The wheel on the hospital gurney made a continuous squeaking sound as they wheeled me down the hall to the operating room. It was one of those incessant noises that would normally drive me crazy, but for some reason that morning I found it comforting. Grounding.
It was December 1, 2011 and I was heading into a 10-hour surgery that had the potential to greatly improve my quality of life or to end it. “Life and death” sounds so dramatic and cliché, but there are times when it gets down to just that, and after living (more like existing) for the past six years with chronic pancreatitis, my body and spirit were breaking down.
My husband walked alongside the gurney, chatting with one of the male nurses about the wilds of Montana and how much he loved it there and how he was planning a trip back next fall. He seemed relatively relaxed given the seriousness of the day, but then he rarely expressed his feelings unless it was anger. Anger was his go to emotion. Always at the ready.
In that final moment before the OR doors swung open, they paused to let us say our goodbyes. They were kind enough to turn away to give us some measure of privacy out in the middle of a hallway where nothing was private.
He bent over to give me a kiss and I looked into his eyes one last time. It was a look I carried with me into surgery; the last thing I remembered thinking before the anesthesia took effect and I drifted off to sleep – he doesn’t love me.
He doesn’t love me.
Our marriage had been on a downward spiral not long after we exchanged our vows in 2004 in the mountains of Colorado. There were moments of joy in our first year, but they were overshadowed by a gradual realization that the man I married was a narcissist and incapable of maintaining an intimate relationship.
With the benefit of hindsight (and a good number of hours working with a therapist) it’s clear ours was a fragile relationship from the very beginning. We’d known each other casually for more than a decade when I was married to my first husband, and at the time I thought he was honorable, humble and kind, even if he was a bit rough around the edges. He was a Marine, so I figured it went with the territory, and I’d always been attracted to what I now realize is toxic masculinity: Seductive. Overbearing. Soul-crushing.
I was planning to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa and he offered himself up as my trainer to help me get into shape and increase the likelihood that I could get my 40-year-old, non-mountain-climbing self up to the summit at 19,341 feet.
During that year of training we spent a lot of time together. I was separated after 20 years of marriage. I was working 50 hours a week as a nonprofit executive and traveling on a regular basis. I was healthy. I was working out at the gym several days a week, hiking on the weekends and pushing my couch potato body in ways it had never been pushed before.
I felt alive. And it was a heady, intoxicating feeling; a rush to finally have control over a body that since my early years as a child had not been mine to own. It had belonged to others. It had belonged to a father who betrayed his oath to protect me by coming into my room late at night. It had belonged to a classmate who sexually assaulted me when I was in my teens. It had belonged to an eating disorder that took control when I no longer felt attached to my body, but saw it as an object of use, betrayal, and adornment for others.
At an age where the stereotypical notion of a midlife crisis flourishes, I was finally coming home to myself.
My decision to spend two weeks in Africa climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro was seen by friends and family as a “crisis” related to my age, but I knew it to be a welcome and long overdue transition to a confident, strong and, most importantly, self-possessed woman. At the age of 40 I’d finally learned how to see my mind and body as one, after spending most of my life up until then living disconnected from my body.