Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Love in the ICU

Twenty-four days ago, after my husband had been filtered through the admission process and wheeled into the first room of four during his stay at UVRMC, a nurse handed me a form which asked what questions I might have for the doctor. I am almost ashamed that the only thing I was worried about discussing was our eventual return to sexuality. Except that a week later, when the swelling in Mr. PNU's brain finally stabilized and he was able to remain alert long enough for the first few sessions of physical therapy, sex was his preeminent concern as well.

"I want us to talk to Dr. Call," he said, still caught in the groggy haze of the swelling. 

"What about?" I asked, and he raised his eyebrows flirtatiously. 

"Come here and let me whisper something to you," he said. His voice, flat and expressionless, a symptom of the brain damage, reminded me of Dustin Hoffman in Rainman. I leaned in. "I want to put my mouth on your naked body," he said, without dropping at all in volume. I laughed, maybe somewhat uneasily at his disinhibition. Mr. PNU seemed drunken with coital desire. I promised him we would speak with his physician, and then my husband fell back to sleep.

For the seven months leading up to this stroke, my husband and I have enjoyed a sexually healthy marriage. My husband introduced me to the word "libidinous" to describe our similarly insatiable desire for one another. Where previously I'd been told I was hyper-sexual or over-sexed by ex-husbands, Mr. PNU and I were perfectly matched. A typical day began at 7 a.m., when the alarm went off and we shared the work of getting my youngest son off to school. Then, since my other kids were already gone, we frequently went back to bed for an hour or so of not sleeping until 9:30 a.m., when we had to get ready for the day. We decided before our wedding that we wanted to "try for a baby" right off the bat, since neither of us is young and my window of fertility is near its close. Our practice hasn't yet produced a child, but I have come to see sexuality with my husband and the physical expressions of our love as a kind of fervent worship, more transcendent than ever imaginable. Sex that creates safety. Sex that brings one closer to God. Sex that heals.

The day after my husband's request, I took young Dr. Call aside privately and explained our concerns. He blushed. I didn't know doctors could blush. But after explaining to him that, no, we wouldn't be going all out conjugal, we just wanted to get clearance for a hand job, I dare say this poor doctor wasn't sure what to do with himself. Our nurse, Kim, however, was sweetly delighted. She agreed to have the cameras turned off in Mr. PNU's room, and she made a "Do Not Disturb" sign for our door, complete with red hearts drawn with a Sharpie.

We managed two more repeats, each in different rooms before his discharge this afternoon. I joked that it took a stroke to make us once-a-weekers like most married couples. Mr. PNU, on the other hand, only joked about our doubled use of the full-length mirror physical therapy left in his room. Otherwise, he told me, those precious hours we fooled around in the ICU were the hours he felt the most clarity, the most whole as a person. Normal again. He questioned me, whether I still find him sexually attractive. I told him the truth. Prior to all of this, the thought of sexuality with a stroke patient never crossed my mind. But I do think he's sexy; I still desire him as much as I did twenty-four days ago. 

Intimacy of this nature is still intimacy. But our old tricks do not work the way they used to. I do a lot more maneuvering than before, and I must be willing to offer a greater level of generosity and selflessness to ensure that we are both satisfied. In a relationship where neither partner is disabled, the scales would seem unfairly tipped. But  if my husband is to make love at all, halfway isn't a fair meeting place. He asked me this last time, mid-act, if our love-making was charity sex. I didn't answer. I couldn't. I just pressed my lips harder against his, shuddering through my tears, feeling the fullness of life within him as we defined our marriage again—I with my body and he with his—finding the pure pleasure in making love in the ICU.

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