Married, Single, Widowed, Divorced

I’ve been a patient about a million times. There are so many dehumanizing aspects to being immersed in a medical system, but one thing that torques me off quite a bit is the dreaded medical intake form.

It’s not for reasons you might expect. It’s relatively easy for me to zip through name, address, social security number (something I never reveal although they seem to always uncover it anyway), current medications, prior medical conditions, medical conditions of my family members, emergency contact, insurance company and policy number.

Where I get stuck is the four choices of marital status.

Four empty little circles and only one to be blackened. Married. Single. Widowed. Divorced. The answer which seems so obvious to most isn’t at all clear to me.

Unlike other questions on the intake form (date of birth, place of residence), the choices about marital status are personal—not personal in a HIPPAA-protected way—but in a this-is-my-identity kind of way. Why am I confounded by such a simple question? Because I’ve been all of them: married, single, widowed, divorced. I am married now, but as life has shown me, this may be a temporary situation (which all situations are). To select one is to obliterate all the other states of partnership. Once a widow, can you be unwidowed? Did my divorce evaporate once I re-wed?

It peeves me to allow a bureaucratic form to erase two life events I not only managed to survive, but also developed a resilience I’m very proud of. After the premature death of my first husband, I had to claw my way back to life and motherhood without the support of the father of our children. Being a widow was a badge of honor. Why would I disavow that? Surviving the humiliation and shame of divorce was a whole different kind of way to walk through fire, but walk through fire I did.

My marriages, past and present, cut to the core of my identity. I’m proud of possessing the strength to survive the endings of two marriages and also finding the courage and life-affirming ability to love and commit again. Not to get too existential, Jewish marriage vows don’t include the words “til death do us part.” When you’re Jewish, it’s not crystal clear as to when your marriage ends. (Don’t even get me started about the arcane process of a Jewish divorce where the soon-to-be ex-husband, who is not necessarily an ethical or honorable guy, must grant his permission before the divorce can be obtained.)

Intake form creators are blind to philosophical dilemmas. Someone who’s not cynical about our medical system might say the inquiry about marital status is included because of the beneficial impact a solid relationship can have on one’s health. I say: apply a little more ingenuity, people. Come up with more useful questions. Do you have someone who cares enough about you to accompany you to a doctor visit to help interpret what the doctor says to you? Do you live with a person who would bring you a cup of tea if you’re feeling too crappy to get out of bed? The answers to those questions could truly provide some useful information.

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