"Romantic?" my husband said, looking at me as if I had just sprouted feathers. "You thought my time in the hospital was romantic?"
"But I smelled like a barn! And that stupid gown they made me wear..."
We were talking about last year, when Bill was hospitalized after thyroid surgery. I spent days by his side in his semi-private room while my parents stayed with Davey, our 5-year-old. It wasn't your typical recipe for a great getaway. But, as I struggled to explain to Bill, that time taught me a lesson I hope will stick: Now that we're parents, any time we spend alone as a couple -- no matter how dismal the reason -- is a chance to strengthen our marriage. And yes, even a hospital can be romantic. Not sexy-romantic (he was right about that gown) but emotionally romantic in a way that no regular vacation could match.
A month before Bill went into the hospital, he and I had splurged on a weekend in New Orleans. Sure, the dining was better in the French Quarter (beignets and gumbo versus Bill's first solid food after the surgery? No contest). And, of course, our vacation surroundings beat out the hospital by a mile (strolling Bourbon Street versus pacing past the nurses' station).
But our Louisiana sojourn kept Bill and me so enthralled that we barely noticed each other. At the hospital, we had little but each other to focus on -- and an unspoken anxiety that made the experience that much more precious.
During Bill's operation, the surgeon had found lymphoma. How bad was it? Would Bill be around for Davey and the new child growing in my belly? We wouldn't get answers for more than a week. And as Bill and I walked slow laps around the recovery ward, or watched a TV movie from his narrow bed, I realized we were focusing on each other in a tender way we rarely had in years.
Five years, to be exact. It's not that we were geniuses at romance before Davey was born -- ignoring each other on vacations could be a problem then, too -- but we did make the most of lazy Saturday mornings at home. And Sunday mornings. And weekday evenings. Sex was part of these times, but so was just chatting and doing thoughtful things for each other. I kept mental logs of his endearing habits for use in birthday limericks. He spent hours making me chicken crepes for Valentine's Day.
Melissa Balmain writes regularly for Parenting and has written for Babytalk, The New Yorker, and Details.
Then parenthood hit, sending those lazy mornings and evenings out the window. The most thoughtful thing I had done for Bill in recent memory was to tell Davey to quit hopping on Daddy's stomach. I kept mental logs of my son's soccer schedule and show-and-tell days. Bill spent hours visiting new planets with Davey in a homemade cardboard spaceship.
As I sat at the hospital, holding both of Bill's hands and thinking about all the one-on-one moments like this we'd missed over the years, it dawned on me that we didn't need to hire a babysitter so we could gaze into each other's eyes and murmur goofy nothings. Heck, if we could do such things in a hospital, we could do them anywhere, anytime we got a moment alone together. While matching tiny socks in the laundry room. While combing the living room for pieces of Mr. Potato Head.
As for those thoughtful gestures, I would quit viewing them as a luxury and start treating them as the marital staple they deserved to be. Parenthood didn't leave me much extra time, it's true, but I could probably spend fewer minutes drooling over catalogs of zillion-dollar baby outfits.
In the months since Bill's surgery, he's had very encouraging news about his health. We've again been swept up by the demands of our jobs, parents, friends, pets, and (most of all) children. Even so, I've tried to take the lessons learned in the hospital to heart. For Bill's birthday, I wrote him a long, silly poem. In the evenings, I've managed to find at least 20 minutes just to talk to him and really see him -- even if I'm sorting Legos at the same time. Bill, meanwhile, has rekindled his pre-kid ways by making time for the foot rubs I loved while pregnant, and trips to buy my favorite snack, dark-chocolate Moose Munch.
I reminded him of all this as I wrapped up my hospital-romance theory. "See?" I said. "It even turned us into more romantic people."
"Maybe you're right," Bill said. "Next time, let's skip the hospital and see if we can be romantic in Italy."