange codicils to surprise anyone, nor can he ever ask a night nurse like Mary Garth to burn one: they exist in digital form, as well as in a safe deposit box. There will be no deathbed choices about inheritance, no dead hand laid on me to finish someone else’s book. But on the smaller points, matters of duty and love, there are countless tugs and conflicts.
Later in Middlemarch, the widowed Dorothea reflects on her marriage, and that of Lydgate and his wife Rosamond, saying that Lydgate said, “his marriage was of course a bond which must affect his choice about everything…. He could say that to me because he knows that I had much trial in my marriage, from my husband’s illness, which hindered his plans and saddend him; and [Lydgate] knows that I have felt how hard it is to walk always in fear of hurting another who is tied to us.” Dorothea is speaking to Rosamond under the mistaken impression that Rosamond and Will Ladislaw—whom Dorothea herself loves—are in love, and contemplating an affair, and in the throes of intense emotion she reveals her deepest feelings about her own marriage. “Marriage is so unlike everything else. There is something even awful in the nearness it brings,” she says, continuing on with the startling—but apt—observation that “marriage stays with us like a murder.” In context, it’s clear that she is referring back to her own guilt over her feelings for Will, as well as her unwillingness to pledge herself to Casaubon beyond his death. But this observation carries a larger sense, too, of the irrevocable nature of the extraordinarily intense bond of marriage, which—then and now—can mark a woman for life.
After his new diagnosis, my husband headed once more unto the breach—though the return to treatment reminded me not of the ultimate triumph of Henry V on St. Crispin’s Day so much as the desperate charge of the Light Brigade: half a league, half a league, half a league onward. His courses of cancer treatment (so often compared to battle) always pulls us on, inexorably. I hoped that it would not be into the valley of death. He underwent two treatments: one, an antibody therapy; the second, three weeks at a clinical trial 3000 miles from where we live. At the moment, as I write, he is in remission thanks to those treatments, which worked far better than his oncologist had predicted. And now we wait, to see if the remission holds.
It feels as if we are poised on a ridge, looking down into a valley, uncertain whether it may be the valley of death, as in Tennyson’s poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” Cannon to the left of us and cannon to the right of us. I survey the ground ahead, unsure of its pitfalls; I grit my teeth and think of my duty to get through the months or years of either illness and treatment and decline, or illness and treatment and recovery. And I also think, guiltily, of what I would do, what I would change, what I would work on if he were to die. How to clear out the closets and rearrange the house, but also how to support our girls and how to grieve. And I think of all the promises I want to make, and I talk to my husband. I tell him that if—if—he dies, I promise I will do right by the girls. That they will remember him, I swear it. That I will take them to Canada to see his family. That I will, as ever, be indomitable. I talk of love and duty, and the two are mixed up in all my desperate pledges to do I know not what. And he looks directly at me, with his murky blue clouded eyes that cannot see detail well enough to recognize the pain on my face.
“Don’t make too many promises,” says my husband—truly, and to the end, no Casaubon. “You don’t know if you can keep them.”