My marriage was getting crowded. When the doctors, nurses, and therapists weren’t around, family members were. The few moments we did get to spend alone were interrupted by beeping medical equipment. As much as my husband tried, I was insistent that we were not going to consummate our marriage in a Stryker hospital bed, specially fitted with rails on either sides to protect its occupants from potential falls.
Never one to give up, he didn’t let other people get in the way. What was a little PDA between friends? He would grab my boobs while getting his blood drawn or slap my butt during visits from the nutritionist. “It’s still our honeymoon,” he’d say with a wink. It became clear that it wasn’t his sex drive that he was missing, but his executive function.
Although his skull fracture was at the back of his head, the front of his brain was also injured, an injury known as a coup-contrecoup. This happens when the force of the direct impact (the coup injury) causes the brain to collide with the opposite side of the skull (the contrecoup injury) and results in damage to both sides of the brain. His admittance report details how dangerous this injury can be, and is peppered with terms like “subarachnoid hemorrhage,” “intraparenchymal hemorrhage,” “focal hemorrhage,” “gray matter,” “hyperdense hematoma,” “midline shift,” and my least favorite phrase, “extra-axial collections extending posteriorly to the occipital region.” My liberal arts education—I was an English major—did not prepare me for this technical discussion, but his neurosurgeon explained his condition quite succinctly as “tenuous.”
You might ask, how did we get from “tenuous” to “sex” so quickly. The answer is executive function. Executive function is a term for a large set of skills that you’d never know had until they’re gone. Located in the frontal lobe area of the brain, they are a necessary governor of your behavior. If the inappropriately timed butt grabs weren’t convincing enough signs of frontal lobe damage, his insistence on telling my mom how desperately he wanted to consummate our marriage probably was.
I learned early on how to let go of any embarrassment brought on by my husband’s injury. If I hadn’t, I’d have forever been haunted by the memory of standing in my wedding night lingerie while EMTs loaded my husband’s unconscious body onto a stretcher. Memories from that night still haunt me, but they have little to do with my choice of wardrobe. Letting go of my own ego makes it easier to laugh at my husband’s inappropriate jokes. Instead, I appreciate the fact that he’s showing me any type of affection, no matter how juvenile.
Before the injury, I didn’t need to be alone with my husband to feel a private connection. A smile, an inside joke, or a sweet comment was all it took for us to feel intimate. I trusted him to keep any secret, but when he told his mother, my new mother-in-law, that the beautiful family ring she had generously given me wasn’t to my taste, I knew that was no longer true. I could alter what I shared with him, but I spent most of my time worrying about what he would reveal next. There was no longer just “us” – our entire relationship had become a communal discussion, even our sex life.
“You should be careful about eating too many bagels,” he told me one morning as I escorted him to the bathroom (he was not allowed to walk the five feet to his own bathroom alone). “Your legs could get fat again, and you’ll stop looking good in pants.” As I reminded him to flush and wash his hands, I realized that my long-held belief that all successful relationships are based on complete and total openness was wrong. Everyone is entitled to their own secrets.
While the doctors and therapist continue to refer to my husband’s brain injury as a coup-contrecoup, I prefer to see it as a coup d’état. It was, quite literally, a blow against the state—an act of violence that threatened his very existence. It is a reminder that the intimacy that bonds two people together goes beyond the physical. We were lucky—I was lucky—that his coup-contrecoup was not a coup de grace, that we will still have the chance to share secrets without fear they will be shared. Each night as we go to bed, my husband in his hospital bed, me on the couch, he says, “I love you. I’m coming back. I’m almost there.” Unlike knitting, there is no pattern we can follow leading us back to intimacy and to each other. We have to make the stitches up as we go and hope that we eventually find our way back to wherever “there” is.