Today marks six weeks after my hysterectomy. Here is a glimpse into how my healing has gone so far.
I open my eyes to a harsh fluorescent light blinding my light of vision. These aren’t the orbs I saw before the anesthesia kicked in. I’m in another room, but am too groggy to make sense of anything.
There are two things I know for sure: thirst and pain.
“Please…water,” I croak, hoping the nurse standing nearby hears me.
“Ahhh… oh god… it hurts,” I wince when I try to lift my hand to get the nurse’s attention. I don’t think it’s my hand that hurts. I think everything hurts. But the pain seems to be fully concentrated in the hand I can’t move.
I remember I just had an operation. My uterus and ovaries are in a cup somewhere getting tested. I sleep again.
That first night, I want only one thing: a sponge lollipop soaked in water. I have delusions that I’m back in Uzbekistan, suffering from dehydration. Sponge lollipops, like the ones my mom had when she was in the hospital and sucked on when she needed water, are my only hope.
My desire comes out as two repeated words, “Thirsty. Water.”
I don’t know how many times Lluís gets up during the night to wet my lips and squeeze drops of water onto my tongue. I’m happy and grateful he is able to stay overnight with me during my entire hospital stay, and that he has a comfy pull out chair bed where he can rest. I think I say “Thank you” to him out loud, but maybe it’s only in my head.
I sleep again, a deep drugged-induced sleep only an unquenchable thirst can break.
I spend the next few days learning how to live with a bandaged 7-inch, bikini line incision, stitched inside and out.
Rolling from side-to-side becomes a Cirque du Soleil move. But I’m not a Cirque du Soleil performer, and grace and poise are not part of the vocabulary. I feel like Snuffleupagus in hospital scrubs, an awkward animal clumsily shifting weight.
As much as I hate my purple safety-first wristband, which forces the bed rail to stay in an up position so I don’t tumble to the floor, I find relief in clenching the bedrail. Squeezing the life out of lifeless metal directs my attention away from my weak point.
I get the green light to start walking, to the get blood–and abdominal gas–moving.
The first step, “they” say, is the hardest. Sitting upright is the first step. It takes all my energy and upper body strength. I pull together a repertoire of isometric exercise, stretching and yoga movements to become my post-op handbook of how to live normally. I invent modifications as my body shouts commands. “Nope, can’t twist that way. Don’t do it. Okay, butt lift a bit more and shoulders scooch up. Ready triceps… your turn. On three, lift. 1.2.3!”
I’m replaying my head the video I watched before the surgery by physiotherapist Michelle Kenway. I attempt to replicate the log-roll and hand-walking technique I saw online and sometimes use in yoga to move from a lying down position to something that looks vertical. I feel winded, but manage to stay 90 degrees. This time the pain is clearly defined: My middle section hates me.
Lluís stands besides me, willing to give me his arm but also knowing I have to do much of this by myself. I want to do it myself, but every movement feels gigantic.
My first excursion is an exciting adventure to the bathroom. The safety-first bracelet means a nurse escorts me. Her watchful eye freezes my pee. I chuckle at the absurdity of my life in this moment, this moment where I’m begging my bladder to not be shy.
Soon, I graduate to walking the halls, and by the end of my stay, Lluís and I are walking arm and arm like those old couples you see in sappy commercials. We wave to nurses and smile at security guards. I take short steps. My legs comply with my groin and ab’s stretching limitations.
I get over the medical hurdles dictating what I can ingest. The IV and catheter come out, and I move to a liquid diet. When I pass gas, I can have solid foods, and when I “have a motion,” a nice way of saying when I poop, I can be discharged.
This sounds easier than it is. Nobody warned me of the post-surgery bloating that will make me look, ironically, more pregnant than I have never been in my life. My digestive tract, blocked up with painkillers and antibiotics, needs coddling like a newborn. Resting in fetal position with pillows between my legs brings some comfort. A stool softener brings more.
Before we know it, it’s time to go. Dr. Sushma Sinha, my surgeon, and her assistant unwraps my wound and looks at the stitches. She smiles at their healing progress and her sewing job.
“I didn’t want to cut your tattoo, but I had to. I really carefully tried to line the stem back up and stitch it in a way that it would look okay when the incision healed. Everyone in the surgery room was watching. I think I did a pretty good job,” she laughs, eyeing her artistry.
“I meant to tell you before surgery please don’t think for one second about the tattoo and do whatever you need to do,” I say, failing to see anything under my bloated belly. Lluís takes a picture of the incision and the lotus flower tattoo I got many years ago in Thailand. “But, thank you for taking such good care of me, and I don’t mean only for the stitches.”
Namrita, our Gurgaon guardian angel, generously offers to pick us up at the hospital, an hour away, without traffic, from her apartment. We chat while Lluís hoists our heavy backpacks into the trunk.
Namrita drives carefully, but Delhi’s potholed roads are a repair crew’s worst job. Every bump feels like an earthquake in my stomach area.
“I was talking to my family, and we think you will be better off at my brother-in-law’s place,” she says, swerving the car around a cart hauling vegetables which is swerving around a cow picking through the garbage. “At my place, you’ll have my five-year-old nephew jumping all over you. My mom’s place has a bunch of people coming and going, and maybe you won’t be able to relax there. The Vatika house is very quiet. No one is there, so you will have the place to yourself.”
The Vatika Days
We don’t know how the other places may have been, but the empty apartment in a new, still-under-construction, barely-anyone-living-there-yet housing development out in the suburbs turns out to be the perfect spot to heal.
Namrita sets us up with folding beds and clean sheets, hooks up the butane gas tank to the stovetop and stocks the kitchen with basic supplies. My favorite thing on the countertop is a manual juicer, the old-fashioned one you have to crank; I savor the idea of fresh orange juice with breakfast, a luxury I have been denied for months.
Every few days, Namrita surprises us with tiffin tins of still-warm home cooked meals, courtesy of the family’s cook. She is amazing, and we keep showering her with thank yous until she tells us to stop.
“I don’t think about what I share,” she waves us off. “But, really, it’s nothing.”
On the contrary, it’s everything to us. We have a safe place to sleep every night. We can prepare our own meals. We have hot showers. We have a quiet, spacious flat flooded with natural light where we can rest and write… and dance. We hear birds in the morning, and very few horns honking. We can sit in the front garden and not be surrounded by people who want to take selfies. We can stroll around the neighborhood without stepping over piles of trash, jumping out of the way of rickshaws, fighting with mopeds for sidewalk space and sidestepped cows, goats and masses of humanity. Yeah, this is everything!
A few years ago, all of these thousands of acres south of Gurgaon, which is south of Delhi, was farmland. Developers, like Vatika, bought the land, and now, true to the idea that India is a country under construction, cranes and half-built high-rises and housing units litter the landscape. Turning 360-degrees you can see the region’s expansion plans on every horizon. One day soon, thousands and thousands families will move to these emerging sectors, neighborhoods and gated communities. Today, we relish the emptiness of Sector 82.
Physically, I find a balance between what I can and I can’t do. Every few days I set new limits. Dr. Sinha, who I see for a follow up visit, says I can’t lift anything for six weeks after surgery, but she gave me vague instructions that I could do what my body is capable of doing, but not to overdo it.
I gauge progress by what gentle stretches and yoga poses I can bend into. Can I do cat’s pose and stretch my back? Yes. Can I sit in hero’s pose? Yes (and how it helps with my gas problem!!!). Can I do child’s pose? Ah, not yet. Can I touch my toes? Hmmm… almost, try again some other day.
Daily walks are also part of my homework.
Like on our trip, I have a love-hate relationship with this task. Walking is good for my body and my mind, I know that. And, frequently the best part of my day is the time I give myself to go outdoors. But, just because I know this doesn’t mean I want to do it all the time. Sometimes I want to be lazy. Often, I dislike the imposed obligation, and have a hard time managing my other to-dos to fit this in. Lluís’ sidelong glances that ask “When are we walking today?” keep me grudgingly motivated; I’d rather read my book, I glance back as I slip on my shoes. He needs the walk as much or more than I do. It’s not easy for him to sit still so many hours in a day.
We start easy. One of the initial milestones is to reach the bus stop two blocks away. I struggle with stepping off and onto curbs and have to sit down on the bench for a few minutes. Then, we do a big loop around our H-Block zone, and then we make it to Town Square, which is the development’s hot spot with a few delis, hairdressers, hardware stores and eateries. In a few weeks, we are doing 5, 7, 10, 12, 15 kilometers, little by little, step by step. I’m thankful that my body is reacting well…until the witching hour.
The difference a couple weeks make: Walking down the street the first week after surgery and dancing in the green spaces during week three of the recovery.
Like clockwork, at 3 p.m. my belly does its own uncontrollable thing. It expands and hardens into a volleyball. I stopped pain meds and antibiotics soon after I left the hospital, so those side-effects should have worked through my system. I like to think that my stomach, bladder and intestines are getting used to all the extra space they have now, and this is the way they show it–by stretching my tummy skin as far as they can. Still, it’s very uncomfortable and I can’t button my pants and walking doesn’t really relieve the pressure that much. I wonder how my mom put up with this bloated belly thing, a constant presence in her last year, in a wheelchair that restricted her movement. I try to accept this. Besides the sudden, short-lived pain that comes when I sneeze or cough, this is my worst issue, which in the scheme of things isn’t so bad.
Mentally, it’s harder to adjust to all this down time. I manage to book a few freelance assignments, which will help offset the cost of the surgery. I read a bit, write a bit, sleep a bit, meditate a bit, walk a bit. I scold myself for not staying on top of email, not organizing my photos, not blogging more, but don’t go beyond the complaining to do anything about it. I kill mosquitos, and take great pleasure in doing that. I like doing nothing but always feel like I have too much to do that never will get done, ever.
Lluís struggles with this, too. His escape is to clean. He mops the floor, handwashes our clothes, scrubs the bathroom and picks up trash in the front and back gardens.
His other time-waster is to cook, something he rarely does at home. He makes rice and vegetables and rolls flour and water into fresh roti bread. Gaining weight is one of his priorities. The kilos fall off him when he is in walking mode, and his body settles into the “pretty thin” mark on the scale. Rest mode means I may have just little bit to grab around his stomach.
In the evenings, we lie down together. It’s nice to feel like we have done something, when really we have nothing to do. There’s something soothing, too, about having an uneventful life.
This, like most things, has to come to an end.
Four weeks of Vatika living has made me strong enough to move closer to our route.
We say goodbye to Namrita and her sweet family, and we take an overnight bus to Rishikesh, the Hindu holy city in the Himalayan foothills.
Time along the Ganges River
There are times I find myself both in complete awe of Lluís and absolutely perplexed by him. The morning we arrive in Rishikesh is one such day.
Since I can’t carry my backpack, he carries it for me…along with his…at the same time….walking about 1.5 kilometers from the bus stand to the hotel. There’s a moment when I stop, stupefied, to admire how this man, who weighs at most 53, 54 kilos, can carry 40+ kilos. One second later, I think, “Why are you so stubborn and so not willing to take a taxi, anywhere, ever? How does this make any sense?” I let the question hang in the air, unspoken. After 10 years together, it’s easier to not ask some things at some moments.
We spend the next few days exploring very touristic Rishikesh. Westerners, walking around in their kurtas and baggy pants, come for yoga, meditation and soul-searching. Locals come for some of that too, but they seem to prefer rafting on the Ganges River’s gentle rapids.
We put a lot of miles on our legs, passing ashrams, health food stores selling almond milk and organic juice, and restaurants with treats like avocado burritos and hummus. Most of my body feels good with these leg-stretching walk, even around the incision site… until that witching hour.
This 3 p.m. bloating madness is a routine I don’t like and I can’t get used to. It doesn’t seem to matter what I eat or what I do, my abdominal area is doing its own thing, without consulting any other part of my body. I know it’s just a thing I have to go through. A hysterectomy is a big deal for bodies to handle, and it’s a big deal for mine, and I can’t seem to will this away. Or can I?
I certainly try. And, when spiritual leader Mooji, who comes to Rishikesh for five weeks a year and happens to be here when I’m here, invites people to symbolically burn away the things blocking our path to spiritual freedom, I enthusiastically grab my bits of camphor and line up for the fire ceremony.
“Thank you, Body, for healing me so well so quickly, but this bloating thing, c’mon now, it’s time to let it go. Let’s do this together,” I pray, tossing my discomfort into the flames.
In the three days between then and now, the bloating has been noticeably less. I’m not sure if it’s science and biology and I simply turned a corner on my post-op status, or if the universe heard my plea and worked some magic. Either way, it feels good not to carry a volleyball around with me some hours of the day.
As good as it is, I can’t sit in this space of happy recovery completely yet. Something very likely not connected to my surgery has flared up. A bug in my stomach has unleashed an unpleasant wrath of diarrhea that has taken me a few days to get under some semblance of control. The irony of where and when this is happening in not lost on me.
We have been walking India for months, and we were sure rural India and its uncertain food and water hygiene would hurl us into the bathroom. Nope.
The big surprise has been that I have had the worst stomach issues in places filled with foreigners, where, theoretically, food is handled with care and water is filtered. Varanasi sidelined me, now Rishikesh is doing the same, during a week I wanted to practice carrying a lighter version of my backpack and see how the waist belt feels a few inches above the incision. So, instead of lifting small amounts of weight, I’m practicing the art of dashing to the toilet. Oh, my noble life.
It will get better from here! Sooner than later, I’m sure.
The next phase of recovery is the “Getting back to our normal” stage. I’ll still give my body the space and time it needs to heal fully, but we have to start getting back to life as we know it. Now that we are out of the critical six-week post-op phase, we can use a wider sliding scale to reset limits. We’ll see if I can walk the distances we usually cover with or without weight, how we’ll adjust as the weather India gets hotter and if we need to devise an alternate plan. It’s all a work-in-progress, like everything we do!
Thank you again for all your love, support and good wishes. Even if I haven’t yet responded to all of you individually yet, know that I have written the note in my head and have already sent it you with my heart.