Sex & Relationships

My Husband Had to Learn Sex Again, and I Had to Become One Tenacious Bitch

Richard's memory loss rocked our happy marriage. Our way back required arguments, patience and trips to Babeland.
Excerpted from "Wondering Who You Are: A Memoir"

On one of our first Saturdays in our new home, Richard eats cereal at the table and looks out the window, which overlooks giant evergreens.

  

“Do you like me?” he says. He pours himself another bowl of raisin bran.

“If you eat like you’re twenty, your body is going to show it,” I snark.

He chews. Keeps looking at me. “I like how you go after what you want,” he says.

“Even when I hurt you?”

“Yes. I like everything about you,” he says.

“No you don’t.”

“I do.”

“My need to control? The insane obsessions?”

He nods.

“The freak who yells at a man with a brain injury because he forgot something?”

“Especially her.”

“Why?”

“You’re not giving up on me,” he says.

His honesty makes me breathe as if I’ve been living on half-air.

“I’m trying to get to know you,” I say.

“Me too. I’m trying to get to know me.”

“Do you mean you can’t remember . . .”

“That guy,” he says, with a nod backward.

“The man I want you to be,” I say in a near whisper. For some reason, it hadn’t occurred to me that Richard would have to develop a relationship with the one he was before in order to begin enacting that man. For the first time, I wonder what he’d be like if I never asked him to become that man again. And then the thought is so terrifying in its essential emptiness that I push it away, where it will stay sequestered for years.

“I was a good lover once,” he says.

“More than once.”

“Teach me.”

In the 23rd year of our marriage, my husband went into surgery for a rare cancer and come out without any memory of our life. Including his entire sexual history. The man who had taught me how to make love had become a virgin again. The first time we told the story of forgetting sex to a neurologist, he said he’d never heard of such a thing.

“Does the equipment work?” the doctor asked.

We nodded.

“Well, you’ll figure it out then.”

We’d been happily libidinous through our entire marriage and rarely skipped sex, with short breaks after the births of our children and when we traveled apart. Unlike so many couples we knew, we’d stayed adventurous, made sex a priority, and challenged each other to move out of our comfort zones. But also, sex had been a way of relating to each other when we really hadn’t understood each other intellectually or emotionally. Sex had kept us together. Before cancer arrived, we’d hit our groove; we were kids who’d discovered the delicious treats at the adult candy store.

Finding out that some ruthless god had hit the reset button on my husband’s sexual history was a cruel joke. I haven’t shared my despair over what I’ve lost with Richard, because I’m worried that my grief will harm him. I cry on daily walks. I talk to my therapist friend. I’ve asked Dr. L what he thinks about Richard losing his sexual history.

“Memories tied to primitive areas of the brain, such as sexuality, can be selectively damaged,” Dr. L said.

When I’ve risked telling a few women friends, they’ve tended to react nonchalantly—they laugh. (“That’s like riding a bike, right?” or “So, did you tell him how much he just loooooved tipping the velvet?”) The men I’ve told have mostly been stunned.

I’m not laughing. I’m not standing around waiting. I’m going to become a one-woman sex-education crash course. Or die trying.

“What do you want to try first?” he asks, all innocence and excitement.

“Field trip,” I say.

“Where?”

“Babeland.”

We go to Seattle’s egalitarian erotic emporium, the same place I took my daughter when she wanted to buy her first sex toy. I watch him wade wide-eyed through dildos, double dildos, vibrators, cock rings, condoms, lubricants, handcuffs, collars, blindfolds, harnesses, slings, rope, strap-ons, edible body paint, massage oil, sex games, instructional books, porn movies, and the orgasm-in-a-box. We scoop up toys to take home. Sexual exploration becomes like summer vacation. There are few rules. The children are in college. We stay up late, playing.

At first I think the teenage sex will dissipate, that the fast intercourse, few words, and all-boy appetite will be replaced by the experienced sexuality the two of us shared before the cancer treatment. But it still isn’t possible for him to ask for what he wants, or conduct a conversation, or remember the ways my body responds. And that’s not even critical, because we’re still in survival mode, trying to help him relearn his career, and settle into a new house, and help our children negotiate adulthood. Because Richard experiences both long-term and short-term memory loss, remembering sex is arduous, even when he is motivated to learn. The brain changes have made his desire immense. He artlessly reaches for me, his man-hands grasp my breasts before an exchange of words, glances, clinches. Even though I’m angry at what’s happened to us, I cannot ignore his longing.

I show him simple things—kissing, touching, the mechanics of moving the body. Flirting will come much later, when he has grown a sense of self-awareness. I demonstrate affection: compliments, rapport, embraces, caresses, calls, catcalls, the French kiss. Every suggestion, forgotten. Every action, forgotten. In order to adopt the behavior, he must be reminded. Not dozens of times. Thousands of times. I must learn to respond with compassion rather than anger. This one lesson—to deliver the sweetness that is now his favorite name for me—takes me five years to learn. Two thousand days. So whose brain is injured?

Sex is paradoxically the most frustrating and the most meaningful way for me to learn how to detach from the desire for results. I’m constantly reminding myself—there’s nowhere to go. This is it. But Richard seems to be able to focus on learning sex with all kinds of patience.

“How’s it going?” I ask him, after an unsatisfying session.

“Being a good sex partner is challenging.”

“Right?”

“I could please you before. Most of the time.”

“Yeah, but . . .”

“It isn’t for lack of effort,” he says, reporting.

“I know, baby. But you last more than a minute these days. That’s good, right?”

“I’m horned up all the time,” he says. “But I don’t ask for more because you like to talk first, and I can’t.”

“Jeez, it’s like you hit the reset button on the whole aging thing. So, what’s the deal with doing the same motions over and over?”

He reflects. I’ve learned enough of his process to be patient with the time it takes him to go from thinking to speaking. “I’m only able to think of myself. I can’t remember to think about what you feel at all.”

“If we slow down, you’ll get it.”

And we slow down every gesture, we stop and start again, we practice asking for what we want. For the first five years after the brain injury, he doesn’t even think of seduction. To seduce means that you have available the skills of humor, teasing, tension, flirtation. But allurement isn’t necessary for me anymore, because I’m reacting in ways I could never have imagined.

My body starts to respond differently than it ever has. My entire core heats up. I become a furnace. Even when my hands and feet are cool to the touch, I’m burning. My sexual appetite becomes ravenous. I covet every male between the ages of sixteen and sixty-six, and quite a few women too. When my friend Judith calls to ask how it’s going, I say, “Well, I didn’t lick the barista today.” I flirt with my male friends. I notice what men I am attracted to, what men I avoid. I gaze longingly at the surfer dudes and businessmen and construction workers. This is serious. My body is eroticizing itself at the exact time that I have been least sexually fulfilled.

Some friends say it is a midlife crisis. Some say it is an expression of grief. A few spiritual friends say it’s kundalini energy. I’ve heard of this energy expressing spontaneously in yogis and others who “awaken,” and I even experienced it in a meditation room years ago, a moment that manifested as a bodily tremor, an aspen in a mountain gust. But there’s nothing enlightened about this feeling. I wonder if Richard’s horny teenager mojo is contagious.

Turning up the heat on my sexuality at the same time that he’s more desirous—and less adept—is a strange brew. We’re fleshly fools. I have what many women would enjoy—a new man, a fresh man, an unencumbered man. What I learn from teaching Richard about intimacy is that I only think him to be absent. His touch and gaze and presence are with me. Every time we are together.

Our first year back in Seattle, Richard and I go on dates again. This has been our tradition, Saturday night out, just the two of us, which we have done since we found our way back to each other. In the past, we’ve had exquisitely simple dates, like the time we bought ice-cream cones and sat by the river, telling each other our dreams. And we’ve had outrageously fun dates at concerts, at the theater, and on backpacking trips. Now, post brain injury, our identity as the couple who can pull off those kinds of easy conversations is over.

Richard prepares questions for each date, so he has something to talk about. Without the preparation, conversation is impossible. One evening we pick a fancy Tom Douglas restaurant and make reservations. I wear a beautiful dress and take time with my hair. I help him pick out a sweater and jeans. We sit in silence through most of the main course. He orders their famous doughnuts for dessert, and they come in a white paper bag, warm from the oven, ready to toss in the sugar. He spills their powder over the table. Then he licks his fingers and slides them across the sugar. Licking, sliding, into the mouth. I glare at him. He’s too shameless to notice.

He isn’t deliberately ignoring me. Part of what I’m learning is how the brain-injured can be unresponsive to emotions. Weeks later, when my father nearly dies of a stroke and the doctors find a brain tumor, I sit on the stairs, sobbing. I raise my head.

“Dad had a stroke! They found a brain tumor! They don’t know if he’s going to recover!”

“Oh,” Richard responds.

I know that I must change some of my ways to accommodate my new man’s artlessness, and sometimes I fall short.

At dinner, I grind my teeth and spit my words through a frozen jaw: “If you lick your fingers in the restaurant, I’m not going out with you.”

In the wake of Richard’s passivity, I have become assertive and in control. I manage our financial affairs, parental decisions, medical services, family relationships, and everything that was previously shared by the two of us. I’m one tenacious bitch, not unlike my paternal grandmother, Frances, who had ten children and kept intact her marriage, family, and a large farm. But who I have become in Richard’s silence surprises me. I’m increasingly uninterested in what others think. If a medical professional is unresponsive to our concerns, I fire that person and move Richard to another provider. I drive aggressively on the highways. I take my place. I learn to reject what isn’t true. I leave friendships that aren’t meaningful. I become more adept in examining my flaws, asking mentors and my children to help me see my shortcomings. I’m leaving behind a persona, the “nice girl,” who was, once upon a time, a useful inner chick who allowed me to slide unscathed past a raging father, offensive bosses, and misogynist teachers, all while looking pretty in pink.

From my girlhood, I have imagined myself powerful. At thirteen, I fought with my father on the steps of the Catholic church my family attended for the right to make my own religious choices. I paid for my education, managed our joint finances after marriage, took jobs so beyond my skill level that they were frightening. If you’d asked me how I defined myself, I would have told you I was a feminist. I celebrated my sexuality as a means to empowerment. I gave up the phallocentric writing that was the mainstay of my literature degree, and instead read what I missed: women’s stories. My women friends expressed themselves however they damn well pleased, in being mamas, matriarchs, and, sometimes, in taking apart the patriarchal-industrial complex. The guy friends I hung out with treated me like an artist who mostly made up her mind about things and then did them. Before the departure of my formerly assertive, definitive, and physically and mentally strong husband, if you’d asked me whether I had an egalitarian marriage, I would have assured you that we treated each other as equals, and that our marriage was generous and thoughtful, a meeting of matched minds. When the qualities that I identified in my husband as masculine left, autonomy was thrust upon me. Beauty, power, strength, decisiveness, and even freedom had been situated not within myself, but in who I thought he was. Those projections came flying back, like Huginn and Muninn, those trickster ravens of thought and memory. As much as I’m aware of the deficits in Richard’s brain, I’m also increasingly aware of my own shortfalls. In my young marriage and long relationship, I wasn’t as self-reliant as I imagined myself to be.

Soon after we arrive back in Seattle, our college-graduate children uproot. Our son makes his home all the way across the country and our daughter chooses to live in Europe. We stay where we are for a change, and regard another new year, not from the perspective of mother and father, just as ourselves. We work, eat, and sit at home in silence. Silence that I’m not one bit grateful for. But it’s the kind of silence that leads me to ask questions of myself: What are you? When did you begin? Where are you going? How do you define your values, beliefs, truths?

In Richard, now years after the brain injury, I have a chance to observe someone who has no answers to these questions. He does not exist in memory, even to himself. He constantly forgets information, narrative, instructions, agreements, history, attachments, associations, requests, niceties, traditions, experiences. He doesn’t always forget and he doesn’t never remember. He is habitual and he is random. There is no method to understanding how the forgetting works. Even without a steady self, he has no issues related to lack of self-esteem. There is very little self to require esteem.

 

I begin to notice all the times that I am not awake to a solid notion of myself: when I’m driving, while my mind is on a problem, when I’m immersed in a deep sleep, when I become lost to the world during orgasm, when I stop seeing the room around me while I am writing this text. In these moments, my own life vanishes. Even my assured stories about our past are only shots in the dark, a way to bring a family tale to life. I think of birthday photographs from my childhood, and, of course, I cannot register my history in its entirety. Prompted by a specific photograph, I tell my story about what happened on that day—how I loved chocolate cake, for example—and I may not reveal that my sister was crying, my mother was pregnant, or that way back when, chocolate was not my favorite cake, I only wish it were so. I fill in the details of the narrative with a sense of how my family was then, or my sister adds her anecdote, or my joke about the event lightens the original mood. Then this story becomes “mine.”

When Richard begins to make his memories, I realize I’m constructing them through a collective rather than an individual reference, that the stories I’m telling him are an amalgamation of my memories and the ones he shared with me before the brain injury. When his mind begins to hold on to a story, he delights in telling “his” version of things to friends, colleagues, and his patients. As I listen to his tales, I can identify the elements that came from a variety of people. I can hear when a sentence comes from the recordings that Richard made with his sister and brother so his children would have their paternal history. The humorous ending to one of his stories comes from my attempt to make him laugh when I shared what he had done to amuse me, oh so long ago. He even picks up our language cues and voice pacing and punch lines.

The collective recollecting becomes a way by which Richard remembers himself. His posture, ungainly and awkward following the surgery, becomes more conscious and graceful as he learns his story. His gaze softens and responds like a sensitive human’s rather than a scared animal’s. He isn’t “coming back,” as people often like to say. That former Richard no longer exists. But I see that Richard is building a container of a narrative to help him move about the world. And with these memories come fear, regret, and the desire for forgiveness.

Richard isn’t experiencing grief for a lost self; grief pours only from us who knew him before. Richard sees himself as helpless to find that former being. He forgives his helplessness. He learns the stories because to form a history is to make us happy. He cares not for the worst or the best moments of his life—they are the same to him. I learn that the specific narrative does not matter. The genuineness of him, the presence of him as he is—what some people call awareness—is unadulterated. For the first time in my life, I begin to love someone for his essence, not for what he can offer me, or reflect onto me, or leave with me. It occurs to me that I might have watched my husband become himself, my desires for him notwithstanding. By waiting in the silence these circumstances have made for us, I’ve come to see him not as mine but as something altogether curious and wonderful. Sometimes it’s sweet. Sometimes it’s sexy. Other times, it’s just damn hard work. In this way, as it turns out, ours is not much different from any other marriage.

Excerpted from “Wondering Who You Are: A Memoir” by Sonya Lea, published by Tin House Books. Copyright 2015 by Sonya Lea.