He had a keen sense for details, and she hated that about him. As they walked along the beach, he might interrupt the sunset to comment on the missing screw in the “swim at own risk” sign. As they stood at the train station, he’d point out the open plastic weather flap over the bolt on the read out. And as they fought over how to deal with delicate issues, he was prone to correct her grammar, or her handwriting.
He hadn’t always been like this. Several years ago, right after their 4th anniversary, he had lost a job. He was fired after a long battle with a manager who disliked him, and while the reasons were never really known, in his mind the origin lie at a mistake he had made on a presentation, years before his termination. After his termination, he fell into a deep depression, and while therapy had helped him get back to a functional state, the obsessive need to attend to every little detail kept him from fully embracing his former life.
She had handled it gracefully for the first few years, she had even entertained him, by turning it into a bit of a game, to see who could out nitpick the other. But after a year she had to admit it wasn’t fun for her, and it didn’t seem much relief to him. Instead, it honed his skills. She tried ignoring the problem for awhile, and finally she lost all patience and held it in outright contempt. The man she loved taken prisoner by the obsession she loathed, and she knew that given a few more years, she would either leave or go insane.
It so happened that she went for a physical exam at his urging one spring, as he had become a preventative health nut, looking to check off a list of the optimal ways to keep oneself in shape. They found a tumor on her neck, no bigger than a walnut, and the decision was made to remove it. It was the easiest way to deal with the problem, and while the doctors were fairly certain it was benign, he insisted that they be sure.
It required her to stay in the hospital for one night, for observation, after the surgery. He vowed to keep watch, and she let him mostly so that she wouldn’t need to answer a thousand questions over the telephone regarding exactly how she was doing. He kept everything in line for her, organized her paper work, kept track of her personal belongings, and made sure she got everything she needed. At night, they attached her to some monitoring equipment, and he heard the subtle tone every five minutes, as a light flickered on at one of the indicators.
“Nurse, what does that mean”, he asked as she entered the room.
“Oh Mr. Smith, that light goes on when we haven’t hooked up a certain sensor. Your wife doesn’t need that sensor tonight, but without it the machine will emit a small tone and light up on that spot” she said as she gestured.
“Are you certain?”, he asked. She stared at him in amazement. She had been working there for 10 years, and had been using this particular piece of equipment for five. She knew it would do this, she knew why it was doing it, and she also knew he was of a nervous disposition. She reassured him, but was firm. “I’m certain it’s fine Mr. Smith, your wife will be OK”.
He sat there all night, watching her sleep, and watching the light. He had resolved himself to the fact that nothing he could do would make the nurses stop the beep and light – they were fine with it on, his wife didn’t find it disturbing, and the world wasn’t going to end with it’s presence. He would need to put it out of his mind.
At about 2 AM, the light turned off and the tone stopped. He thought “Perhaps it times out after 6 hours of inactivity”, but kept vigilant incase it would return. He was not surprised when it did, about 10 minutes later. But this time, it was different. The tone was more shrill, and the light was slightly to the left of it’s former position. He raced out of the room to the nurses station and told her.
“It’s fine Mr. Smith, that has to be the same light – there aren’t any others on that end of the machine”, she reported. He couldn’t accept that. He’d lived with one detail out of order for hours now, and another could not be tolerated. He began searching the hallways, interrogating every person he found with a badge about the machine, while periodically checking on his wife. Finally, after about 30 minutes, a doctor took pity on him, and went to her room with him to check.
“Mr. Smith, it’s just like they told you – look, the light is the same, and I can show you the page in the operators manual for this machine that explains why the light and tone persists”. The doctor was incredibly kind about the confusion, showed him the manual, and suggested he get some rest.
“You must have nodded off for a few minutes, and when you noticed the tone again, it seemed different due to your lack of sleep”, he said. Mr. Smith was tired, and in no capability to protest at this point. He stayed there the rest of the night, asleep in a chair.
The next morning, his wife woke him with a sharp command and stern look.
“I hear you had half the hospital going crazy last night about that silly light”, she barked. He meekly told her his side, but she would have none of it. “I know you mean well, but this is crazy. We need time apart. You can go home, I’m going to my mother’s” she said.
Weeks passed as he languished at their home. She seemed more and more distant, more sure of her decision to leave. She was the only thing holding him together, and without her, he knew that the obsession would own him, he would end up committed, and his life would be reduced to rubble.
Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. He looked out the window and saw her standing there, papers in hand. This was it, she had come to show him the end of their marriage on paper, he would not be able to convince her otherwise. One night he had let his obsession go too far, and now he would pay for it.
He opened the door but could not hold back his tears, as she walked in and asked him to sit.
“I need to show you this”, she said as she opened the large file. To his surprise, it was not filled with legal papers, but with medical X-ray images. He saw the walnut sized lump, and saw that the papers contained were a lab report.
“When they analyzed it, they found out it wasn’t benign”, she said. “In fact, it would have grown pretty quickly, and within a few months, been inoperable.”. He was shocked. His obsession with details had saved her. Maybe not that night in the hospital, but if it hadn’t been for the same motivations that haunted him that night, she wouldn’t be sitting in the house today.
“I think, with some help, I can learn to be there for you, like you’ve been there for me”, she said. She showed him the card of a psychologist that she had been seeing. “I don’t think I ever realized how much the obsessions you have were driven by a need to protect me, and us”, she whispered. They collapsed into each other’s arms on the couch, and for the first time in years, no detail seemed out of place.