dilemma: The stayaway 'saint'

Lucinda feels it a privilege to be married to her wonderful husband, an environmentalist and a Buddhist, a passionate believer in the human race and its survival. But next month she has to have a hysterectomy while he's chairing a week's convention on inner enlightenment in the US. She could cope on her own with her friends, but longs for her husband's company. Would it be unfair to beg him to stay?

The problem here is not so much one of hysterectomies, important as they are, or of begging for support - begging is always a mistake, whether it's on the kerbside or for mercy - but Lucinda's willingness to give away the high moral ground.

She seems to regard her husband as a saint, a man she is "privileged" to be married to. And the problem with regarding anyone as a saint, or feeling privileged to be with them, is that, as you place them on a pedestal, you suddenly find yourself in the gutter. They're the saint - so what are you? The sinner, of course, mucking about in a mire of slimy serpents, a tragic mortal who can do nothing but try and fail. And if you feel privileged to be married to your partner, you often forget that they are incredibly privileged to be married to you, too.

Lucinda's husband is, after all, only a human being, and, my goodness, hasn't he just proven it by letting his ambition and vanity take him to chair a convention on inner enlightenment rather than be with his wife during a time when she needs him most .

Because, for all women may say about how easily they can cope with pain and operations, and however true it may be that we are made in stoic mould when it comes to physical illness, compared, at least, with men, a hysterectomy is a huge operation, both emotionally and physically. It involves a man, for surgeons are usually men, slicing out one's reproductive life; it marks the complete end of any more child-bearing, and to have this added emotional impact on top of major surgery can make even the toughest old boot of a woman reach for the Kleenex.

Now, it is possible that Lucinda could cope with the operation on some kind of feminist grounds. "Who needs a husband to see me through this when I have my female friends?" a woman might say, and one might admire her for it. There is many a woman who would welcome having an operation on her own, would welcome being strong enough not to need a partner's presence during a major crisis in her life, knowing that if anything went seriously wrong he would (one hopes) fly back at the drop of a hat. But Lucinda is not this sort of woman at this moment in her life. Her self- esteem is at an all-time low, she feels childish and guilty for needing her husband's support and considers "begging" for his presence.

She should remember two things. One is that her husband is not a saint. He sounds, to me at least, rather the opposite. He sounds like a cold fish, a cobbler whose children are the worst-shod, a selfish man who is as ruthlessly ambitious in the spiritual and environmental field as any company director in the financial world.

I rather agree with Quentin Crisp, who says in his latest book that: "It is an unalterable law that people who claim to care about the human race are utterly indifferent to the sufferings of individuals."

Second, Lucinda should realise that "begging" doesn't come into asking for help when you need it. Asking someone to help you upstairs with an enormous oak chest of drawers, for instance, doesn't involve any humiliation or crawling. It's the sensible thing to do if you can't manage it on your own. Lucinda should tell herself that asking for help when it's needed is a sign of maturity, not childishness. She should ask her husband, quite simply, to cancel - and stay with her.

READERS' REPLIES

Tell him that you need him

If you don't inform your husband of your feelings about your operation, you don't give him a chance to do what's right. Don't expect him to be a mind-reader. I have been through many minor and a couple of major operations over the past 20 years, and for 19 of them I did not want to burden my husband with my unfounded fears. Of course I coped, but this led to a resentment over his absence.

There is nothing wrong with being truthful or with needing somebody. Tell it as it is. Far too many painful misunderstandings are caused by lack of honesty regarding one's own feelings. If your husband needs to be begged for help, maybe he is not the enlightened man you say he is.

Matilda, Somerset

Your friends will fill the breach

A few years ago I found myself in the same position as Lucinda, although in my case we were living in Spain at the time and the conflicting appointment was my mother-in-law's 70th birthday party in London. Reader, I let him go.

With good hospital care and help from friends, one of whom slept in the adjoining bed the first night, the ordeal was relatively straightforward, and while no operation can ever remotely be said to be enjoyable, it wasn't half as bad as I had imagined, and I was back home in three days.

Take lots of light reading, make sure the nurses bring you something for that first awful thirst, and you'll come through it with only a physical scar and no mental ones.

Mrs Geraldine Blake, Ealing

It's your turn to have support

There are many "caring" people who prefer their caring to be on a macro rather than micro scale. You say you feel privileged to be with your husband, but he is privileged to be with someone who has clearly been so supportive to him in his profession. Now it's your turn. A hysterectomy is a major operation, which takes months to get over, and he should be supporting you throughout those months, beginning with the time you are in hospital. The global mess is not going to get any worse in the time out he takes to look after you, his wife. And that he has not seen this for himself (it should not be up to you to beg him to stay) is typical of those who don't see that charity (a word which has its roots in 'love') begins at home.

Linda Fielding, London SW8

Charity begins at home

My husband, too, is a wonderful man. He works for a charity, is a member of the Green Party, and, when I needed minor surgery a year-and-a-half ago, had plans to attend a meeting of a refugee group he was assisting. I begged him to accompany me to the hospital and home afterwards, since the surgery was to my scalp and I would be feeling vulnerable afterwards. He argued that I would be fine and that the refugee group needed him more than I did. It turned out I was fine. But I still don't think the refugees needed him more than I - not on that evening - and, despite a happy marriage, I have never really forgiven him.

It is not childish to want your husband present when you're having major surgery (dangerous even in the finest hospital) that will change your life for ever. What is marriage for, if not to guarantee that someone who loves you more than anything will be at your side when you are most defenceless? If he's not with you, he will forfeit much of the confidence that makes a committed relationship work.

Instead of begging, just tell him this. Presumably he came to his passionate humanitarianism through a rational analysis of the world's ills. Approach him rationally now; invite him calmly to consider the circumstances. Emphasise that this is not emotional blackmail, that you cannot be sure that the surgery will go smoothly, that your friends will provide all the support you need, or that you won't feel any resentment when you get home from hospital and he from America. It is just a simple fact that damage is done to a relationship when one partner puts the good of humanity over that of the nearest human being.

Lisa Kierans, London NW3

Stop worrying and go for it!

I had a hysterectomy 18 months ago, after years of medical problems. For the first two days after the op you won't want to know anybody. That's the effect of the anaesthetic and medication. By day three, you will be feeling so much better, both physically and psychologically, that you will cope with anything! You'll probably get an extra boost from your altruism in letting your husband attend his meeting. Best of luck.

Julia Roberts, Kidderminster

NEXT WEEK'S DILEMMA: THE SON WHO LOVES DOLLS

Dear Virginia,

My son of four has started playing with dolls. I don't mean Action Man- type dolls, I mean proper dolls. He fantasises with them, puts them to bed and so on. He got his first doll from a little girl who stayed here and left it behind and didn't want it back, and since then I have given him one and he found another on a tip. He behaves quite naturally with them, but his father is getting increasingly upset and angry, and wants me to throw them away. He says it's unnatural and will make him gay. What should I do?

Yours sincerely,

Betty

Comments are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a Dynagrip 50 ballpen from Paper:Mate. Send relevant personal experiences or comments to me at the Features Department, the 'Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL; fax 0171-293 2182, by Tuesday morning. If you have any dilemmas you would like to share, let me know.

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