Earlier this year my husband had surgery to correct quite possibly the worst documented sleep apnea in history. He snored so loud I am certain that our closest neighbors also went without sleep. The Army gave him two weeks of convalescent, and by Day Eight of Recovery, I wanted to check myself into the psychiatric ward of the hospital.
Van’s surgery turned out to be prolonged torment; afterward we both agreed that if we had done any serious research, we wouldn’t have committed to such a sadistic idea. It was actually five procedures in one. A uvulopalatopharyngoplasty (go ahead, sound it out), or U-triple P in medical jargon, is a procedure that trims away all or part of the uvula, some of the soft palate, and part of the back of the throat. Since my husband still had his tonsils and adenoids, they were removed, so he also underwent a tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy. The doctor expanded his sinuses using tiny balloons and fixed his deviated septum, adding sinoplasty and septoplasty. All five procedures took less than two hours to complete, and in that time I was able to leave the hospital for an unhurried if not totally relaxed sit-down lunch, but I sped back to the hospital to be present when Van was wheeled out of recovery.
The waiting room was mostly empty and very quiet. A middle aged black man kept looking between his cell phone and the television blaring in the corner, a firestorm erupting over the events in Ferguson, Missouri. After a while, the man and I tried to ignore the repetitive tickers flashing across the screen. I took ‘A Picture of Dorian Gray’ from the loan shelf and skimmed enough to figure out that Dorian met a gruesome demise. A neat old lady walked in carrying a Hy Vee bag, sat down across from me and popped the tab from a soda. She smiled at me and asked if I knew how to turn off Airplane Mode on a Trac Phone. I scooted next to her and proved to be useless, but then a conversation began. She was a whip smart Marine’s wife. Her husband had been in Vietnam; when he came back his miserable job was to knock on the doors of the wives whose Marines had been KIA.
“Then one day two of our friends came home in body bags at the same time, and he had to go knock on the doors of their wives. These were people we knew quite well. After that he didn’t see any point to any of it anymore, so he got out as soon as he could.” She smiled and met my eyes steadily and we exchanged a knowing look. We understand so much more than we ought to.
A nurse peered into the waiting room, and I recognized my husband on the gurney in the hallway. Van looked fragile and frantic, but I smiled brightly into his face, and he clutched my hand tight. The nurse said, “He won’t be able to talk for quite a while.”
“Then he can listen to me,” I winked and smiled back down into his face again and he squeezed my hand harder. Before the procedure Van told me that there was no sense in my sticking around, I should go have lunch and get some air. I had joked “Well that’s not very clingy of you!” He responded “Oh, that will come after the surgery.” I could see how much he needed me now.
It’s amazing what we take for granted. We had recently decided to work on our communication skills and be better mates to each other; now suddenly communication had become quite nearly impossible! Van had to learn to communicate without speaking; I had to learn how to really listen and interpret his nods, gestures, frowns, and sometimes angry emphatic flailing, and then try to give him whatever would make him more comfortable — or in his case, less miserable. Everything slowed down to a crawl, and every minute for us was filled with trying to communicate better.
I had to remind myself to speak much less. As much as I wanted to talk, as lonely as I felt without banter from my favorite conversationalist, I knew Van was exhausted and didn’t have the capacity for long talks. I kept a lot to myself, and it wasn’t easy. For example, the college student daughter of the middle aged black man in the waiting room…was so upset because her mother was also at the hospital undergoing surgery that she hit his truck in the hospital parking lot while we were waiting to be discharged. Yeah, I kept that to myself for a couple of days until Van was lucid enough to process the information. Instead of making sentences longer and full of detail — one of my habits — I tried to keep things short and to to the point so that he could get the important information and make a decision quickly or tell me what he needed without having to exert too much energy. I’m telling you, it was exhausting, and it didn’t always work. Sometimes I wasn’t intuitive. Sometimes Van wasn’t patient. And there were evil forces at work.
We had to live on New Baby new schedule. Van required round the clock pain medications, so neither of us was getting eight full hours of sleep. I was lucky if I got three hours of sleep at one stretch, and Van claimed he never slept for more than 30 minutes, but he was really whacked out on the pain medication. Around Day 3 of Recovery, I woke up to a bloodcurdling scream around midnight. I figured my daughter was having a nightmare, but I was shockingly incorrect. She had covered her entire bed in vomit. Being already somewhat sleep deprived, I could hardly process this new horror, and I had a hell of a time cleaning it up. The mystery virus swept through the household, causing stomachaches, fevers, and headaches, but no one else vomited. I was terrified that Van would catch it, but luckily he was the only one who didn’t.
I had to drive across town to pick up Pedialyte and crackers at Wal-Mart, but I didn’t have the energy to change out of my pajamas. I “dressed” them up with a pair of jaunty red moccasins and an over-sized vintage bleached Levi’s anorak. My youngest daughter was appalled to see me leave the house in pajamas because my primary rule of fashion is to NEVER, EVER, under ANY circumstances, leave the house in pajamas! I couldn’t give a shit. When I looked in the restroom mirror at Wal-Mart, I nearly jumped back at the reflection, much like Dorian Gray must have when he began to see his transformation. Oh no, could it be? Was it me staring back? My eyes were glassy and red, and when I had applied my lipstick, I had put it around my lips, not on them!
On Day 5 of Recovery my husband became a food critic. The mashed potatoes were too salty, the Jell-O too acidic, the Cream of Wheat too sandy, the soup too hot, the water too cold, the ice too hard. I started to lose my shit in the kitchen. I knew it was just because his throat was very sensitive, but when someone tells you that they cannot handle water, that water possesses qualities making it too harsh for consumption, it becomes hard not to just give up. I smiled at my husband, said “Okay, I will try to find something that works for you,” and went into the kitchen to weep silently while Van watched old Chris Farley movies on television.
On Day 7 I took Van to the hospital for his follow-up appointment. I was soooo over the hospital. I’d already been there twice to refill Van’s pain medicine, each visit making me more resentful of free medical care. I had tolerated the overly complicated customer service ticket kiosk, suspicious pharmacy techs interrogating my intents with the pain meds, and a protracted fire alarm malfunction. The last thing I wanted was to visit the hospital again, but here we were. Van leaned on me slightly as we walked into the hospital, and I got a premonition of what old age might be like for us. The doctor said Van should start do feel much better after getting the stints out, and then I made the mistake of watching the stints being removed. It was like an alien extraction scene in a sci-fi movie!
Van had taken a turn for the worse the night before, so the doctor sent us to the ER for an IV. This would add another 2-3 hours to our visit, but it would make a world of difference in his recovery. There was a young soldier in the waiting room with a huge bloody gash across his forehead. He had wrecked his truck his wife left him in the same week, but this was still the best day he’d had in a while, so he said.
We sat in a large room for a long time after triage, Van getting an IV and sleeping. I was so tired that I wanted to cry, but I just sat against the wall and closed my eyes. Van still couldn’t talk, but I sensed when he needed me. I opened my eyes, and he motioned for me to come near so he could whisper into my ear. “I’m ready to get outta here.” I was ready too. But it would not happen before we overheard the ER doctor give an overly detailed description to the patient on the other side of the privacy curtain of all the things that could go wrong during his spinal tap. I now knew too much.
Day 8 I left the house in my pajamas again, but this time it was much worse. I didn’t even bother to put on a bra or shoes. Fortunately, I was just driving a few blocks to pick up my youngest daughter from a sleepover. I think I cried during the drive. My friend took one look at me and said “Whoa, you want some coffee?” I really wanted to stay home and sleep but I had to get out and pick up meds again, so after my daughter and I cleaned up our act, we headed out. I was hoping to just pick up everything at the Post Exchange, or PX, common on Army bases. Unfortunately, one of the prescriptions — in fact, the most important one that Van absolutely needed — could only be filled at the hospital, so we would have to go there too.
While we were at the PX waiting for our ticket to be called for the other medications, someone puked all over the floor, creating a veritable minefield of vomit. I couldn’t believe it. I had dealt with more bizarre things in the days since Van’s surgery — rude Kansas drivers, suspicious pharmacists, sleep deprivation, crazy ER doctors, and so much vomit — and all I wanted was to be able to have a real conversation with my husband, then sleep for an entire week. Maybe in reverse order. But those things seemed so far out of reach.
It was a long time before we started communicating again. Once Van began to talk, he also began to formulate plans. There were things that he really wanted to accomplish, and I just wanted to catch up — on conversation and sleep! I began to feel a bit resentful. Was I nothing more than a supplement, a convenient presence during Van’s recovery? After all, I had been there, serving his every need, never giving myself the luxury of wasted time or leisure. I literally burned myself out just trying to keep him alive and well, and all I really craved was a simple conversation with him, to know that at the very heart of the nightmare that we were going through, we still had our humanity.
Looking back on the whole affair one evening several weeks post-op, Van told me something that made me realize that despite his impatience and anger over being exhausted, uncomfortable, and in constant pain, he saw me as the only source of hope and contentment in his situation. He told me that when he came out of surgery he kept asking for me. The nurse wouldn’t let me come into the first phase of recovery, but Van continued to demand that she bring me back.
“I never stopped talking about you; I kept asking for you.” he said. “I kept telling that nurse, “bring my wife here. She can feed me ice chips.” I don’t know why the nurse didn’t just let you come back there and take care of me.” What he said made me think of the moment we arrived home from the hospital. I had to somehow get him up the stairs and onto the couch. He is taller and bigger than me, but I somehow managed to help him walk slowly, with him leaning heavily on me for support, up the driveway, up the front porch stairs, and up the entry stairs into the living room, where he could rest on the couch. He leaned so completely on me.
Since the surgery, we have been communicating better, occasionally worse, but we are talking more than ever. We’ve had a few arguments, a fight or two, and we have opened up and started communicate in ways that we have neglected for years. Having the form of conversation to which we were accustomed taken away suddenly showed us what we had been taking for granted and pointed out what we needed to repair in our relationship. We both started leaning on each other more, and now I feel more valued and appreciated by my husband since this incident, and I have stopped taking for granted the simple act of having a conversation with him. For the first time in weeks, we sat down this morning to have a cup of coffee, argue about the leadership attributes of the ridiculous number of Presidential candidates, discuss lawn care techniques, and exchange banter about the fun that we could encounter throughout the day. I couldn’t ask for anything more.