How my husband forgot sex

When we were younger, he was the one who taught me to explore. Then he had cancer surgery -- and came out a virgin

Published February 13, 2014 12:00AM (EST)

A photo of the author and her husband
A photo of the author and her husband

In the 23rd year of our marriage, my husband went into surgery for a rare cancer, and came out a virgin. At first, I wouldn’t know that in the 10-hour ordeal we termed a “slash-and-burn” — a near-disembowelment and bath of hot poison medically referred to as hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC) — he’d forgotten his life. But in the weeks that followed, we would learn that internal bleeding caused a lack of oxygen to his brain, and the resulting traumatic brain injury destroyed his desire to communicate, and completely altered his personality. Gone was any ability to speak, emote, remember. Lost to him were his past, his passion and his occupation. I didn’t know when his sexual capacity would return, if ever. Who he was, isn’t.

We were mature, in our 40s. We’d been making love for decades, since we were teenagers. We had throw-you-on-the-bed-and-multiple-orgasm-your-heart-out mature sex. Going into an extensive and unpredictable HIPEC surgery for pseudomyxoma peritonei, we’d already decided what would happen if we couldn’t have sex again. If we can’t use makeup sex to resolve disputes, we’ll communicate more, we think. If he’s impotent, we’ll take up running. In any of our ridiculously positive scenarios about cancer, we never could have prepared for what happened. Weeks after we return home, after he’s begun speech therapy for aphasia, after an MRI of his brain, after months of waiting to see a neuropsychologist, we learn that his pleasure has not been removed, but something else is missing.

On this day, he sleeps, naked. His hands are by his side, his body flat over a comforter embroidered with flowers. His purple scar is a brilliant vine up his middle, its skin tender and new. I dry my wet hair with a towel, and watch him breathe, staring at his legs. His legs are an epic, a beatbox, a bel canto, a tango, a fresco, a gastronome. Neoclassical. They are a balm to me, even though his masculine assertion has vanished, his legs are evidence of the athlete and lover he was. In the silence, his organs rumble with the soft food and vitamins and medicinal teas that I have plied him with, to help him gain weight. The hair they shaved from his pelvis is starting to grow back. I want to run my palms over it, but I’m frightened I’ll hurt him. Instead, I stand beside the bed, and watch his sliced be...

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By Sonya Lea

Sonya Lea’s essays and interviews have appeared in Salon, The Southern Review, Brevity, Guernica, Cold Mountain Review,The Prentice Hall College Reader, The Rumpus and The Butter. Lea teaches at Hugo House in Seattle, and she’s leading a pilot project to teach writing to women veterans through the Red Badge Project. Originally from Kentucky, she currently lives in Seattle, Washington. Find her at