Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
The morning of my first hip surgery, my husband and I woke up to the alarm on my phone vibrating and ringing at full volume. The moon was out, our home was still and dark, and I started crying before I was fully awake. My husband pulled me close to him, holding me tightly with one arm. With the other he slowly rubbed my left leg, which would, in just a few hours, be cut open and scarred forever. It was a deeply romantic and loving moment, and I went into surgery thinking that recovery might somehow be beautiful and romantic too, like The English Patient in reverse.
We’d had the perfect wedding just eight months ago: backyard at twilight, our little white dog by our side, cake covered in wildflowers, and 40 of our nearest and dearest circled around us as we said our vows. Neither my husband nor I wanted children right away, but we wanted them someday, and before that happened, there was a problem that needed fixing: I had a chronic back injury, an unfortunate side effect from my previous career as a ballet dancer, and we’d been forewarned by multiple doctors that pregnancy would put extra stress on my already-damaged spine.
“Bed rest” seemed to be the physician-approved answer to all my questions concerning my hypothetical future pregnancy, but it didn’t sound like an answer I could live with. It wasn’t the pain I worried about — I’d experienced dozens of injuries in my life as a dancer, and I’d been in moderate to severe pain ever since my back injury had forced me into early retirement — but I already lived with a too-long list of physical limitations. I couldn’t dance anymore, couldn’t run or ski, no steep hikes, and no long walks or trips to museums without wearing comfortable sneakers.
Six months into our marriage, I spoke with a back specialist who discussed the risks of spinal surgery and presented a different plan: He’d found a tear in the labrum of my left hip during an MRI, and he explained that if we corrected the tear, my gait might even out, relieving some of the pressure on my back. I was referred to the top hip specialist in town, and an arthroscopic surgery was scheduled for a few weeks later. Neither my husband nor I felt totally confident about the “open the hip to fix the back” plan, but my surgeon convinced us that it wouldn’t just prepare my body for pregnancy; he thought the procedure would correct enough damage that I’d likely be able to ski, run, jump, and hike, again, all pain-free and within a year.
I remember waking up from anesthesia, gagging as my trach tube was pulled from my throat. It felt like forever before they brought my husband in to see me. Two nurses moved my body back and forth as they worked to slide a large brace over my torso, an uncomfortable piece of plastic that covered my ribs and waist and connected by a metal hinge to another large piece that held my left thigh. Still drugged out of my mind, but feeling no pain, I was placed in a wheelchair, given discharge papers and crutches, and sent on my way.
Sometime that afternoon, I woke up and desperately needed to use the bathroom. I tried getting up on my own, but the floaty, druggy bliss of just a few hours before had passed. It felt like someone had taken a hammer to my hip and then lit it on fire. My husband helped me steady myself on my crutches, and off I went to the bathroom on my own. Except I couldn’t move, and I couldn’t stop crying, and I really needed to pee.
I had expected that at some point in my life — like in my 80s, maybe — my husband might have to help me get to the bathroom, but I thought I had decades to go before that happened. Instead, I was 27 years old. Without prompting, my husband helped me walk the rest of the way there, and held my body as I peed — the brace wouldn’t allow my waist to bend far enough for me to sit all the way on the seat. When I’d finished, he folded up four squares of toilet paper and gently patted me dry.
“The romance is dead,” I remember thinking.
Over the next few weeks, my husband helped me with everything from putting my socks on to washing my hair. He took me to physical therapy and brought me bowls of Fruit Loops for breakfast. But it was hard to have to let him do everything for me, and harder for him to be on call all the time. We were together, but it felt likes days would go by without us looking one another in the eye. When he needed a break, I’d find him hunched at his desk, playing video games on his computer and disconnecting from the reality of our life, which barely resembled the one he’d agreed to when we got married only months before.
At my six-week post-op appointment, anxious to return to our newlywed phase, I asked my surgeon when we’d be able to have sex again. He said to wait a few more weeks and gave me an information sheet about safe positions for hip patients, which included multiple black-and-white drawings of elderly couples, mostly woman on bottom. The figures in the drawings had wrinkles on their faces, the men were all bald on top, and no one looked like they were having any fun.
I wasn’t having any fun, either. Recovery was taking longer than I thought it would. I was still in the brace, which felt like a chastity belt but for half my body, and I couldn’t pull up my own underpants without using an extra-long shoehorn I’d repurposed for the cause. I wanted to get back to who I was, but within a few months it became clear something was wrong.
I kept asking my doctor why things were getting worse instead of better, and was continually told to be patient. I’d downgraded to a cane from my crutches, but every time I took a step there was a stabbing pain in my pelvis. My left leg started having spasms so bad my whole body would shake.
As my pain increased, my patience decreased. So did my husband’s. We fought often and about nothing. I felt trapped in a body that I didn’t recognize as my own, and every time my husband told me to stay positive, I battled the urge to hit him over the head with my cane.
After meeting with two new physicians, we started to piece together what had gone wrong during recovery: I’d been kept in the brace too long and developed severe tendonitis in my iliopsoas muscle, and I had new tears in my cartilage, new impingements, and bursitis, most of it a result of my surgeon failing to take my complaints seriously. I would need another surgery.
My husband and I knew how to prepare this time. We shopped for elevated toilet seats with handles, changed sides of the bed for easier access, put up railings in our shower. Our once-stylish apartment resembled a hospital, but it was necessary. And with each change we made, we found a way to reconnect.
I hadn’t expected to feel so old when I was still so young, to feel so vulnerable physically, but there I was, with a partner who had proven that he’d show up even in the most desperate moments. Sex was rare during that time, but my husband and I watched hundreds of hours of Star Trek together; we found new passions to share, even if there was little passion between us. There were more partnered trips to the bathroom, more assisted showers, more scars on my leg. But we found a sense of humor about it all, because shopping for elevated toilet seats can either be depressing or funny, and we chose the latter.
My surgeries didn’t stop after the second one; there was a third last year, and a fourth is coming up shortly. There will be more after that. I never did get to ski or hike again; my husband and I are lucky if we can get to dessert in a restaurant before the pain becomes unbearable and we need to go home. We only see movies in theaters with recliners, and a hot date night probably includes a heating pad. But we did have a daughter — despite all efforts, I wound up on bedrest while pregnant — and we have love, a lot of it.
I still wouldn’t consider our marriage one of great passion. But there’s romance in knowing that I married a man who, when called upon to care for his young wife in the most unsexy of ways, didn’t even flinch. And that’s a different kind of intimacy, one that can last through sickness and through health.