Marriage is a solid reminder that you are on equal footing. Or it should be. Because you never know when the tables will be turned. Like Monday, when I had to ask my wife to run to the store and buy me some panty liners. Not a thing I have ever intended to say in my life.
And yesterday, when my wife showed me how to install those panty liners in a pair of my boxers.
As I pulled them up and felt the inescapable rustle of plastic and absorbent material, I said, “This feels so wrong.”
My wife smiled a self-satisfied little smile and replied, “Welcome to our world. Now you know a little bit about how it feels.”
Why, you ask? We’ll get to that in a moment.
It all started maybe 16 or 17 years ago, when I noticed a strange lump between my thigh and my, er, male parts. It grew larger over a few days, until I asked a friend’s mom, who was a nurse, to take a look.
She did, and told me I should go straight to the hospital without saying anything else, as nurses who are not technically treating you tend to do.
My wife and I were living in a trailer at the time on about the same income my son now makes in a weekend job pushing carts at a grocery store.
I waited. I waited until my fever hit 103. I waited until I was almost delirious. Until my wife forcibly demanded that I go see a doctor.
I did and was promptly admitted to the hospital which is what I feared most. I would have rather died at home. This was a Monday, I woke up the next Friday to a bright-eyed, young doctor telling me how they almost lost me, and that it took some antiobiotics they would normally give to a horse to fight off the infection.
Then I got better and didn’t think about it for a long time.
Until it was all I could think about. An ominous feeling of pressure would build over a few days, then the fever and pain. And finally a trip to the doctor.
It wasn’t until 2006 that I finally found out what this recurring infection actually was, and when the doctors told me, I never wanted to hear about it again.
Fistula in ano is when a small tube forms connecting one part of your body to another and which occasionally gets infected, forming a large, internal abscess very near sensitive equipment.
The doctors also told me, while inspecting the old infection site, that it would be a six-week recovery process, involving a lot of downtime, which did not fit with my then new journalism lifestyle.
So I forgot about it again, until it reminded me on a brutally cold Alaska winter day, when my body temperature spiked, so I walked to the clinic in a T-shirt, where the poor attending said he wasn’t equipped to diagnose or deal with something of this nature. And indeed, he looked miserable as I dropped my trousers for him to inspect the old war wound.
He did prescribe some wicked antibiotics, which tore me up inside for months, but they killed the infection, which would sometimes rage and sometimes ride low, with just a hint of its true malevolence while riding my bike or hiking with friends.
I’ve never said anything about it to anyone other than my wife, because what is there to say about it? A person has an abscess right up next to their rectum, it’s not something one likes to chat about casually. It’s not dinner table conversation, and even my closest friends were too close for something like this.
Only the person closest to me in this world knew, but she also understood how deeply personal this little bastared was to me. Like a deep, dark secret, she helped me keep it, even when the kids were trying to figure out why dad was grumpy because he was in so much pain or running a high fever as the infection raged inside.
After several more rounds of the infection versus antibiotics routines all across the country, I noticed the familiar pressure a few weeks back on the eve of a work trip to Reno.
Feverish and chilled to the bone, I dragged myself to the local walk-in clinic and sat, uncomfortably, for two hours, before a kindly doctor said, “I don’t want to look at your bottom, but I have to look at it.”
I’m a relatively private person, observing all modesties and subjecting nobody to even the indecency of me taking my shirt off in public, yet here I was, actually used to a doctor getting a good look at the only places on my own body I haven’t even seen.
“Honey, you should just get this taken care of once and for all.”
“Ha,” I laughed in that sick, feverish way you sometimes do. “It’s a six-week recovery, no thanks, I’ll just deal with it.”
She called in a prescription for some fast-working antibiotics and told me to have a good trip and to see the surgeon when I returned. I smiled and said I’d think about it, as she handed me the referral, which I crumpled up in my jacket pocket.
I took the antibiotics and only lost a day at the conference in Reno. Too sick and tired to play slots with other conference attendees, I fell asleep in my hotel room at 9:30 p.m., which has to be some sort of major faux pax in the Treasure State.
By the time I flew home, I was myself again, running, lifting weights and contemplating a 60-mile bike ride with my close friend and business partner.
I got the call a few days later, asking if I’d like to schedule an appointment with the surgeon, the referral I’d received from the clinic doctor.
I searched for an excuse, but couldn’t find one. Thoughts of a six-week recovery played through my mind, but so did the doctor telling me that they don’t roll that way anymore, that most patients are out the door and moving as soon as possible.
So, I set it up, and the surgeon examined me and asked me if there was anything else I’d like worked on, being that the fistulotomy would only take 20-30 minutes.
And I’d be out of the hospital by noon.
I think somewhere in the back of my mind, I figured I could always use the insurance as an excuse to back out.
But the insurance called me and confirmed that it was merely a $5 co-pay, and I quickly ran out of excuses.
Sunday night rolled around. I nervously paced the house worried about the after effects, while my wife laughed and reminded me about all the suffering I had already done keeping this well-intentioned secret from the world.
We woke up together at 4:30 a.m. on Monday and drove to Salem Hospital. We walked in that pre-dawn light to the surgical building, and I checked in, while she sat by my side sipping her ice coffee while trying to smile at a nurse with the bedside manner of Melissa McCarthy. The humor was good for me, the laughter infectious and an antidote to the the nerve-wracking thoughts about going under general anesthesia.
The anesthesiologist came in, an attractive older lady, who grabbed my hand with her cold, thin fingers and held on as she explained that she was there to keep me safe. She invited me to make a decision about whether I wanted the light anesthesia or the heavy anesthesia, and I chose the lighter version, if only on the slight chance it would get me out of the hospital sooner. I’ve only ever had male anesthesiologists before this, so the only comparisons I have are to the general way two guys interact when fear is a big component in a situation. There was something soothing and reaffirming about the way this anesthesiologist was.
They put in the IV, the surgeon came and smiled and said some nice words to my wife and I, they plugged in something that would make the tiles spin as they wheeled me into surgery, and that’s the very last memory I have.
On the other side of it all, I awoke with a start, blinking and trying to focus my eyes on the brightly lit room around me. I was the first patient into surgery and the first one in recovery, so the nurses doted on me, pushing buttons every time an alarm sounded and making sure I wasn’t going to be sick all over.
They sat me up, and I couldn’t feel any pain at all, which was surprising. I didn’t feel nauseous, I felt hungry.
They brought me some string cheese. High quality string cheese, I might add, the kind where it’s super stringy, not the inexpensive stuff that comes off in large ropes rather than fine, cheesy strings. And I ate the proverbial hospital saltine, which of course was stale to a fault. But no matter, it was good to be on this side of the knife.
They poked and prodded me for maybe an hour, and by 10:45 a.m., I was being discharged. They brought my clothes, I got dressed and sat on a pillow on a wheelchair, while a very senior volunteer wheeled me downstairs. I felt terrible and grateful at the same time.
My wife drove me home, and I crashed onto the couch, happy and relatively pain free. Moving around made me aware something was amiss, but the edges were still dulled somewhat by the cocktail of drugs trying to exit my system slowly.
It’s now day three, it’s a painful day, a reminder that sometimes the first few hours after surgery are the best. Before the pain sets in and all the business of healing gets to working things out in ways that remind you of your frailty.
There’s a two-inch long by quarter-inch deep surgical wound in my leg where the abscess once was, which should explain the panty liners, if you haven’t figured that out yet. The surgeon says it will heal up on its own, but he wants to take a look at it in two weeks to see if we need to do more or if it will behave itself. As with many such things, once you have one of these, you’re prone to more. In the hope of avoiding future surgeries, we’ll play the best possible strategy from here on out, which means letting nature take its course for a couple of weeks.
I figured spring time would be a good time for this, when the pollen and cottonwood are floating around on the breeze and before the dog days of summer are here where I’ll want to be my whole self again.
And the reason I’m tell you all this, or anyone who felt like reading this far, is this: Sometimes letting a thing have this much control over you is about not wanting to tell the story. I never really had the words to do so before. I’ve tried to forget that this stupid thing has been part of my life for this long. But I’m tired of the pain and agony of dealing with this old nemesis for so long.
So there you have it.
I will never complain when my wife asks me to run to the store for panty liners again.