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August 1, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) — I thought I had been so clever. My mother hates cooking, so before I left my sick husband in her care for the weekend, I arranged their meals with fellow parishioners. This was crucial, as  Mark has been steadily losing weight since his second operation. Thanks to our friends, I knew he’d have a variety of delicious meals. I went off to the USA on business, confident that I was free to go.

And so it seemed. On Thursday, Florian came for dinner with a homemade quiche and a salad. On Friday, Jeanne and Claire arrived with groceries and made a massive rice-and-vegetable dish. On Saturday, Julienne brought cold meats and pizzas from a Sicilian bakery. On Sunday, young Florian returned with an enormous lasagna and once again kept them company.

I read their cheerful reports over my laptop in Virginia and slept soundly. Our friends didn’t know the truth. My mother had decided that, since there was nothing I could do, she wouldn’t tell me how little Mark ate.

When I got back, I hit the tarmac running: there was just so much to do. My mother left Scotland for Canada the next day; I saw her to the train to the airport. I did some language exercises, got some groceries, made Mark a breakfast strawberry milkshake and got down to a day’s work in my home office. At 7 p.m., I made Mark an omelette and flew from the house to see an old friend who also has family trouble. The next morning I got up, went to Italian class, made Mark another strawberry milkshake and sat back down to work. But there was something nagging me at the back of my mind.  

The spots on his pillowcase.

I had seen them there before. I had assumed that they were raspberries seeds or something similar. Stains from Mark’s daily breakfast shake or smoothie. (My kitchen-phobic mother was up to making smoothies.) The pillowcase was a wedding present, decorated with whitework and edged with hand-knotted lace. Given his illness, I didn’t want to make an issue of it.

I got on with my work, forgetting the spots until I suddenly remembered the bloodstains on the paper-protected pillow back at the hospital weeks ago. Then I got up.

Mark was lying on his left side as usual.

“What are the stains on the pillowcase?” I asked.

“Oh, they’re from my earlobe,” said Mark and turned so I could see.

My stomach flipped over.

A bedsore. I had never seen one before, but I knew at once what it was.

“Oh my God.”

“It’s not a big deal,” said Mark. “I’ve had it before.”

An ugly, shiny welt was gaping from the edge of his earlobe, oozing wetly.

“I think it’s infected,” I said. “At least, I think … I don’t even know.”

I rushed for antiseptic wipes, kept in a drawer in my vanity table, feeling like I was being beaten over the head by an overwhelming question: When had I last actually LOOKED at Mark?   

It’s one thing to take care of a person: to make sure they are reasonably clean, and have clean sheets, at least two meals a day, whatever pills they have been prescribed, and fresh water. It’s something else entirely to actually LOOK at him.  

The famous Jesuit philosopher-theologian Bernard Lonergan, whose cognitional theories I once studied, used to insist that “knowing is not taking a good look.” Maybe not, Father Lonergan, but it’s an excellent place to start.

At 7 p.m.,  after an afternoon of chasing doctors by phone, I gave up any pretense of working and filled the bathtub. I got Mark out of bed and asked him to get on the bathroom scales.

“Pyjamas are fine,” I said. “Just take off your slippers.”

I took a good look at the scale. Being British, the scale weighs people in “stones.” I didn’t understand exactly what the numbers meant although I knew it wasn’t good. A man, even a small-boned man, of 5 feet 7 shouldn’t weigh under “8 stones,” should he?

Mark eased himself into the tub. I had put down a towel to protect his bones from the hard porcelain, and I got a pen and paper. A stone is 14 pounds. Mark was 7 stone, 13 pounds, and therefore …

My stomach turned over again.

When Mark was last in the hospital, I would take the bus to a nicer neighbourhood between visiting hours for supper. I would read a little in Cardinal Sarah’s The Power of Silence and  think about the learning opportunities in suffering.

Christians don’t reject suffering as worthless. Suffering is something that you can “offer up” as a kind of sacrificial offering for someone else; patient acceptance of suffering is a form of reparation for sin. Suffering is also a spiritual process that can deepen a personality and widen a heart. Suffering thus makes you useful to your fellow sufferers. A bereaved mother can sit in meaningful silence with another bereaved mother. A suffering wife can sit in meaningful silence with another suffering wife. She is better able to say the right thing.

“Could we have imagined this on our wedding days?” I had said to my sad friend on Wednesday night. No, she couldn’t have. No, I couldn’t have either.

But here we are, and here is my little postcard from the land of suffering to report what I have learned most recently: please LOOK at the people you live with and love. Don’t just “take care of them.” Don’t just make a list and tick the boxes. Look at the person, or the people. Look to make sure nothing is wrong because it might not be obvious. My brain-damaged husband had this bedsore for a week and nobody saw it. Not even me. And while I wasn’t looking, he lost another 15 pounds. If I can’t get his weight up, I won’t be able to see him at all — outside hospital visiting hours, that is.

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Dorothy Cummings McLean is a Canadian journalist, essayist, and novelist. She earned an M.A. in English Literature from the University of Toronto and an M.Div./S.T.B. from Toronto’s Regis College. She was a columnist for the Toronto Catholic Register for nine years and has contributed to Catholic World Report. Her first book, Seraphic Singles,  was published by Novalis (2010) in Canada, Liguori in the USA, and Homo Dei in Poland. Her second, Ceremony of Innocence, was published by Ignatius Press (2013). Dorothy lives near Edinburgh, Scotland with her husband.