Cover image for In sickness & in health : a love story
In sickness & in health : a love story
Propp, Karen.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
[Emmaus, Pa.] : Rodale ; [New York, N.Y.] : Distributed to the book trade by St. Martin's Press, [2002]

Physical Description:
xiv, 225 pages ; 23 cm
Prologue: Paris, 1997 -- Part 1: The early years -- 1: Courtship -- 2: Invisible beams -- 3: Bridal lace -- 4: Birth -- Part 2: The bargain -- 5: Delirious -- 6: The bargain -- 7: From burgundy to chardonnay -- 8: The home front -- Part 3: Ever after -- 9: Repairs -- 10: Without sex -- 11: Hydraulics.
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RC280.P7 P737 2002 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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What happens when your spouse is no longer the same person you first married? How does marriage change us, and how do we change our marriage?Sometimes marriage seems a shaky proposition at best, and never more so than when the honeymoon fades to reality. For Karen Propp, reality meant knowingly marrying a man who had already undergone a course of radiation for prostate cancer and who, mere weeks before the birth of their son, faces surgery that will compromise his life and their marriage on every level. In this humorous, poignant, well-crafted narrative, we see Karen torn between a growing son and ailing husband. We witness the ups and downs, the love and the loss between a man and a woman as they struggle against but emerge victorious over a very intimate disease.In Sickness and in Health is an honest exploration of the loss and disappointment associated with married life, as well as a love story that shows how a woman is irrevocably changed by the love she shares with her husband, and the depths that love is plumbed by the specter of illness.

Author Notes

Karen Propp received her Ph.D. from the creative writing program at the University of Utah

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

In The Pregnancy Project, Propp chronicled her experiences with infertility treatments. Now, she offers a look at the equally intimate ordeal of husband Sam's prostate cancer. In clear, short sentences, Propp creates a cancer memoir not from the patient's viewpoint, but her own. Karen was nearing 40 when she married and struggled to have a child, yet says she and Sam are both "young to be going through this." Unlike the older women in her support group, Karen represents baby-boomers who were told they could have it all, who remained single long enough to get used to being the center of their own lives, and who did not expect to caretake their sick husbands. She deftly describes her world of Jewish, intellectual types in the Boston area, the single life she only gradually leaves behind and her constantly changing marital relationship. Karen's poetic command of language and her mature confrontation of the realities of life, love and long-term marriage make this memoir unusually forceful. The pall of Sam's first wife's death from cancer, the difficult conception of Karen's and Sam's child, and Sam's seven years of radiation therapy hang over them like an ever-present dark cloud. While cancer memoirs often end with either the patient's death or joyous restoration to pre-cancer existence, here life is saved, but many failed attempts to regain potency (Viagra, a clumsy pump contraption, injections) are described in painful detail. Yet Karen Propp delivers a triumphant story, honestly depicting her adaptation to change and to the discovery of love and resilience's unexpected depths. Agent, Laureen Rowland. (Aug. 3) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



COURTSHIP Sam and I meet in a time before his cancer, which is also a time before e-mail and cell phones became household items. We meet in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a place where people in the late 1980s pursue advanced degrees with the hope of working to solve world hunger or study quantum mechanics out of sheer fascination. I meet Sam during the time in my life when I want, more than anything, to settle down, get married, have kids-this despite or because of my two advanced degrees in English, my vagabond years, my feminist upbringing. I am thirty-two. My hair is brown. I have the kind of figure that used to be called statuesque. When we meet, at a party, he extends a hand in greeting. "Delighted." His voice is arch, playful. "You know Mitchell," I say. Mitchell is my colleague at the University of Lowell, where I am an instructor. Mitchell told me that Sam works at MIT, lives in Somerville, and is a widower. "He has ontological depth," Mitchell told me. "You won't be bored." "Who doesn't know Mitchell?" Sam asks now in a mock-serious voice that dissipates the awkwardness at us being set up and simultaneously fans the flirtation flame. I laugh, a nervous, tinkling, appreciative laugh, as I laugh at so many jokes made by eligible men, my laughter saying, Maybe this one. He offers to refresh my drink, a gin and tonic in a Dixie Cup. I am standing in Miranda's bedroom, four walls partitioned off from a loft. The room is crowded with guests who lounge on Miranda's red Turkish pillows and on her mahogany-carved bed, everyone schmoozing and drinking, an articulate, close-knit, expansive group who have gathered, at various people's homes, for the past ten years, one Friday a month for potluck Shabbat dinners. This is my first time meeting Miranda, my first time at a Friday night potluck. I was invited by Mitchell, one of the core group, as is Sam, who's been attending for the past five years, ever since he lost his wife. Miranda greeted me warmly at the door: "Oh, the writer. Mitchell told me about you." Then she flounced off, pulled into conversation by a man with a ponytail. I study Miranda's room now. Mitchell told me that Miranda is an immigration lawyer. She flies to D.C. for meetings to argue government policy, and this impresses me, accustomed as I am to unemployed poets half-seriously calling themselves the legislators of the world. I have never been in a room quite like this before, one where the ethnic jewelry and the books about social justice and the scent of French perfume combine to portray a single woman who can both enjoy herself and be serious about life. In truth, meeting Sam here tonight is something rare. One year ago, I moved back to Boston from Salt Lake City, where I earned, of all things, a Ph.D. in poetry. In Utah, I realized, at a late age, just how much of a Northeast liberal intellectual I really am. Church, gambling, camping ... those pursuits left me cold. I was viscerally homesick for bagels, bookstores, for people who talked with their hands. For self-preservation, I worked at a station that called itself Radio Free Utah because it dared to broadcast NPR. I returned to Boston to meet Sam or someone like him: someone who does not find me strange, as did the Mormons, for having education instead of children and dark unruly hair instead of a blond shiny coif. Meeting Sam tonight is rare because I see how easily I could have stayed in Utah and not met him. I see how I could have taken a teaching job in North Dakota and forever been the odd number at faculty dinner parties, desperately lonely and dedicated to my job. These were not fears of being single. This was a knowledge of who I am. Sam and I leave the party together, and down on the dark street he asks for my phone number. "Lovely to meet you," he says. He stuffs the scrap of paper into his back pocket. "Yes, lovely." We stand under the marigold streetlight and, really, at this moment we could be any two people alone in the city, looking. * * * I live in a large, rambling Victorian house in Jamaica Plain that I share with two painters, Larry and Christine. The dining room has elaborately carved wood moldings, the kitchen floor slants, and the storm windows rattle. We have parties, with jug wine and more painters and writers and carpenters who read philosophy. Christine's boyfriend comes over every Saturday and sometimes Wednesday. Larry slinks away to stay with his current girlfriend, only to return days later with a vague, distracted air. I have dates. Occasionally one stays over but in the harsh morning light he invariably becomes a stranger. After the party, I consider calling Sam. But then he calls me. "Hello," he booms. "I'm starting a trope-of-the-month club. This month it's metonymy." I laugh at his absurdity. "You poets, you like only metaphor," he chides. Sam rattles on about how just the other day he was reading Anna Akhmatova in the original Russian, about attending a recent Adrienne Rich poetry reading. Trying to impress me. A computer scientist who can talk his way around literature. Are you going to hear the lecture on the Middle East at Harvard? I haven't really thought about it. When? Don't bother. The guy's a reactionary. Had I heard the latest on the stolen Vermeer paintings at the Gardner museum? I had. Did I know anything about the new Davios restaurant in Brookline Village? I did not. Let's try it sometime, he says. Lunch? * * * At the restaurant, I stare at his hands. They are medium-size, almost small, with hair. Sturdy hands. Square-shaped hands, rather like my own. Those hands tap the menu. "Let's see, the fresh mozzarella and beefsteak tomatoes sprinkled with basil and olive oil looks good," he says. "I suggest you try the shrimp and crabmeat risotto, their signature piece. And I will have, let's see, what looks good, I will have the shredded chicken and capers basted in red wine." To the waiter, he adds: "And afterward, one white chocolate mousse, two spoons, please." I am and am not used to a man who takes such control of the menu, one who is so willing to pay for an elaborate meal. In Salt Lake City, I went out once with a Mormon. For someone like me, who went to college in the 1970s, when a date consisted of going to a boy's room and smoking a joint, this evening was enlightening from an anthropological point of view. My Mormon was so orthodox in his dating form that he insisted I wait in my car seat until he came around and opened the passenger door. At first I protested-"I can do it myself!" But he persisted, and then I tuned in to the subtle erotics of this act: my ankles swinging prettily from his low-slung Mustang, the warmth of his hand on mine as he helped me to the pavement. Before I lived in Utah, I might have argued with Sam's taking charge of the menu. But now, but now ... have I been nudged toward a more traditional mating dance? Or is it the problem of poetry? I mean, the problem of poetry's inability to make the mortgage payments and the doctor bills. I'm no Emily Dickinson stuck in her room; what's worse, I'm not the academic I once thought I might be. I have a choice; I can do other things. I have skills in addition to writing iambic hexameters. For example: cooking, cleaning, and taking care of children. During lunch, Sam talks about the work he is doing at the MIT artificial intelligence laboratory. "We're trying to map rhetorical recurrences," he says. "The duration, word count, and text difficulty of speech utterances within a party of two. If we can compile a database large enough to cover every possible conversational instance ..." Beneath his suave restaurant manners and ruddy good looks, I see the brainy, awkward Bronx High School of Science guy. He is not the brooding, artistic type I usually fall for. More than attractive, I find him amusing. He is light and dry, like the Chardonnay we sip. More than amusing, I find him familiar. Familiar because my father is a mathematician more comfortable with numbers than with people. At department parties, he and his colleagues stood in a circle, hands stuffed in their trouser pockets, and stared at the floor until one ventured to comment on an obscure branch of number theory. These men-court wizards with conical hats-fascinated me. After lunch, Sam suggests a walk. It is a day between winter and spring, a day marked by a brisk wind and a bit of bright sun. "Jamaica Pond," I say, "is beautiful this time of year." I guide him past the little shops at the end of Harvard Street and across Route 9. I am wearing over-the-ankle lace-up boots and an emerald-colored swing coat. Sam walks beside me in an olive green raincoat, the kind with a removable lining. We fall easily into step. The cold makes us walk quickly. At the pond, weeping willows break up the ice, the forsythia is about to bud-I have the sense that Sam and I are striving toward some destination. We are halfway around the pond. "Did Mitchell tell you about my wife?" Sam asks, abruptly. "He said she died in a terrible way. Was it cancer?" "Leukemia." The name of the disease sounds too loud among the quiet trees. "What was it like?" I want to know. No one I'd been close to had ever been terminally ill. Sam's experience seems richer than mine. "You start bargaining," he says. "First, you bargain for a cure, or remission. Then you bargain for a good response to treatment. Then all you want is for the pain to lessen. In the end, there's nothing left to bargain for." He is angry, his voice gruff, more raw than I'd expect someone to be five years after. "How did she find out she had it?" "Her first prenatal blood test. We were happy for exactly one day, the day we found out she was pregnant. The next day, they called with the news of an abnormal white blood count." "And the baby?" "The fetus," he corrects. "Aborted immediately. Had to start the chemo right away. In six months, Andrea ... Andrea was gone." "Why so quick?" "The doctors killed her," he mutters. "Wrong chemo doses. Botched liver biopsy that left her to bleed to death internally. Sped up her death. I'd have sued except I didn't want any more pain." We are nearing the little path that will take us back to the main road. I don't know what to say. Listening to Sam, I feel young, carefree, as if I have my whole life ahead of me. But I also feel young and careless, as if I've wasted precious time. * * * We go to one movie, two dinners, and at the end of our third lengthy phone conversation, I ask: "Do you want to come to dinner at my house this Saturday?" Come Saturday, I tidy up the common rooms. Into a cast iron pot I throw chopped onions and garlic, fresh basil, a can of diced tomatoes, and strips of boneless chicken. I fill a five-quart pot with water to boil for the linguine. "Cooking something up?" teases my housemate Larry. He leans over the stove. He's spruced up for going out: slicked back hair, suede jacket. "You know my rule about how long to wait before the big night? Four dates or forty dollars, whichever comes first." "Remind me never to go out with you." And then Larry is gone, and Christine gone too, the putt-putt of her Chevy Nova starting up as she sets off, as she has nearly every Saturday night for the past nine years, to meet Charlie for a $12.95 Special at Doyles. Sam rings the doorbell at 7:45. He wields a single bird-of-paradise, bright orange, Crayola red. Sam sniffs his way into the kitchen. "Ah, creative pasta," he says, looking into my pot. "Artistic types do creative things with pasta." I blush, feeling pegged, found as nothing more or less than an artistic type. Tonight, as we eat and drink in the darkened dining room, chaperoned by the bird-of-paradise, Sam tells stories about our mutual friend Mitchell's ex-girlfriend, now moved to Maine to work with midwives after the success of her university press book, whose thesis, he explains, argues for the de-medicalization of birth; about how Miranda met her boyfriend, the first in nine years, while waiting in line with Sam at the MIT Media Lab to get tickets for Todd Machover's opera; about an old friend who left the yeshiva in Jerusalem and became a Rolfer in London. Everyone he talks about seems to be experiencing a major swerve or change of course; something I will recognize later as middle age but now see as part of my fascination with Sam. Although I don't know it at the time, I, too, am ending one portion of my life-a long, contracted post-graduate, post-adolescent, post-poetic portion-and just beginning a gradual turn in which l will tour the grim terrain of disease, the sorry land of limitation, and the difficult place in between called compromise. In other words, I am paddling upstream toward midlife. In my house, the cat circles once, twice, before curling into the armchair's upholstered seat. A cold spring night rattles a window, loose at its sash. I get up from the table. Sam gets up from the table. I stand, a plate in each hand, watching Sam take one step, two steps, three steps, closing the distance between us. And then he kisses me with his wine-stained mouth. We clear off the table and bring the dishes into the kitchen. I stand at the tall porcelain double sink and he comes up behind me, puts his arms and then the length of his body against mine. I turn around, wipe my hands on my thighs, and we kiss longer this time, pulling closer and closer until our clothing seems superfluous, something to be shed. "Would you like to go upstairs to my room?" I say. I take his hand, lead him up the creaky staircase. I turn on my floor lamp, an old, unsightly thing I painted with bright acrylic reds and pinks-its light makes a muted circle against the wide, scuffed boards of my pine floor. What can I tell you about this first time, when everything still works? His touch is skillful and I am trembling. His skin is a furnace whose warmth I crave. He is all one piece, a long, flowing line that I want to follow. He brings a condom and I say Yes, yes, yes. Continue... Excerpted from IN SICKNESS & IN HEALTH by KAREN PROPP Copyright (c) 2002 by Karen Propp Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Paris, 1997p. xi
Part 1 The Early Years
Chapter 1 Courtshipp. 3
Chapter 2 Invisible Beamsp. 19
Chapter 3 Bridal Lacep. 31
Chapter 4 Birthp. 55
Part 2 The Bargain
Chapter 5 Deliriousp. 77
Chapter 6 The Bargainp. 99
Chapter 7 From Burgundy to Chardonnayp. 121
Chapter 8 The Home Frontp. 139
Part 3 Ever After
Chapter 9 Repairsp. 159
Chapter 10 Without Sexp. 175
Chapter 11 Hydraulicsp. 193
Chapter 12 Ever Afterp. 209
Resourcesp. 223