“I’m nervous,” I said, collapsing onto the couch. “I hope this isn’t a giant mistake.”
It was, after all, surgery, on my face.
I had chosen this path for myself, had paid for it, had decided that I didn’t want to think about my larger-than-is-proportional-to-my-face nose anymore. I tried to convince myself that, given my very deliberate decision, I wasn’t particularly entitled to anxiousness, self-pity or feelings of impending doom. But the body doesn’t weigh your self-imposed trauma against the traumas of the world when deciding how much it should sweat, how tightly it should bind your nerves, how deep is the pit in your stomach. So I gave my mind permission to follow my body’s lead into quiet terror.
“You’ll be great,” my mother had said, “The doctor and his staff know what they are doing and when it’s all over, our girl’s weekend begins. It’s going to be so much fun.”
Our girl’s weekend, I knew, would consist of my mother tending to me as I lay in bed; she, the consummate caretaker, injecting energy and life into our airy hotel room; me, the drugged, bandaged mouth breather struggling to meet basic demands of food and water. We had lived out fun mother-daughter overnights in New York City in the past—but I wasn’t goading myself into believing that this would be one of them.
The night before the surgery, the nurse had phoned me with final instructions. No eating or drinking 12 hours before the operation, please bring my medication with me and oh, how excited she was to meet me tomorrow. For just a moment, I imagined I was going to a picnic of new acquaintances.
The morning of the surgery, as the temperature climbed into the nineties, I took two subways and a cab to the doctor’s office, arriving weak and dehydrated. I laid down on one of the couches in the waiting room. Sitting at the opposite end was my mother, her sweet, measured smile suggestive of the deep emotional restraint it was taking her to appear relaxed for my sake.
“How we doing over here?” she asked, her voice deliberately cheerful.
I smiled from my supine position and took her hand. “I’m ready to do this. In a few hours, I’ll be on the other side.”
“You’re very close,” she said, squeezing my hand, her face widening into a smile. “And imagine how beautiful your nose is going to be!”
I imagined back to when I was 15. I had asked my mother to take me to a plastic surgeon for a rhinoplasty consultation, upon the realization that I was a small girl with a rather large nose. In the nearly 15 years since that consultation, the story of it had become parable in my family, a stake in the ground for loving the you that you are. Post-consultation, I took the subway back to Penn Station with my mother, the “before” and computer-generated “after” photos in our hands. A moment later we spotted a girl across the aisle with skin grafted to her face. I turned to my mom and when we exited the subway we ceremoniously ripped up my “after” picture. We hung the “before” picture on the inside of the kitchen pantry door and there it remained for years, my trophy of self- acceptance.
Nearly fifteen years later—at twenty-nine years old—here I was. At the same doctor. You could say that my wedding photographs had something to do with it.
At this point in my life, I had become familiar with Jewish nose stories. They always seemed to exist in a binary: either women chose not to move ahead with surgery and therefore embrace self acceptance or they chose to undergo the surgery, thereby conforming to a societal norm. This second story was never fair, as it was almost always told by an outsider. Most people get nose jobs to look like a better version of themselves—not someone else.
My story was simple: I wanted a feature that better fit my face.
When I walked into the surgical room, I had to temper the panic. I let my mind drift towards mundane details; the symmetry of the nurse’s face, the soothing, maternal inflection of the anesthesiologist’s voice. It was the second time in my life I was to “go under.” The first was when I was in college and had a benign tumor removed from my breast. I remember lying on the operating table back then, asking the doctor about her weekend. I couldn’t relax. I feared the absence of conscious thought, of letting go. I remember staring up at the ceiling, my voice quick and deliberate, engaged in anxious conversation.
But this time was different. This time I was aware of a general fading. My mind became a watercolor. The face of the pretty nurse was above me. She asked me sweetly how I met my husband and the words I heard in reply were thick and sleepy.
I woke up at 3 p.m. My surgery had been at 10:30 a.m. I was on a gurney in the recovery room, nostrils stuffed with packing and a gauze pad beneath my nose, anchored by tape on either cheek. Groggy yet lucid, I was escorted to my mom, who ushered me into a cab. We were staying in a hotel together for the next three nights, a two-room suite with soft white down blankets and a kitchenette.
From Wednesday afternoon through Saturday morning I did not step outside of that room. My mother, relieved that the surgery was over, had shopped for organic strawberries, chicken slices that she could cut small enough for me to place in my mouth, hot lentil soup, tea to soothe my throat and berry jam for toast. She would remind me to eat, serving me in bed, and admonishing me not to look down—doctor’s orders—telling me that she could give me my coconut water on the night table. I didn’t need to reach for it.
I watched TV. I napped. I stared at the wall. My eyes were too swollen to read. My body always had to be on an incline, even when I was sleeping. When the pillows would fall behind me in disarray, there was my mother, fluffing and rearranging and seeing to it that I was comfortable. My normally restless legs felt heavy and calm. I heard there was a heat wave that week, that the city was a sweltering heap of garbage and noise. But it was cool and quiet in my room, with my mother sitting on the mussed up blanket, catching me up on family news, urging me to eat food so I could take my antibiotics, calling the nurse when I had questions.
“We don’t often get to spend so much time together,” she said, as she removed the blood-soaked gauze from beneath my nostrils and replaced it with a fresh one, yet again. “I’m having so much fun.”
When I became afraid that I would be ill, she slept beside me, holding my hand, telling me to wake her if I needed anything, telling me how great I was doing with this whole not-breathing-out-of-my-nose thing. On Saturday morning when it was time to check out of the hotel, my mom pulled the bloody packing out of my nose and stood beside me as I took my first full breaths.
I think they were her first full breaths too.
When I left the hotel into midtown Manhattan, I wasn’t ready to accept it. The world felt too loud. I turned back towards the lobby as though I had forgotten something. But there she was, right beside me, walking me to the car that would take me home.
The night before the surgery all I could think about was my nose beneath a knife, losing consciousness, the visceral need to navigate to the “other side.”
When the surgery ended, in those timeless hours of the following days, when the curtains were drawn and the temperature was low, when I couldn’t properly breathe or tell her how I felt, I understood that my Jewish nose had taken on a larger significance than the cosmetic redesign.
For when I think about my nose, I know that, for years to come, I will think about my mother. I will think about our time in the hotel together as another one of our drop-all-cares girls’ weekends away. My mother, and the care she took to heal me. My mother, and how for her, the mere act of loving me was so much fun.
This post is part of the Here.Now series, which seeks to destigmatize mental health,
and is made possible by UJA-Federation of New York and The Jewish Board.
You can find other educational mental health resources here.