Our contributor Katherine Chen, who is a junior English major at Princeton University (check out her personal site here), is penning a series of confessions for EMandLO.com collectively called “The Virgin Diaries.” Here’s her eighth installment:
Around two years ago, just when I was about to go to college for the first time, my father had an operation to remove the colostomy bag he had been using and restore what remained of his colon. My parents and I were generally unconcerned about the operation: we had been assured on nearly every visit to the clinic that this was an easy, straightforward procedure that would be done by an experienced surgeon. I went to work that day while my mother accompanied my father to the hospital. Hours passed, and I began checking my phone every ten minutes or so for an update — but no one called. Finally, my mother rang, and the news was not good: the operation was unsuccessful.The doctor had emerged from the operating room shaking his head — he couldn’t even pinpoint what had gone wrong. And now my father would have to remain in the hospital for a good while longer. I was furious, and my mother was heartbroken.
Over the next few months, my mother visited the ICU every day, keeping my father company and bringing him food she’d prepared that he had no appetite to eat. That whole year, my mother must have slept an average of three to four hours a night. The hospital was her workplace, and my father’s ICU room her office. She was more vigilant than the nurses, and when they ignored her, she went to fetch the doctor herself. She fought tirelessly to bring my father back to life. Today he’ll tell you he probably would not have survived the ordeal at all if it weren’t for my mother’s hard work and persistence.
I watched my mother’s devotion to my father with awe. While I certainly admired her strength and patience, I realized I would never be able to do the same for my hypothetical husband.
Thinking back on that year, I’m reminded of the wedding vows that a bride and groom make to each other at the altar. My mother must have taken my father’s hand in her own and said something along the lines of “I, Betty Yu, take you, Ray Chen, to be my husband, to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love, cherish, and obey, till death us do part.” If this vow is intended to be taken both seriously and literally — and I believe it is — then it absolutely terrifies me.
Could I spend all my free hours taking care of somebody and tending to his medical and emotional needs? Could I willingly put my own career on the wayside and make him the utmost priority of my life and existence so long as he needed me? What if he asked me to quit my day job and spend all my hours with him at the hospital, like my father did with my mother? Could I agree to do all that? The answer is a resounding no! And I don’t think it’s a heartless answer, just an honest one.
I am not prepared, mentally or emotionally, for the obligations and responsibilities that come with a union as colossal and consequential as marriage. I just can’t imagine ever sacrificing my independence and ambitions for someone else, and so far in my life, I’ve never had to. In a discussion I had with my mother not too long ago concerning marriage, I told her, “I can never marry because I love myself more than I could ever love another human being.” I’m not afraid of coming across as selfish or superficial by making such a statement: I do love and cherish myself. But that doesn’t mean I’m incapable of loving another person. It’s just that I’m unwilling to sacrifice my own livelihood, dreams, and well-being for anyone else.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I’ve never felt responsibility or obligation to another human being. I feel a strong sense of both towards my parents because they were the ones who raised me, clothed me, fed me, and spent thousands of dollars on my early education. That whole academic year, I traveled every other day from my dorm to my home to the hospital and then back. I juggled a number of jobs to pay what small bills I could for my family and to help ward off creditors. Because of all my efforts to raise and save money for them, my schoolwork suffered and my social life was virtually nonexistent. But I was more than happy to help them out during such a difficult time.
On the other hand, I cannot imagine ever possessing such strong feelings of responsibility and obligation towards a lover, someone I’ve only known for a small part of my life, someone not blood-related. And I’m not just talking about when tragedy occurs. Whether it’s having to negotiate where to go on vacation or what car to drive, I despise that feeling of being controlled, not getting my own way, or just having the course of my life altered from my ultimate dreams and ambitions. Relationships are all about compromise — something I’m not willing to do right now. And I doubt I ever will be willing.
My parents do not have an ideal marriage, but their relationship is built on a solid enough foundation that my mother was willing to dedicate everything to her husband — in essence, give up everything — during one of the most trying periods of his life. There are certainly pros to marriage that even I can’t deny, such as companionship, intimacy, and support — and hey, it works for millions of couples worldwide. But none of these pros are advantages that I don’t think I couldn’t find in a less romantic permanent relationship, or even platonic ones with friends and family. For better or worse, marriage, with all its heavy vows and responsibilities and burdens, doesn’t fit my temperament or my dreams right now. And isn’t it better to stay honest and sane, even if it’s at the cost of being single?