“What part of ‘deformed’ do you not understand? the first surgeon offered bluntly, growing noticeable exasperated at my questioning his insistence that I needed surgery. I was at the hand specialist (as they say in New York)–however the top guy wasn’t available, so this authoritative opinion was coming from another doctor in his practice. He said, that in his experience, people with as bad a bone break as I have, who opt not to have the surgery, come back after the cast is removed and say, “You didn’t tell me how deformed I’d be”–and he’s , frankly, “sick and tired of it.” The first surgeon went on talking–the surgery he was urging me toward was entirely for “aesthetic reasons.” If I chose to let me hand heal without surgery, I would still regain full functionality–all range of motion, strength, and flexibility would be unchanged from before the accident. And yet, the first surgeon was emphatic I should have surgery–he could not imagine I would choose unnecessarily to be deformed.
“Deformed” is such a severe word, like a verdict for a crime I hadn’t committed. I had simply had an accident–tripping over a large box, which was left where it wasn’t supposed to be, and falling awkwardly onto my hand. It’s not like I was being told I’d be “altered slightly.” The first surgeon was decisive, I was not just going to be “different” without surgery…my hand would be ugly.
My excellent friend Dr. Jill told me that if I went with the surgery, she’d get the guy in the practice to perform it. Dr. Jill has that sort of power: Dr. Jill is the cardiologist in New York. But I didn’t want a higher-level surgeon performing my surgery. What I wanted was not to have surgery at all. So Dr. Jill made another phone call and got me an immediate second opinion with the other top guy in New York. And I called my parner, Beatrice, and got her to drop whatever she was doing and meet me for that appointment.
It was my fault that Beatrice hadn’t been there for the appointment with the first surgeon. She had wanted to come, but I had insisted it was ridiculous, since it wasn’t a leg or eye injury (as in, I could walk and see), so her presence wasn’t required. “I’m an adult,” I protested, joking ” I don’t need you there holding my (good) hand.” But when I said that to her, I hadn’t known I’d be given the unpleasant option of surgery versus deformity–I really was going to need my partner to help me make that choice.
I should maybe express how much I hate the idea of surgery. I joke that I’m “practically a Christian Scientist” as a means of informing various medical practitioners, through the years, just how strongly I believe in my body healing itself. I’m actually not a Christian Scientist at all, and I have been know to take aspirin on numerous occasions. But I never entertain anything as extreme as an eye job, or as mild as a chemical peel. If I word glasses, I probably would eschew LASIK. If I had been consulted when I was four, I would still be the happy owner of my tonsils. My partner knows my disdain for being sedated, cut into, sewed up, and she generally shares the sentiment. And yet, I wasn’t sure what she would say at the thought of the woman she spends her life with being deformed, disfigured, made grotesque.
The second surgeon explained the process more gently, but still used the “deformed” word. His use of it confirmed that is was medical nomenclature, rather than overstated pessimism as I had hoped. Specifically, my accident had not only caused me to fracture and displace my fifth metacarpal bone, its impact was severe enough to jam violently the last knuckle of the finger attached to that bone deep up into my left hand. Without surgery my bones would heal, but my knuckle would be forever visually lost. When I made a fist, there would be three, rather than four, knuckles showing. I queasily asked the second surgeon, “How noticeable would it be?” He said it was “unlikely anyone could spot it from across a busy street.”
We were having dinner with another married couple, Jason and Maria, and I was explaining the dilemma of surgery versus deformity. Maria, a very attractive blonde, said without a hair of hesitation that she would choose to have the surgery. “Definitely.” Jason enthusiastically nodded. He would want her to have the surgery, “to be made whole.” but wasn’t sure whether, if it were his hand in question, he would do it. Jason ruminated aloud about unexpected complications often accompanying surgery, and then admitted how much more he valued preserving his wife’s physical beauty than his own.
So was this a gay-woman decision my partner and I were making? Meaning, unlike straight women, gay women are far more free to examine what version of female attractiveness they wish to embrace. Straight women are often forced to customize their looks to what straight men; the media; most magazines, movies, ads, etc. deem attractive. There may be some crossover between straight and gay women, and of course exceptions in both cases, but it’s simply not the same. If Beatrice were a man, would she definitely want me to have the surgery? Or what if Beatrice, for personal reasons beyond conventional concepts of beauty and perfection, had wanted me to have the surgery? Should I undergo the additional pain, anesthesia, recover, and inherent risk simply to please my partner?
What does it mean, body-wise, to be married? Not every spouse asks the other if he or she should get a haircut, but many do. I have a friend who shaves her pubic hair into a narrow triangular formation her husband prefers. Admittedly, I wear the cologne Beatrice likes, and I only wear the plaid trousers with the tiny lobster motif I’ve owned since college, which she doesn’t like (but I can’t bring myself to discard), when she’s not around. Although we share a toothbrush and a bathrobe, I find private time and space to clean my ears, clip my nails, and tweeze hairs growing where I wish they wouldn’t. When I walk back to be after using the bathroom in the middle of the night (I sleep naked), I inhale my abdomen just slightly in case she’s awake and looking in my direction. In other words, I’d like her to find me attractive and to be attracted to me as often and as much as possible. So, when exploring the option of deformity, shouldn’t I care even more than I care about hair and wardrobe what my partner thinks? Although it was my flesh which would be cut into, my bones which would be bolted to one another, my brain which would navigate the anesthesia, it just never felt like this, oddly, was my decision alone to make. So I looked carefully into Beatrice’s eyes while the second surgeon awaited our verdict. I asked her and double-checked that her response was thoroughly thought through.
In the end I chose not to have the surgery, and Beatrice supported me in that choice. Holding my good hand, she said, “Don’t do it.” My future disfigurement is still concealed by a hard white cast while my bones knit in seclusion. I haven’t let anyone sign, doodle on, or otherwise adorn the cast. I avoid luring attention to my current camouflaged appendage in hopes that I am somehow warding off future scrutiny. I’m not supposed to lift anything heavy or use tow of the five fingers on my healing hand while the cast is on. Beatrice has been a flawless partner throughout this, doing 100 percent of things we traditionally go 50-50 on–driving our kids, cooking and cleaning up after meals, making our bed, doing our laundry. She has also take over a bunch of stuff I generally cover: shoveling snow, stacking our firewood, carrying all sorts of heavy stuff. I am grateful and fortunate to have a spouse like this. Doesn’t she deserve as much flawlessness as I can offer her?
Even as I feel my hand healing beneath the stiffened gauze and rigid plaster, I find myself silently speculating about whether I should perhaps have undergone surgery so as not to burden Beatrice with the deformed version of me I’m currently forming.
Will it be distractingly weird for her to hold my changed hand in the movies? Will it somehow feel different when I touch her with my permanently mangled self? Will I shift positions more often to duck my bad hand under tablecloths, jackets, scarves, and will she notice this and find it irritating over time? Will I start wearing my wedding ring on my right hand so I call as little attention as possible to my left, and will that bother her? I simply don’t know and neither does she. For now I’m just trying to imagine that I won’t look that different when the cast come off. What part of “deformed” do I not understand?