cw: hospitalization, surgery, mentions of D/s.
Also, my partner is out of the hospital and doing fine.
There’s no resting in a hospital, I’ve learned by now. Someone comes in every few hours to take her vitals or to give her medication, and in the time between, I curl up in a tan pleather armchair beside the bed, send prayers to pagan gods I sometimes believe in, and look up whenever I can’t hear her breathing. Of course she is breathing. Of course she’s fine. But I’m skeptical by nature, and it’s worse when I’m afraid, doubting what I haven’t witnessed myself. I pass the rest of the time reading on my phone, until the words start to swim in front of me, and then shift to match-three games.
The staff doesn’t know who I am to her, of course. She has another partner and, in the eyes of well-intentioned Southern healthcare professionals, he’s the correct one. Our relationship is illegitimate, except in the eyes of whatever gods were kind enough to let me find her. So I lie, I say that I’m her sister, and the lies taste like ash. Sometimes I slip up—I mention my mother to her, when the staff can hear me, instead of our mom—and I feel my throat snap shut on the slip-up. No one notices, of course. They have other things to worry about.
Each day they say, “Maybe you can go home tomorrow,” but then something isn’t quite right and she stays another night.
When no one’s in the room, I can be her partner, even her submissive. I’m her partner first, of course—my love, my support, my kindness, the history behind us and the hope for many years ahead of us, drive us and pull us through. But I can’t untangle the rest from it. I’m submissive by nature, and her submissive by choice. I gave her the gift of it many years ago, and she has not given it back, has not told me she can’t handle the responsibility. Sometimes I’m not quite sure how to be submissive like this, when she’s rating her pain on the one-to-ten scale, when medication makes her fall asleep mid-sentence. She’s so often the strong one for me. Even leading up to this, while we watched her health fade, and eventually realized this surgery was the only step she could take, she constantly tried to reassure me, and I echoed her words back to reassure her in turn.
But it’s also easy, in a way. Service is one of the flavors of my submission, too. I refill her water when she needs it. I unplug her IV to help her to the bathroom, though every single time I’m terrified something will break and it will be my fault. I help her with her hospital gown, which never stays on right. I walk with her down the corridors, so slowly, helpless when each step makes her wince and when she tells me she hates every minute of it. I serve her, too, by nodding in sympathy with her complaints, and keeping to myself that I hate it as much as she does—her pain, the hospital smells, the faint murmur of voices in other hospital rooms as we pass by.
When we’re alone, I call her ‘ma’am,’ and she tells me I’m being a good girl. That relieves some of the stress, for a while.
Anxiety strikes at weird times, as it always does. I’m poised enough when the nurses come by and talk about her pain, and then I have a panic attack when I can’t find the cafeteria. When I find it, it’s already closed. I refuse to wander the labyrinthine hospital further to try to get to McDonald’s, but at least I’m eventually able to walk back to the hospital room, where I have some crackers and soda stashed in my purse. It strikes again when I’m eating a sandwich in one of the waiting lounges, and someone else is FaceTiming across the room, and I panic that my eating will somehow disrupt their call. She’s not there to talk me through it in either case, but I know what she would say, and that helps me calm down enough to function.
I don’t drive, and that’s part of why I’m the one to stay the night each time. Her other partner is the one who drives home every night to feed the cats. He brings me a breakfast sandwich every morning, runs errands, gets a change of clothes for me because we’d all packed for her hospital stay and forgotten about what I’d need. I text him, because words are easiest for me when written down, to say thank you for everything he’s doing, that I know driving 30 minutes to our semi-rural home every morning and every night is hard, that the litter box makes him gag. He texts me back to say he doesn’t mind, and he thinks I’m doing the harder work. It surprises me—sometimes it feels like all I’m doing is reading, and playing match-three games, and panicking outside the closed cafeteria. But watching her in pain is harder for him, and he prefers to be doing something active, to physically help, instead of sitting nearby and coping with agony he can’t fix. We are complementary, able to fulfill different needs for the one cherished person we have in common. We’ve shared a house for years, but this strengthens our friendship. I still taste ash when I claim she’s my sister, but there is a truth there, and the three of us are a family.
On one of my nighttime vigils, I read tarot for reassurance, drawing a single card and asking a single question. The Queen of Wands tells me to be resilient, to stay determined, to be patient, but does not tell me what’s to come. Well, I’m skeptical—the cards could have told me anything, could have detailed the next few days, and I know it wouldn’t have been enough to calm me. I try to take strength in it anyway.
“Honey,” she says, sleepily noticing me moving around. “You need to get some sleep.” Her voice is quiet, her eyes barely open, her lips dry.
“Yes, ma’am,” I say, obedient, and it’s a fleeting, precious moment of normality. I reach out to stroke her elbow, because her hand is hard to hold behind the bed railing, under all the tubes and wires.
She smiles faintly. She loves when I call her ‘ma’am.’ She loves what it means.
I curl up on my ugly little chair, a plastic hospital pillow wedged between my head and the sharp edge of its arm. I watch her breathe for a moment. I try to be resilient, and soon I fall asleep. I dream of hospital corridors, and IV tubes.