We didn’t think the surgery would be that big of a deal. Looking back, I blame this on a good old-fashioned case of denial. I had had a similar surgery on my left knee when I was in high school that had resulted in a horrible recovery and my mother had explicitly warned me that this one would, in fact, be a big deal. But there was almost too much going on for us to allow space for worry. My boyfriend, John, and I were scheduled to not only move in together but move into a new house together five days before a surgeon was going to open me up and reconstruct my right knee’s MPFL. There was unpacking, logistics and an unexpected gas leak to attend to. The surgery felt like another inconvenience but not something that would completely take over our lives and relationship. We were wrong.
Before the surgery, I felt close to John. Over the previous year, we had managed to forge a strong bond despite meeting only a few months after my ex had unceremoniously ended our engagement. It was a strange thing to fall in love with someone new while still actively grieving and healing over someone else. But John made it easy. He never made me hide my feelings or feel shame over my OCD or mental health struggles. By the time we moved in together, I felt like I could be completely emotionally vulnerable with him. What I wasn’t used to—yet–was being physically vulnerable.
To be fair, it’s not like I hadn’t had knee problems from the start. The first time we met in person after a month of long-distance, virtual dating, I had recently dislocated my knee and was wearing a knee brace and using a cane. I also suffered two more subluxations that ultimately led to my decision to get the surgery so my patella would finally stay in place. But this recovery was different. I was in excruciating pain and could barely move without wanting to scream. For the first week, my parents flew out from New York so they could help and my mom, a veteran of many knee surgeries herself, initially took on the most intimate of care tasks. When it was time for them to return home, I felt a flood of panic. Could John handle what was about to be asked of him? Could I handle the vulnerability of requiring him to be my full-time caretaker? Would this experience shift our relationship dynamic in a permanent, and perhaps adverse, way?
The answers to those questions ended up being yes, yes and sort-of but only in a good way. One of the advantages to being completely helpless is that you have no choice but to accept help. I needed John so desperately that I couldn’t overthink if I was “asking for too much” or being a nuisance. This was all made easier by the fact that he never got mad, or even annoyed, at my reliance on him. Instead, he simply stepped up to the plate like we’ve all been told a partner can and should do. He stood in the shower with me and handed me soap while I sat on a stool and tried to clean myself without falling over. He did his best to put my pants on me despite my huge bruises and healing wounds. He drove me wherever I needed to go, including my graduate program and a completely unnecessary appointment to get a lash lift. He showed up for me every day so I could focus on showing up for myself and getting better.
When we think about love, we are often told to think about romantic, let me stare into your eyes at the Eiffel Tower moments. But when I think about our love, I think about lying on the bed as John tenderly and fearfully tried to put leggings over my swollen appendage as I alternated between wincing and laughing at the absurdity of it all. Lying there, a small part of my brain worried he would no longer be attracted to me after having to care for me in this way, but a larger part of me knew this moment meant the opposite. It meant our love was expanding. I realized I could trust this man not just with my heart but with my body. And considering the amount of change and wear and tear a body goes through as we age, this was an enormous relief.
Over a year later, the effects of my surgery still impact our lives. We haven’t been able to play tennis or pickleball together and we continue to be mindful of how far we walk. The length of the recovery has also been mentally exhausting and expensive. But it’s been wonderful to share each stage of my improvements with him because he knows enough to fully appreciate them. While my body remains my own, I now feel like it also has a silent investor. One who is always there to offer support and care. This level of intimacy, which once scared me, now feels like a privilege I never want to give up.
I don’t think you need to go through hardship with your partner to know if they are a good fit for you, but it certainty brings clarity when it does happen. I’ve always wanted the kind of partnership that feels like family. Where you can rely on each other without keeping score or worrying about being a burden. What is the point of all the compromise and sacrifice it takes to share your life with someone if you don’t get all the good parts too? My surgery showed me that with John, I get the good stuff from him even when everything else in my life is bad. That’s why when he asked me to marry him a few months later, I screamed. This time from joy and not pain.
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