Since Ezekiel wrote a post about top surgery, I decided to write my own. Supporting Ezekiel through surgery was harder for me than I expected it to be, and that makes me reluctant to discuss it. But I wish there were more stories from partners relating to all different aspects of being a the partner of a trans person, and if I want those words to be out there, I have to put them out there, even if I’d rather not.
In the couple of weeks before the surgery, I realized that I was having lots of confusing feelings about the surgery. I have been looking forward to Ezekiel’s top surgery for a couple of years. I had no attachment to his old chest, and felt that the surgery would only give me more access to his body, with less discomfort on both of our parts. I wanted to be able to stop erasing a part of his body with my mind, and for his physical body to better match my mental image of him. But as surgery neared I felt more bad feelings, and it was confusing for me. Was I worried about missing his old body? Was I feeling ambivalent about transition? Finally, I figured out that I was actually feeling a lot of negativity about the actual surgery. I didn’t like the idea that I was going to escort my husband to the hospital and hand him over to a doctor who would return him to me in pain, bruised, cut, hurting, and damaged. My head knew that the surgery was good and provided an opportunity for healing, but my emotional system was feeling that the surgery was physically dangerous and damaging.
Then about a week before Ezekiel’s surgery date, I came down with a norovirus, undoubtedly passed on by the kids. In addition to really sucking, norovirus is also highly contagious. And if you catch one right before, you can’t have surgery. So when it became clear what my illness was, Ezekiel and I decided that he need to stay away from home until the virus passed (thanks K & A for the guest bed). That meant that I was sick at home taking care of two kids, who watched lots of videos while I lay in bed moaning. Eventually the virus passed and Ezekiel came home a few days before surgery.
The day before the surgery we rented a car and drove a couple of hours to stay at a bed and breakfast near the hospital. We were both nervous, but eventually we walked into the surgical center, Ezekiel was called back to get prepped. The nursing staff was good, except for rampant mis-gendering. It really sucks to be a trans person trying to access health care, or even to be a support person helping a trans person navigating health care. But we made it through, and I saw Ezekiel out to surgery and sat down to wait, to check in with friends over the wireless provided by the hospital, and to try not to think about what might be happening in the surgery room.
Soon, however, a nurse came and got me because Ezekiel was in the recovery room and asking for me. When I went back to see him in recovery, he was shaky and out of it. The surgery went fine and everything actually was fine, but he didn’t look fine — he looked like a train wreck. They gave him pain meds and he started to get nauseated, so they gave him other meds to help the nausea. He was in good spirits when he was awake, but he was in and out of consciousness and I had nothing to do but watch him and worry. I tried not to look at his chest when the nurses came to check the wrappings. They said he looked really good. I watched him as the hours ticked by and we waited for a bed. I went for walks and ate a lot of candy out of vending machines. I felt lonely, and wished that Ezekiel was around to talk to. I called family and had some lunch. Eventually Ezekiel got into a room, and I hung out with him while he got settled and eventually dragged myself back to the bed and breakfast. I was wildly happy that I didn’t have to take care of him overnight (most surgeons don’t keep you overnight for this, but I was really grateful that his did). I had managed to avoid paying much attention to things like the drains that needed to be emptied, and was grateful that someone else was in charge of helping him get to the bathroom.
The next morning, I got an education in the drains, and filled the prescription for painkillers and then it was time to head home. I drove gently, and we stopped to get a pillow to make the drive more comfortable for Ezekiel. He still wasn’t terribly interesting company, and I worried about every pothole I hit. When we got home, I left him with a friend to get settled while I returned the car. This friend had helped to get the house ready and even cooked for us. Even better, he had beer so that when I got back to the house, I got to eat and drink.
In my memory, the next several days consisted of me emptying drains and trying not to cause Ezekiel pain (his surgeon wanted us to change dressings, not all of them do). Honestly I felt like an only-barely-adequate nurse. I arranged pillows, felt bad that we’d never actually gotten around to renting a recliner, brought Ezekiel juice, water, and food, gave him medication, and wrote everything down. I peered at drain sites and lumps, praying silently that everything was really OK. I worried. In our relationship, I’m the one that doesn’t freak out, so I didn’t freak out. I called the doctor when it was needed. I waited for things to get better. I waited for Ezekiel to feel better. I spent part of every day crying and thinking I was losing my mind. Everything was going fine, why was I so emotional?
Part of my overly emotional state had to do with the amount of caretaking I was doing. We were blessed with friends and family who brought us food, hung out with Ezekiel so that I could do other things, took our kids out on adventures, and came over to help with tasks around the house. But even with all that help I was taking care of someone who sometimes needed help pulling up his pants, doing general nursing duties, and taking care of a four-year-old and seven-year-old who were worried about their father and wanting more time and attention from both of us. I was also doing everything around the house, including jobs like laundry that typically fall to Ezekiel.
Another part of my difficulty had to do with the fact that I was on my own. It took about a month after bringing him to the hospital before I really felt like I had my spouse back. At the beginning, he was too strung out on pain meds to feel to me like he was really “there.” Then I was too stressed out to connect with him, since much of what I needed to do was to scream and cry about how hard things were and how bad I felt. But I couldn’t do that, since his surgery was the proximate cause of my hard time, and I knew he already felt guilty about it, so I kept him at arms length, where I could have a chance at moderating my own emotions and reactions. And it might seem petty, but I am used to a life where Ezekiel brings me things, does things for me, goes out to get things when I need them — that’s part of how I feel cared-for as a person, that he physically cares for me. He just couldn’t do that, and I missed it.
But there was another, larger part of my difficulty that I still struggle to understand and put into words. I still feel sick thinking about how hurt he was after surgery, how fragile, how full of gross fluids. Going into surgery the thing I was most scared of was how I would bring him in whole, and how he would come out damaged. To a very large extent, that’s exactly what happened. There were glimpses of increased wholeness, like when we went in for a followup visit, and they took the bolsters protecting his nipples off, and I saw his real chest for the first time. I cried really joyful tears for a transformation that I hadn’t really believed would happen until I saw it! We were both elated, but by the time we got home the energy and elation had worn off and we were back to the hard work of recovery, back to feeling broken.
Now we are a couple of months out, and he does feel whole. I feel whole again too, and like we are building our reserves up again as a couple and as a family. I wish it had been easier for both of us. But sometimes things are just hard, and that’s OK. In reality, it was a short period of time, and now I can easily see that the outcome was worth it. At the time, it felt like things would always be hard, but the memory of what was difficult is fading rapidly. In a few more months, if someone asks me what it was like, I might just say something like “Well, it was a little rocky but that didn’t last that long. You’ll be fine.” So I want to write this now before the memory completely fades, and acknowledge publicly that it was hard, so that if you find your way here, and are struggling to support your partner after this surgery or some other one, you know you have some company.