“The obstinate man does not
hold opinions, but they hold him.”
I met them long ago, back when I had a tiny office and I was the only doctor in it. I think they came as a couple, one after the other, on the same day. They lived next door to one of the doctors who was on staff at the hospital. When I started my practice he was only too glad to refer all of his neighbors to me. He clearly did not want the responsibility involved in taking care of his friends, and part of me thinks that he was beginning to resent all of the free advice he was asked to give any time that they got together socially.
Soon everyone who lived in this cul-de-sac came to me. They were the last ones to make an appointment. She was sweet; kind; elegant. He was bossy; loud; demanding. She had been a homemaker since they got married. He was an outstanding salesman, ranked second in the country in a large and very competitive company. He left home at 6 every Monday, and returned late Friday night. Every indication that he gave me was that he loved his job. There was not a large city that he had not been to. He never forgot a name, or his customers’ likes and dislikes. He made a very nice living, but I got the feeling that he enjoyed making the money more than he did having it or spending it. He relished being the best.
My first impression was that this was a situation where I’d have to carefully look for signs of abuse. Within a few months I realized that I was wrong. He loved his wife; as much as it seemed as if he ordered her around I found out that she was perfectly capable of ignoring everything he said, and often did. Numerous times he told me how strikingly beautiful his wife was when he married her, and how he still felt the same way.
Not an objective viewpoint. They were both significantly overweight, and neither was terribly interested in changing that state of affairs. There was this one spell when for a few months she managed to stay on a diet. After she had lost ten pounds he reacted with some alarm; he told me that maybe she was trying too hard, or going too fast. Soon she relapsed and gained the weight back.
Years went by. All of the free meals, lack of exercise, and long hours caught up with him. He developed diabetes. His blood pressure went up. He had to take a few pills every day, and often “forgot” to do so. His visits became more frequent, and his tone of belligerence increased when my answer to his request for a cure was that he needed to exercise and eat healthy.
When he reached his late fifties, maybe early sixties, he made an appointment to come in. It was not his turn for a checkup, so I was curious as to what his new ailment would be.
“I’m going to retire.” He smiled; obviously beaming with satisfaction. I felt some apprehension.
“Yes.” Another big smile. “I don’t want to do this any more. No more planes. No more hotels. I’m done.”
This is a big deal. Have you thought this through?
“I don’t need the money. Time to spend more time with my wife. Enjoy my house. It’s time.”
OK. I’ll take your word for it. Do you have a plan?
A blank stare.
“What do you mean?”
A plan. A hobby. What will you do all day?
“Nothing. I’ve worked hard and long hours. I will sit at home and do nothing.”
Now I was really worried. I was well aware that people who retire without a plan deteriorate, fast. There’s a high incidence of poor health and even death.
You can’t do that. You have to find something to do.
Another smile; this time a bit defiant.
“Nothing. I will do nothing.”
I could see how my well founded concern was being received. I wished him well and shook his hand after I offered a hearty congratulation.
Three months later she made an appointment, again sooner than she was due. I was really curious.
How is it going?
She began to tremble. She sat up straighter in her chair, then slumped some. She rubbed her hands together. She began to cry.
“I can’t take this any more!” More tears.
It was not a pretty story. He followed through on his plan (or lack thereof) to do nothing. From the moment that he woke up he followed her around the house, like a meek puppy. If they were watching TV together and she stood up, he would ask where she was going. He rearranged furniture, not to her liking. He scolded her because the dishes that she had placed in the dishwasher were not facing the same way. He never wanted to go anywhere, and he complained if she took too long when she went for her hair appointment or the supermarket.
It must be unbearable.
“I want to kill him.” I didn’t think that she really meant that. Maybe in a figurative sense. Her trembling got worse.
I’ll call him. I’ll try to talk to him.
“Good luck.” In a very skeptical tone of voice.
He agreed to come in for a visit. He said that he was happier than ever. He had no idea that his murder was being planned, or at least fantasized about. I did not tell him.
You can’t do this.
You can’t do what you’re doing. You can’t move the furniture around. You have to leave the dishes alone. I forbid you from asking her where she’s going whenever she’s out of your sight.
“Why not? She’s my wife! It’s my house!”
She’s not YOUR wife; not your possession. And it’s not your house. You have been a weekend guest at this house for decades: it’s HER house. Any changes have to start out as suggestions, or questions. You’re disrupting her life. You can’t do this; you have no right.
He got angry. It was his house, by golly.
Get a hobby. Find a job.
As he left he told me of his next plan: he was going to sell one of the cars. They were going to spend all of their time together; there would be no need for two cars. I cringed, but he was on his way out and there were other patients waiting.
To no one’s surprise, she was back within a few days. He had gone ahead and sold his car. She was despondent.
A look of surprise.
Get out. Wake up at 7AM and leave. Come back for dinner. Let him cook it.
Another look. Then a smile; a glimmer of understanding.
Make plans with friends. Go to a nursing home and read to a blind patient. Be a big sister. Joint the Art Museum. Every day a different activity.
“He will complain.”
And do we care?
Another smile, this time a big one. She hurried out of the exam room.
Three months later he was back for his regular visit. He had gained weight. The spark was gone from his eyes. He spoke in subdued tones. A broken man.
How are you?
He could not wait to tell me. She was gone every day; literally. The nursing home two days a week. Church activities and charities one. A steady date with girlfriends; a little girl who needed a grandma…
“I never see my wife any more! Why did I retire?”
I told you. It’s still not too late. Find something to do.
“No. I’m retired.”
For a while he stopped coming to see me. He told me that he wanted another opinion on how to handle his by now numerous symptoms. He came back after three operations and several procedures. I repeated the advice on the weight loss and exercise, on focusing outside himself. He left in a huff; I never saw him again. He convinced his wife to go see another doctor; one where they could go together for their appointments (maybe their only outings as a couple). I heard from his cul-de-sac friends that he died within a few years.
Work. Life. One cannot make any drastic change without a plan. His essence; his self was social contact outside his home. He thrived on it. He tossed it away. What was he thinking?
On the very rare occasions that I feel that I’ve had enough I think about him. I meditate; I get some rest. I go back to work the next day. It’s life.