Within hours of being released from the hospital, Eric took me to my hair salon. He knew that my curly hair, which had been jammed into a hairband since I began projectile vomiting everywhere, was beyond matted. He figured out (long before I did) that since I couldn’t get my incision wet or lean over, washing my hair at home wasn’t going to be logistically possible. So he called Joseph to make an appointment the minute we knew I was going to be released.
I could barely walk. I had eaten a handful of meals in 15 days, my “good” days had included one or two S L O W laps around the ward with my IV stand in tow, and I was still battling tremendous pain from my surgery and the subsequent infection of my incision. Needless to say, I was no longer in Tough Mudder shape.
When Eric escorted me into the salon, I saw horror on Joseph’s face. I initially brushed off his reaction because I had seen that look on the faces of several friends when I had been in hospital and had grown somewhat immune. “It can’t be THAT bad. I just lost a few pounds,” I thought. But then I saw myself in the full-length mirror.
The person in the reflection was a haggard, dangerously skinny cancer patient devoid of her usual sparkle. In only 15 days, I had lost sexy.
I continued to chat with Joseph while he meticulously combed out every tangle and gently dried my hair. But in the back of my mind, it was beginning to dawn on me that what I lost in the hospital was far more than physical.
As I mulled over this revelation in the following days, I realized that I had relinquished my sexy one piece at a time. It was completely understandable – when you are in an emergency situation, you do whatever it takes to survive.
Hold this bucket so you don’t throw up all over yourself. Ok.
Shove this tube up your nose and down your throat so we can pump out the shit that has backed up into your stomach. Ok.
Roll over so we can stick this enema up your butt. Ok.
Don’t eat because we don’t know when we will rush you into surgery. Ok.
Poop into a bag attached to your abdomen for the next ten months. Ok.
Don’t watch as we pry open and clean this oozing wound. Ok.
Walk around with this “vac” attached to you 24 hours a day to suction out the infection. Ok.
Oh, and you have colon cancer and will be in treatment for months. Ok.
Little by little, sexy was disappearing.
And believe it or not, those were actually the easy ways I handed over sexy. The tough ones entailed my husband.
Eric rarely left my side. When I encouraged him to get out of the hospital, he would respond, “You don’t get to go, so why should I?” I did succeed in kicking him out from time to time, but it was always a struggle. His default position was to stay with me.
This devotion meant that he got roped into duties that no woman wants her husband to have to do. Once I could get up, he helped me to the toilet and held me steady when I was dizzy. He flushed the toilet when I forgot. He saw my naked, saggy ass flapping in the breeze of my hospital gown. He knows more about my bodily functions now than I do.
He sponge-bathed me every morning. He figured out where the linen cart was stored on the ward and raided it for fresh gowns and washcloths. We had a routine – after I woke up and got some pain meds in my system, I would brush my teeth and wash my face before he cleaned the rest of me. Parts of my body that had once been enticing were no longer so – they were just parts that stank and needed to be bathed.
He was, and continues to be, unflinching when it came to my colostomy. If it scared or disturbed him, he never let me see. But privately I wondered how anyone would want to make love to a woman attached to a bag of shit. (And exactly what position works best for that?!)
Losing a key self-defining feature is enough to rock the core of any relationship, but I felt the loss particularly acutely because my professional world over the past decade has revolved around unpacking intimacy for people. I would like to think that I have modeled sexy so others could choose the courage to embrace it within themselves. And now it was gone.
Sexy isn’t a look. Sexy isn’t perfectly applied makeup, no matter how much I adore my red lipstick. Sexy isn’t a 36-24-36 body. Sexy isn’t a narcissistic swagger. And sexy isn’t even a jacked-up sense of self-confidence.
Sexy leads us into the uncomfortable world of the erotic. It is a gritty acknowledgment of our own sexuality. It is the understanding that we have all been created with a disarmingly intimate way to connect with another human being. It is the confidence to be simultaneously alluring, vulnerable, sensual and authentic with that person. Sometimes it’s demure. Sometimes it’s flashy. But when someone owns their sexy, you know.
For me, regaining sexy is much more difficult than Justin Timberlake makes it sound. I suppose I could walk around humming, “I’m Bringing Sexy Back,” but first I have to excavate some deeply held beliefs…and those beliefs all revolve around worthiness.
- Am I worthy of sexy when I feel so desperately inadequate?
- Even when the act of sex is impracticable due to physical limitations, am I worthy enough to embody sexy in my marriage?
- If I choose to believe I am worthy, even when I don’t feel it just yet, will my sexy come back?
- Can I put cancer patient and sexy in the same sentence?
Answering these questions affirmatively is a daily struggle because I am having to over-write latent messages that I had to be perfect to be worthy of sexy. I’ve come to realize that, while I didn’t hold others to this standard, I was absolutely brutal on myself. I also believed my sexy was something that made me worthy of being loved by Eric. The logical extension of that fear is, of course, that if I lose sexy, then he won’t love me anymore.
It is slowly dawning on me that this concern is complete and utter crap. In the midst of these horrific circumstances, he has been a living embodiment that our marriage is built on far more than whether I can put out or not. Watching him, I am learning about the sweetness of commitment. I am learning about the value of friendship. I am learning about the fierce loyalty borne of decades together. I am learning what it’s like to be loved when I feel completely unlovable.
I hope that, even as I reclaim sexy, I will release my façade of worthiness.
COURAGING: Believing you are worthy of love even when you have lost sexy.
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