Before my husband got sick, he was meticulous about doing the dishes. He rinsed and scrubbed plates until they shone before putting them in the dishwasher.
Brad and I had settled on this years ago, when we were first living together: I cooked, he cleaned. In our negotiations about division of labor, he told me that he felt about cooking much as I felt about writing poetry: It offered limited opportunities for self-expression and a lot of ways to embarrass myself. I laughed and conceded the point. Two kids and more than two decades later, I wished my past self had retorted that nobody needs to eat poetry every single night.
Whatever my complaints about the demands of dinner prep, Brad took his cleanup job seriously. He was vigilant about maintaining a clean, unsullied sponge just for dishes. Woe betide me if I used the sacred sponge, as he called it, to wipe the countertops. Woe betide me more if I left the sponge in the sink, plumped with water to brew nastiness. He would hold up the sacred sponge and call out my violation, seeming to joke but really quite serious, often declaiming one of his pet quotations: “Take you me for a sponge?”
The question comes from Hamlet, late in the play, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern spy for the king. It is Rosencrantz’s obtuse retort to Hamlet, who has called him a sponge. Hamlet elaborates: “Ay, sir, that soaks up the king’s countenance . . . when he needs what you have gleaned, it is but squeezing you, and, sponge, you shall be dry again.” Rosencrantz, ever hapless, doesn’t understand that Hamlet is telling him he’ll end up drained and discarded.
The stakes of sponge-tending in our kitchen are lower than those of the deadly machinations at the Danish court. Indeed, the minor details of our domestic life sound petty even as I enumerate them. But what could be more important than the mundanities that make up lives together, a marriage? The texture of a shared life comes from our small priorities, our daily choices, and habits. We squeeze out the sponge. We rinse the dishes. We load the dishes in a certain way and put them away in their distinct places. We make our private joke about sacred sponges and quote Shakespeare when we argue about the dishes. This is who we are.
Those artificial sponges that we keep by the side of our sink, made from cellulose, were invented during the midcentury manufacturing boom in synthetic materials. Their creation was a response to a shortage of natural Mediterranean sea sponges, caused by both the trade interruptions of World War II (which also increased military demand for sponges) and a sea-sponge blight. The inventors, who worked for DuPont, used a mixture of jelly-like wood pulp and vegetable fibers. They named their sponge brand for the sponges’ chemical formula: oxygen (O), cellulose (Cel), oxygen (O). They sold the company to General Mills in 1952. O-Cel-O sponges are now made by 3M, the world’s largest manufacturer of branded sponges, which still uses technology similar to that of the 1940s. Yellow, pink, green, purple: Their saturated Easter-egg colors gleam in the supermarket aisle, just as they did when my grandmother was a housewife.
When Brad got cancer, the shared texture of our domestic life was suddenly changed. Through his long hospitalizations—three weeks for a collapsed lung, several intermittent weeks of chemotherapy, then more than four months during a near-fatal stem cell transplant marked by extreme complications—I was in sole charge. His parents, present for many of those weeks, offered much-needed help with the dishes, but for long periods I loaded the dishwasher just as I liked, rinsed the plates clean or not, changed out the sponge at my own bidding.
Plenty of middle-aged married people, women especially, might wish they had had a Hamlet in their youth, to warn them of how they would feel squeezed out after years of absorbing the needs of others. I felt dried out and used up after months of caregiving for my husband through aggressive lymphoma, his transplant, and his long, tenuous recovery.
In the whirlwind of just getting through it and holding together the bare form of our family’s life, as shot through with tiny holes as a sponge, I somehow lost the deeper connection to my husband forged in nineteen years of living together. I was exhausted and fed up with solo parenting and being in charge of everything; he was too sick to do any housework whatsoever, much less to make Shakespearean sponge jokes.
Artificial sponges, of course, are just a replacement for natural sea sponges, used for cleaning and personal hygiene for millennia. (Roman soldiers carried natural sponges in lieu of toilet paper.) The scientific name for their genus, Porifera , means “pore-bearer.” Although they are animals, they are simple organisms, lacking heart, lungs, and the ability to move; they eat by pumping seawater through pores. They are mechanistic, almost, performing their ancient tasks because they must. During my most intense caregiving days, I felt a strange kinship with them, soft, flexible, trapped, and anchored to rocks.
I know some of this because our older daughter did a class report on sponges when she was in second grade, the year before Brad got sick. I ordered a pack of assorted sea sponges on Amazon, which were shipped to our house and which she duly glued on a piece of posterboard. Brad took her to the library of the university where he taught, so they could look up together and bring home books about sea life, heavy 1970s-era tomes with full-color jackets, now faded. Her report offered two fun facts:
• There are over 10,000 species of sponges!
• Sea turtles eat them.
For weeks after coming home from the four-month hospitalization for his stem cell transplant, Brad was too weak and deconditioned to walk across a room unattended, much less do the dishes. He had also lost his vision to acute graft-versus-host disease and was severely immunocompromised. Everything had to be clean and sanitary. We cycled rapidly through sponges.
After four months, he was strong enough to stand at the sink for a few minutes, and steady enough on his feet to bend down to put dishes in the dishwasher. He was trying, so hard, to re-enter the normal life of our family, but he couldn’t do the dishes like he used to. He couldn’t see to rinse them, and he didn’t have the energy to stand there scrubbing for long. Sometimes, the dishes he hand-washed still bore ghostly traces of my lipstick or a smear of stubborn food.
As he finished the dishes he faithfully squeezed the sponge, like he used to. But he couldn’t wring it out completely. One of his medications caused hand tremors, and his shaking, weakened hand left the sponge plump with fluid. Most nights, I remembered to come downstairs after the dishes were done and give it another squeeze with my stronger grip. Water and unseen bacteria spilled out, and I rinsed them away down the drain along with the food scraps Brad didn’t know he had left behind. Sometimes I forgot. Sometimes the sponge sat too long and grew musty.
What I really wanted to do, those evenings, was to run away from the demands of caregiving, the frustrations of parenting with a partner too ill to take on much of the load, the tedium of daily details. I was tempted, during what I took to calling my ill-timed midlife crisis, to blow up my entire life. But bound by the entwined tendrils of love and obligation, I couldn’t toss aside the life we had built. I could, however, rebel a little when it came to the sponge. When it developed a telltale mildewy whiff, I threw it in the trash and got out a new O-Cel-O sponge, slightly moist, as the ones in the package always mysteriously are.
Sponges, the more than 10,000 kinds of them, in all their brainless simplicity, are among the oldest forms of animal life on earth. The golden age of sponges, according to the fossil record, was some 635 million years ago, when they blanketed the shallows of the cold oceans. It was some kind of soft, absorbent heyday. The deep parts of the ocean didn’t yet contain oxygen. Scientists have theorized that sponges’ ability to organize and grow different types of tissue was the critical evolutionary advance that underlies the development of all subsequent animal life. Sometimes I wonder if women’s ability to organize and adapt underlies the development of all family life.
Domestic life and love are full of compromises big and small. We love someone, so we choose to stay with them even if life together isn’t quite what we pictured. We make tradeoffs. We take on a little more of the domestic labor than we want in one arena or another. We absorb disappointment or tasks like sponges, hardly noticing as we soak it up, and it festers into resentment if we don’t squeeze it out.
For years, I let our cooking and doing-the-dishes divide turn rank in exactly this way. When we set up the compromise, we thought of it as equal, a successful compromise. Over time, however, I also took on the mental load of planning meals and maintaining our food stores, a project that got more complex as our family grew. I had been naïve about the division of labor early in our marriage. I hadn’t thought about the mental load, which grew and grew as we had two children, as we moved to a bigger house that better accommodated them, as we acquired more stuff, as our work lives got more demanding. When things were otherwise good, I scarcely noticed as our marriage’s balance shifted. Once Brad was incapacitated by illness and everything—plus the added load of caring for him—fell entirely to me, it was almost too late to redress it.
When Brad, still ill and unsteady, started putting a few dishes in the dishwasher, it didn’t seem like much at first. But just as hundreds of millions of years ago, the sponges’ small evolutionary leap of organization gave rise to all the future complexities of animal life, it was for our marriage a crucial turning point.
We were both all but wrung out: I by hard caregiving, Brad by his illness. Somehow, he found just enough energy to take on this old task, the first one we ever compromised on all those years ago. I found just enough love to come downstairs and quietly squeeze out the sponge, knowing he didn’t have the strength. In so doing, I found the space and compassion to meet my partner where he was.
It’s been two years since Brad’s stem cell transplant. He recovered his vision thanks to two corneal transplants, and he’s in remission, though still immunocompromised and medically fragile. He does the dishes most nights, and he’s also learning to cook. We’re doing the work, together, of rebuilding the connection we almost lost. That’s the good thing about both sponges and marriages: They’re both absorbent and, if tended, resilient. However hard you squeeze, if you realize what you’re doing and let go, they regain their form.