Freedom Sunday - My walking stick used to be floral but the heat shrink decorating it has faded and it's now an ugly grey with a few sad flowers still visible at the bott...
If your idea of a good time is dropping a roll of toilet paper down the john and repeatedly trying to flush it, then you should just love narcotics because that’s what they do to the human excretory system. How can a person even want to get high on something that makes him constipated? It just ain’t dignified. Besides, pills are for sick people.
I thought I had stopped them yesterday (two days after surgery), but pain woke me up in the wee hours this morning, so I took first one Percocet and, when that didn’t work, another. I called the physician’s assistant today, and, to my great surprise, she said that most people take narcotics day and night for several weeks after shoulder surgery. She also said that patients tend to migrate from their beds to their recliners.
I was in such pain last fall that the only relief I could find was in a recliner that Peggy bought with her inheritance from her grandmother (and even then I could only stay halfway comfortable for a few minutes at a time). Now that I’m having to sleep with my lower arm sticking straight up into the air, maybe I will have to move back to Granny's recliner.
Peggy took a week off to stay with me, and I don’t know what I will do when she goes back to work—or when she leaves on her two trips in April. It’s not just the practical help; it’s having someone to keep me company now that there isn’t much I can do with myself. I can’t lift anything; I can’t take my arm out of my sling; I can’t even turn my palm up. If I break any of these rules, I risk pulling the stitches out, and that would leave me worse off than I was before the surgery. This is a state of affairs that will have to last for at least 42 days. The worst part is knowing that, no matter how careful I am, the stitches might come out anyway.
I’m enclosing some pictures of myself in my get-up. The black thing is my sling, and it comes with a thick pad that holds it several inches away from my body. The blue thing is a bladder that I have to fill with ice water several times a day. I wear the sling and the bladder all the time. The cooler is what the ice water stays in. I don’t always carry it in my hand as if I’m so stoned on narcotics that I think I’m in a cave holding a lantern.
You will note that I look like an axe murderer who is trying to pass himself off as a friendly sort of regular guy. That is because Peggy made me smile. If Peggy didn't make me smile, I would look quite handsome, but Peggy hates me and wants me to look ridiculous, so every time she takes my picture, she insists that I smile. I always say that I don’t want to smile, but she makes funny faces and silly noises until I do, and it is then that she takes my picture. People with cameras have been doing this shit to me for sixty years, and I hope they all fall down the shaft of the mine that I’m exploring with my lantern.
The hand-carved bowl on the wall was my Granny’s dough bowl that she received as a wedding gift on Sand Mountain in Alabama in 1896. It's made of the wood of the Tulip Tree. At a little under 200 feet, the Tulip Tree is the largest tree in the eastern U.S. and is the state tree of Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee. It also grows where planted here in the Willamette Valley. I’ll enclose a photo of its leaves and flowers.
I took two Demerol tablets and went to church today, my arm in its sling and the sling under Walt’s extra large pile jacket. My midriff insisted upon exposing itself from time to time, but I could neither get my arm through a shirt nor keep my sweatpants high enough to stay covered. Fortunately—for me anyway—I am not a modest person.
We discussed prayer. “If God is all powerful, all knowing, and perfect in every virtue, is it conceivable that he would cure someone of cancer or bring an end to a war because he was prayed to, but would not do so otherwise?” I asked. Most seemed to think so, but either they didn’t understand the dilemma I posed, or they had no answer for it. In any event, it was not addressed. A few expressed faith in prayer as a means of healing, but I reflected (to myself) that, despite the prayers of millions, many a pope has died well ahead of those who lacked such an advantage.
I told the class that I think of prayer as an opening of my heart as well as a meditation upon, and a dedication to, my highest values, but it was a definition that appeared to fall short in the eyes of many if not all, and I despaired of offering anything more to the discussion. Sometimes, I go to church and contribute greatly; other times, many people—including myself—seem to think I would have done better had I stayed home.
The question of teaching children about prayer was also touched upon. For the first time in decades, I remembered being too young to take communion at church, so I would pray and serve myself Welch’s Grape Juice and Premium Saltines at home. When I was ten, my family moved into town, and I built a wooden altar under a wisteria arbor. I set our big old family Bible upon my altar, preached to the neighborhood kids, and served them communion. My mother fretted over what God would think, but a preacher told her that God wouldn't object. It was about this time that a Negro deacon who worked with my father said that the Lord had his hand upon me, and that I would become “a great man of God” someday. His name was Truly Westbrook, and I felt sorry for him because he had to put up with endless profanity from my father.
Maybe I expressed myself badly today. I meant no disrespect, yet I must confess that I am often at a loss to understand people’s religious beliefs. They often appear, to me, to echo Tertullian’s statement about the Christian faith:
“…it is wholly credible, because it is unsound…
…it is certain, because it is impossible.”
In short: Credo quia absurdum—I believe because it is absurd.
He’s dead, he’s dead,
His surgeon killed him yesterday,
But his life insurance will quickly pay,
And with his doc I’ll gladly lay.
Oh, I think we’ll go to Borneo
Where there’s little risk of seeing snow,
And the brush it grows extremely low,
And wild, wild parties will we throw!
by the former Mrs. Snow
Actually, it was by the husband of the woman who got up every hour last night to ice his shoulder. Hopefully, you knew that. Such humor sets very poorly with people who don’t get it.
After reading what I wrote on Thursday, you might be challenged to believe that I went to bed feeling positive—almost cheerful—but I did. Your support was largely responsible, as was the support of local friends. I also sought the wisdom of Epictetus. The ancient Stoics, especially Marcus Aurelius (see photo), have often comforted me, and the worse off I am, the more effective is their counsel. As we turned out the light, I told Peggy that I had found my courage, as indeed I had. I even refused the “nerve pill” that I was offered at the hospital.
The surgery lasted two and a half hours, and Peggy was told that it went well. I awoke sometime later, eager to come home.
I worry that I am expressing myself poorly because of the drugs, and I am having a devil of a time typing in this sling, but I wanted to check-in, and I surely owed it to you to do so.
I send to you my deepest appreciation for your kindness, freshly showered by tears of gratitude.
Mark (that would be my surgeon) takes his hardest cases first, and I’m first. I have to check-in at 6:00 a.m. He will remove a bursa, chisel down my acromium (a bone in the shoulder), sever and reattach at least one tendon, and possibly sever and reattach my biceps. He’ll try doing it all arthroscopically, but there is a possibility that he will have to cut me open.
If all goes well, I will be sent home tomorrow afternoon with my arm in a sling, and the sling fastened around my body. The sling comes with a thick pad that will hold my arm three inches away from my chest. I have to wear the sling day and night for six weeks. During the first two weeks, Peggy is supposed to use a weird looking apparatus to pump ice water around my shoulder once an hour for 25 minutes.
After the sling is removed, I will begin flexing exercises. After a month of those, I will (hopefully) be allowed to lift things that weigh a pound or two, and will begin strengthening exercises. After a year, I should have regained 90% of my strength and range of motion. Sometime during that year, I will start the process again on my left shoulder.
I’ve had twelve surgeries (or will have after tomorrow), eight of them since the year 2000, and three of them last year alone. I used to regard surgery as an adventure rather than something to fear. I’ll still grant that it’s an adventure all right, but if my fear were any stronger, I would have to be in constant screaming agony to let anyone near me with a scalpel. The reason for the change was that the more surgeries I had, the more I observed that things just never seemed to turn out the way they were supposed to. Based upon this, I’ve come to expect an unexpectedly bad outcome.
When I had my first fairly serious surgery in 2003, I got into an argument with the anesthesiologist about whether I needed something to calm my nerves pre-operatively. I said I didn’t because I wasn’t scared, and he said I did because anybody in my position would be scared. Now, I want all of everything as I lie there awaiting that gurney ride to the operating room.
Since learning what a drag chronic pain can be, I’ve gone out of my way to stash narcotics. I will actually endure considerable pain rather than take the drugs now at the risk of not having them at some future time when I might be truly desperate. I won’t do that this time because I expect the pain to be of such intensity that it might build to the point that the narcotics won’t be as effective. It’s like when you have a headache. If you treat it early on, you might be able to head it off (pardon the pun), whereas if you wait, you probably won't.
I wish I could think of something good to say, but the only thing that comes to mind is that it will be adventure. God knows; it will be that. And, hell, things might even turn out okay. A year from now, I might be feeling pretty good. Stranger things have happened…I guess. Well, maybe they haven’t. I wouldn’t want to run amuck with optimism here.
I struggle to make doctors see me as a person because my health is a very personal matter and because, if they see me as a person, they will do better work. For example, radiologists find more tumors after being shown pictures of the people whose x-rays they’re studying. My problem with getting doctors to see me as a person is that a lot of doctors, especially surgeons, are hell-bent on staying detached, clinical, sterile, emotionless. They regard a patient’s fear and suffering as an irrelevant and annoying nuisance rather than something requiring compassion. If possible, they would prefer that people just drop off whatever body parts are giving them trouble. I don’t play these games at all well, which is partly why Mark (I call doctors by their given names) is my fourth orthopedist in eleven months.
I gave him the following today. My surgery is next Friday. Mark said I’ll be first in line because he takes the more challenging cases first. I hope this means that he anticipates an easy day.
(Mark, Peggy and I went to the hospital yesterday for my pre-op, and I later wrote the following for my blog. Please don’t take it personally. It is not about you; it is about my fears.)
The clerk says that my surgery will cost $10,000, and that’s just for the O.R. and post-op care. The surgeon’s and the anesthesiologist’s bills will be separate.
The nurse says, “I see that you’re having rotator cuff debridement and tendon reattachment—that is SO PAINFUL. People who have had a lot of joint surgeries say it’s the WORST. We had to take my grandfather back to the hospital after his surgery because his pain got OUT OF CONTROL. Why do you think YOU have this problem?”
“It started in yoga, and was made worse by throwing tennis balls to my blue heeler.”
“Well, you’ll be throwing UNDERHANDED from now on, EVEN IF the surgery works.”
Nursey is TOTALLY UNHAPPY that Peggy is going on TWO TRIPS the month after my surgery. We try to explain that these are IMPORTANT trips that were planned LONG AGO, and that I FULLY support. Nursey frowns.
Nursey takes my blood pressure; it is WAY higher than it has ever been.
She takes me to the anesthesiologist’s “closet,” which really is smaller than your average walk-in closet. After a half hour’s wait during which we summon him twice, the anesthesiologist arrives. He looks BORED and SLEEPY, or maybe JUST BORED, or maybe JUST SLEEPY.
“May I have a nerve block instead of a general,” I ask hopefully. “I HATE being put to sleep.”
“No, but you can have both.”
“Yes, the block might not be enough without the general, but with the block, you can have a lighter general. Also, the block lasts half a day, so you will need fewer narcotics after you wake up.”
“Are there many risks with the block?”
“Just one big one really. It sometimes deadens the nerve that makes you BREATHE.”
“Uh, the nerve WILL WAKE UP again—right?”
“Well, they’re following patients now to see if any of them EVER recover.”
I wonder why “THEY” don't already know this. Nerve blocks aren’t NEW; are they? But I don't ask. I'm too busy developing FACIAL TICS and HYPERVENTILATING. I remember a documentary in which a woman was BEHEADED in a sports arena in Saudi Arabia, and I envy her because the physical part of her suffering was over FAST.
Peggy puts her hand on my arm. I assume she has a question. No, she's just trying to CALM me DOWN. Not that I'm EXCITED. I mean ALL I’m doing is turning my LIFE and my ability to BREATHE without a respirator over to a bunch of STRANGERS who I hope aren’t in the 50% of all doctors and nurses who are BELOW AVERAGE. If I’m REALLY lucky, none of my ABOVE AVERAGE doctors and nurses will be ALCOHOLICS, or have COLDS, or be in the middle of MESSY DIVORCES, or HATE MEN, or have stayed up all night PARTYING. MAYBE the MAJOR EARTHQUAKE that is FIFTY YEARS OVERDUE won’t hit, and MAYBE the anesthesiologist won’t SNEEZE while he’s injecting my NERVE BLOCK.
“Well, if a nerve block won’t do anything worse than destroy my ability to BREATHE, sure, LET ME HAVE IT. For dessert, I would like DILAUDID, FENTANYL, VICODIN, DEMEROL, and PERCOCET, all mixed together and smothered in a thick and creamy MORPHINE SAUCE. Oh, by the way, could your bring us some VALIUM STICKS?”
After finishing up at the hospital, we go to Fred Myers to buy EXTRA LARGE SHIRTS that will fit OVER my arm, and VELCRO SHOES because I won’t be able to wear a regular shirt or tie regular shoes, maybe for MONTHS.
I decide that I want a drink. Then I think that, no, I NEED a drink—a double. If liquor didn’t turn me into a bumbling, stumbling, dizzy, nauseated, cotton mouthed moron, I might come to like it. Even with these downsides, I like how I feel WITH IT better than how I felt WITHOUT IT.
“How about a nice movie to take your mind off things,” Peggy asked.
It might take a bit more than a movie, I think, but don't say anything.
I went to church today. No, I am not a Christian—I don’t even have an unreservedly high opinion of Jesus—but I enjoy studying religion. I also enjoy being in groups in which people speak from their hearts. So, I go to church sometimes, or at least to Sunday School. If a church has two services and Sunday School during each of them, I go to Sunday School twice and skip church. In Sunday School, I learn; in Sunday School, I contribute; in Sunday School, I hear other people’s stories; in church I am just another member of an audience that is listening to a speech, and I am probably bored.
Joanne is 75 and goes to First Christian. I met her two weeks ago, and right away she loaned me three books. People who loan out books without even knowing where to go look for them are different cats than I, and I love them for that difference. I also love Joanne for other reasons. I love her because she is impish, sprightly, speaks her mind, punches the preacher on the shoulder when they disagree, has a sense of humor that goes right over most people’s heads, and most of all, because Joanne loves me.
Today’s lesson was from the Psalms. I’ve read that there are monks all over the world who get out of bed every morning at two a.m. and stand on marble floors in unheated chapels just to chant from the Psalms, but I don’t know why. Granted, it is a book of praise, but much of that praise was a thinly veiled attempt to persuade God to grant the speaker health, wealth, and happiness while annihilating his enemies; and the praise was interspersed with warnings that God would look awfully bad if he didn’t do these things. Today’s text was from Psalms 19:
“The heavens are telling the glory of God… Day and night, they keep on telling about God. Without a sound or a word, silent in the skies, their message reaches out to all the world. The sun…moves across the skies as radiant as a bridegroom going to his wedding, or as joyous as an athlete looking forward to a race. The sun crosses the heavens from end to end, and nothing can hide from his heat.”
Parts of the Bible, I abhor; other parts touch me down deep. Even when I don’t believe the Bible’s words, I cannot escape its power.
Peggy grew up much as I did. We both went to fundamentalist churches three times a week, only it was her parents who took her, while it was I who took me. The day she left home was the day she left church. I’ve never left. For years I tried, but I always went back, so I finally stopped fighting it. When I’m in the mood to go, I go; when I’m in the mood to stay home, I stay home. Mostly I stay home, but when I do go, I take my heart with me, sometimes to one kind of church, sometimes to another. My only requirement is that people feel free to speak openly. The participants in a recent class were asked to summarize what they thought about the Bible in one sentence, and one woman said, “The Bible is bullshit.” I thought it an odd statement, standing alone as it did, but I liked the fact that no one blanched.
During our study today, Joanne talked about how, years earlier, she came home from a wedding to find that her husband had packed up half of everything they owned and left. She didn’t know what else to do, so she started getting up early each day and reading from the Psalms. The ancient writer seemed to be expressing the misery that she felt in her own heart. Morning after morning, she would read and cry until, after many months, she was all cried out. I pictured Joanne, alone in the wee hours in her half empty house, crying, and I started to cry. Wanting to hide my tears, I searched the Bible in my lap for verses that might help me understand what Joanne had found that comforted her.
“In my distress, I screamed for the Lord…and he heard me…
The Lord is my fort where I can enter and be safe…
The Lord is my rugged mountain where I can hide…
The Lord is my rock where no one can reach me…
The Lord is my tower of safety…
The Lord is like the strong horn of a mighty fighting bull…
The Lord gives me the surefootedness of a mountain goat…
The Lord leads me along the tops of cliffs…
How I love Him!”
The second class today only had eleven people and started with a check-in. Martin, who had been in the Bataan Death March said that last week, for the first time, he had been able to bring himself to hug a Japanese. I thought of how that must have felt to him after 65 years of suffering, and I started crying again. The only other visitor was a woman who was seated beside me, and she too started crying, noticeably so. Someone asked her if there was anything we could do for her, and she said that her marriage had just ended, and that she felt as if her world was falling apart. Two more people now had tears in their eyes.
When the class ended, everyone held hands in a circle. Someone thanked God that I had come. Someone else asked God to heal my shoulders. I knew that both classes had been more meaningful because I was there, and that felt really good.
I grew up in the fundamentalist Church of Christ. When I was twenty (I'm going to be rounding off a few numbers), I joined the Episcopal Church. A few years later, I joined American Atheists, wrote articles for their magazine, and was named non-resident editor. When I was forty, I became a Unitarian. When I was fifty, a Catholic. When I left the Catholic Church, I saw that my relationship to churches was as much of a joke as Elizabeth Taylor’s relationship to marriage, and I vowed to stop pretending that I had it in me to be faithful. I had imagined that the simple act of joining would open me to some insight or experience that I couldn’t otherwise obtain, but it never did.
The advantage of growing up in the Church of Christ is that I learned far more about the Bible than most churchgoers. In a recent class at First Christian, everyone was given five obscure stories and asked which ones were from the Bible. I was the only one of thirty people to get them all right. The Church of Christ didn’t use literature about the Bible: all we studied was the Bible. Kids were drilled on it. We would work our way from the front to the back, and then start over again, year in and year out. It didn’t hurt any that I also studied the Bible in college. I haven’t looked at it much in decades, yet I learned it so well that I could pass for a clergyman, which is what everyone expected me to become.
I can only attend very liberal churches. Fundamentalist Christians aren’t free to express doubts in church just as fundamentalist atheists aren’t free to express doubts in their organizations. People who belong to liberal churches are all over the board regarding belief so the concept of heresy is nonexistent.
I washed out of my first Catholic confirmation class because the priest didn’t welcome my questions. I went across town to a church that had a liberal priest, and I did okay there except for my relationship with the sponsor who was assigned to me. He quickly decided that I had no business being a Catholic, but he didn’t stand in my way. In fact, he did everything I could have expected except to put his heart into our time together.
I had wanted this most ancient of churches to show me a side of Christianity that I had overlooked, and I had wanted it to accept me, but I saw nothing new, and my acceptance depended upon how well I kept my mouth shut. After my confirmation, I left the Catholic Church.
Most churches are like political parties in that you only belong if you believe the same things that everyone else believes. I can see the sense in this, but it contradicts any promise of inclusivity. Because they agree among themselves, church people have no idea how exclusive they appear to someone like myself.
I am a pantheist. The reason a lot of people object to pantheism is that pantheists don’t believe that the universe contains any more or any less that what atheists believe it contains; pantheists just call the universe God whereas atheists simply call it the universe. The difference, for me, is a matter of reverence. I find within myself an implacable impulse to worship, and this impulse makes me constitutionally unable to be an atheist. Yet, most versions of theism leave me cold. Theists typically believe that God hears prayers, performs miracles, provides guidance, and cares about justice. These are comforting ways to look at the world, but I see no reason to think they are true. I am nonplussed as to how anyone can think they are true. Yet, most theists are no better able to doubt than I am to believe.
The books that Joanne loaned me were from the Cotton Patch Version of the Scriptures. It is a serious translation from the original languages, and was made by Vernon Jordan in the 1960s. The thing that Jordan did differently in his translation was to use Southern U.S. vernacular, and to substitute Southern locations and groups for Biblical ones. For example, in the Cotton Patch version, Jesus preferred the company of bootleggers and black prostitutes to that of the white elders at First Church; Pilate was the governor of Georgia; and Jesus was “lynched” in Atlanta.
I was a teenager in the South during the ‘60s. I watched crosses burn in the yards of “troublemakers,” and I saw groups of men standing guard in the doorway of my church “to keep the niggers out.” Had some white preacher called the church elders “white-washed tombs,” and said that he preferred the company of Yankees and whores to that of “Good Christian White People,” his life most certainly would have been in danger. Just as the Jews of Christ’s time believed that Gentiles were unclean, I grew up believing that sinners and black people (but especially black people) were inherently stupid, filthy, immoral, and germy. I sanitized the sinners of the Bible while standing in self-righteous condemnation over the ones in my own neighborhood. I was a Pharisee, and I didn’t even know it.
Something else struck me about Jordan’s translation. In fact, it figuratively knocked me to the floor. I am speaking of the difference between Jesus and Paul. If Jesus can be thought of as an itinerant hippie who wore tie-dye and spoke of love; Paul can be considered an IBM executive in a white shirt and black tie. Jesus was directly accessible to his followers; Paul erected a hierarchy that still stands between Jesus and his followers. The church might have died without his organizational skills, yet much was lost because of them. Thomas Jefferson made his own New Testament by throwing out everything that Jesus didn’t personally do or say, and I can see the merit in that.
I was telling my neighbor, Ellie, and her fourteen-year-old son, Josh, about my upcoming surgery. Ellie said that Josh had to do a certain number of volunteer hours for a school assignment, and that he could help me out with anything I needed done. “Well…I won’t be able to wipe my butt for six weeks…” I said lyingly. Josh continued looking cool, unruffled, maybe a little bored (I see him practicing this look on his way to school each morning).
Unfortunately, Josh knows me too well to believe anything I say. That wasn’t always true. When his family moved here, Josh was nine. One day, he was in the street with his remote controlled car. “Hey, Snow, look at this,” he said as he rolled the car several times. “Dude, I enthused, “that is like SO TOTALLY COOL that I’m going to try it with my van.” Here I got into the van while Josh looked at me in horror (this was before he discovered the importance of looking cool no matter what). “He’s just kidding you, Josh,” Peggy said. Damn kid hasn’t trusted me since. Go figure.
Peggy will be out of town for two weeks out of the five following my surgery. I wouldn’t mind this so much were it not for the dogs. Friends, neighbors, and lodge brothers are always willing to help out, except when it comes to the dogs which, ironically, is what I need help with the most.
My fantasy is that the dogs will help me. Specifically, Bonnie Blue Heeler would act as my nurse since she would look really cute in a starched white uniform and a nurse’s hat. There are only two things against it. One is that post-surgical odors scare the bejesus out of her, making it impossible for me to get anywhere close. The other is that she won’t wear clothes. At a Christmas party one year, Peggy tied a red ribbon around Bonnie’s neck before Bonnie knew what was happening. Bonnie was so humiliated by the ensuing laughter that she ran from the room and wouldn’t let Peggy come near her for hours. Though this happened ten years ago, it thoroughly discouraged us from ever again dressing Bonnie—that and the fact that she has extremely strong jaws and uses violence as a first response to interpersonal conflict.
My other fantasy is that Baxter Black Schnauzer—being a boy and all—would serve as my physician. He would look cute in a white lab coat with one of those round mirror thingy’s on his forehead, and his Nietzsche-like moustache would accentuate his scholarly appearance. Since he will wear clothes, the dress-up part is doable. The downside is that he’s an all-around idiot (Peggy vehemently disagrees with this assessment) and doesn’t exude an iota of the customary doctorly arrogance.
Such considerations make it clear that the dogs will be a liability rather than an asset. All I can think to do is to lock them in the garage for two weeks, and take them a little food if my head should clear sufficiently between doses of Percocet and vodka. Then again, maybe Peggy could tear open a fifty-pound bag of dog food and dump it on the garage floor on her way to the airport. They would immediately eat it all, throw it all up, eat the vomit, throw that up, and so on until her return. With luck, I wouldn’t have to buy another bag of dog food for at least a year, by which time I should be well enough to carry it home.
I am grateful for the kind words that my last post elicited. Your advice was valuable in that it told me of your caring, and because it confirmed that the advice I had given to myself was the best advice available. Sad to say, advice is not necessarily easier to accept because it is good.
Even so, my last entry—and your responses—calmed me remarkably, and allowed me room to think of things other than my fears, things like other people, for example. Self-absorption is like a whirlpool in that the lower I descend, the faster and tighter the maelstrom, and it is good to be out of the middle of that maelstrom, at least for now.
The thing that scares me most about this surgery is that, like all surgeries, it is a violent act. In this case, it is so violent that it will take months to recover from the wound. I recoil in fear. I think that, surely, there is a better way, a way that is gentle and encourages healing rather than treating my shoulders as if they were enemies to be conquered and enslaved. It was with this hope that I cancelled the surgery last September, but I have found no other way. I wasted a little money on herbs, a bit more on massage, a lot more on acupuncture, and a whole lot more on physical therapy. The bitter truth is that some problems don’t respond to gentle methods.
I take my shoulder to the surgeon with the same mind that I take my dog to the vet. I know that the vet might hurt my dog in the short term in order to help it in the long run, but my dog cannot understand this. All my dog knows is that it was afraid and hurting, and that the man I have taken it to is hurting it more. Nothing I can say will make that okay. Like my dog, when my shoulder hurts, it screams, and I cannot reason with it. I want it to know that I am sorry; I want it to know that I am doing my best to help and that I would never hurt it without reason, but words cannot reach it. There is my rational mind, and there is my animal body, and they sometimes seem very far apart.
I mowed today for the first time this year. I’ll mow once more before having shoulder surgery in late March; then I won’t be able to mow for months. This surgery takes a year for a full recovery, and I will never regain normal strength and flexibility. What’s more, both shoulders need the surgery, but only one can be done at a time. I’ve cancelled it once, and I’m tempted every waking hour to cancel it again. I can’t say I’m terrified, and I can’t say I’m devastated; but I can say I’m close.
Three years ago, I had knee surgery. Before that surgery, I could hike twelve miles up and down mountains, but my knee would swell a little, so I thought, what the hell, knee debridement is a simple and commonplace operation and, after I have it, I can hike without pain. Since the surgery, I haven’t been able to hike at all, and there are even days when I hurt too much to take the dogs for a walk.
Before having knee surgery, I liked surgical options. My thought was: “If something’s bothering you, don’t beat around the bush, get a surgeon to cut it out—what could be simpler?” I’ve since observed that one kind of surgery can be life threatening yet cause little pain and offer a full and speedy recovery, while another can have a low mortality rate but a significant risk of disability and chronic pain. This realization is similar to one I had as a boy when I would get so sick each winter with colds that I would wonder how, if a minor ailment could make me feel that bad, I would ever be able to hold up against something that might actually kill me. I was relieved to learn that people die everyday of things less annoying than a cold.
Now, I don’t know how I am going to hold up to months of being unable to use one-arm followed by the same thing all over again when I have surgery on the other. A local woman survived having both arms ripped off by a gasoline auger last October, and I tell myself that I should be thanking my lucky stars I’m not her; but reminding myself that I could be worse off never seems to make me feel that much better about how bad off I am. If it were that easy, few of us would ever be put out by much of anything, there being few things so terrible that they couldn’t be worse.
By day and by night, fear rolls over me like a fast train. If it were any greater, I would be hysterical. I say to myself that I am not six but sixty, and sixty is plenty old enough to have become a barbican of strength. I say to myself that I should be limpid, ataractic, eudaemonious, and there is no excuse that I am not. So I say, but berating myself for being afraid only makes me less able to summon my strength.
I feel damned if I do and damned if I don’t have surgery. I’m in pain when I am awake, and pain often awakens me at night. Sometimes, it’s terrible in its intensity, and can stay that way for weeks making it almost impossible to think of anything other than how much I hurt. There have been times when I could scarcely bear to walk because even the gentlest steps were too jarring, and sleep would only come when I was exhausted and would only last for a few minutes before the pain awakened me. Yet, I’m fairly functional most of the time, and the pain is tolerable if I don’t use my arms much.
If the surgery works, I’ll eventually be without pain. If the surgery fails, I’ll be partially disabled, and there’s a 10-25% chance (estimates vary) that the surgery will fail. But if I don’t have surgery, my tendons, which are 80% severed, will eventually break, and the ends will pull apart, making repair impossible.
I had three surgeries last year. Two of them involved biopsies. In the second biopsy, the surgeon went through the front of my throat to get to my vertebra. My fear when I had to get out of bed at 4:30 in the morning to go have my throat cut is beyond my ability to describe. As it turned out, I didn’t have cancer, and I was almost as good as new the next day. Even though my worry then was that I might die, that was preferable to my present fear that I might be permanently disabled and in pain.
Last week, I met an athletic looking man twenty years my junior who had the same surgery in November. He said he was in so much pain for the first two weeks that even Percocet didn’t kill it, and he still can’t raise his arm high enough to shake hands. He looked utterly beaten and demoralized, the living image of my worst fears. Sure, my own surgery could turn out worse than that—I could die—but he represented my worst-case scenario of that which seems easily believable. He even had the same surgeon, not that I’m jumping ship now, this being my fourth orthopedist and the only one I like and trust.
We got the Camry.
Because I told Peggy I would go along with whatever she wanted, and she said she wanted the car enough to ignore the arbitration clause.
“Why were you willing to go along with what Peggy wanted?”
Peggy used to walk to work. Last August, the hospital at which she works moved nine miles away. She tried taking the bus—too long. She tried biking—too far and too dangerous (the streets are busy and she often commutes in the rain and the darkness). When busing and biking didn’t work, she started driving our 3/4-ton van (see photo) but was intimidated by its size. Getting a car was my idea because she works hard at a stressful job (L&D nurse), and I wanted her commute to be happy and relaxing. The bottom-line about getting the Camry is that I value Peggy more than I value standing on principal.
I received four calls from three people from the dealership the day after I walked out of the paper signing. One said that Kendall’s could force me to buy the car. They all said that no one else ever had a problem with the arbitration clause, so I shouldn’t either. They all said that my reluctance to sign implied that I didn’t trust them. They all said that the arbiter wasn’t one they chose but one that was assigned to them by the State of Oregon. I doubted that the State of Oregon assigns arbiters to car dealers, but I called the Department of Justice anyway and verified that I was right.
I will bike to the dealer’s on Monday with a bank check, put my bike in the trunk of our Camry, and drive home. Peggy will be out of town with a friend that day. Taking care of our business affairs is my job. Otherwise, I would have to go earn a paycheck. We’ve lived that way for many years—she makes the money, and I do everything else. The only time it gets awkward is when people ask what I do. Peggy has a title, but what could I possibly offer as my title? Now that I’m old enough to look like I’m retired, I just tell people I’m retired. It’s not true, but it’s easy. Not only do I value Peggy above principal; I value convenience above principal, at least sometimes.
Now for some late night miscellany.
Things—like this whole weird car-buying experience—go easier when I can think of life as a game because thinking of life as a game takes the edge off. When the stakes are lowered, the outcome doesn’t seem so deathly serious.
If I could go through life on a three drink high, that would be about right. The trouble is that a three drink high doesn’t last long. I’ve often wondered why, if after three drinks, I feel like I would like to feel all the time, I can’t hang onto that feeling when I’m not drinking. It’s like the old hippie belief that psychedelics can lift you to a higher level of consciousness. That might be true, but then they drop you back to where you were. I learned this when I came to the realization that people who did a lot of psychedelics (or a lot of liquor) were as messed up as everyone else, often more so.
I’ve always been flexible about principals. For example, if a store clerk gives me too much change, I might keep it or I might not. It depends upon how I feel about the store. If I respect the store, I’ll return it; if I don’t, I won’t. Whether I was given one dollar too much or a million dollars too much would make no difference (if the amount was a million dollars, I would really hope I was in a store that I didn't respect). Sometimes, I’ve gone to the wall over principals that other people didn’t think were important. Other times, I’ve been okay with doing things that other people thought were wrong.
Today is my birthday. I am sixty. March 1 is the best possible birthday. If you tell someone that you were born on September 23 or January 11, they just nod and look bored. If you tell them you were born on March 1, they say, “RAAAR! RAAAR!” They do this because the sounds in March 1 flow like martial music. Some people will even stomp their feet and drum their hands. One man got so excited that he couldn’t bear the agony of his ecstasy, so he jumped in front of a freight truck (the truck wasn’t actually moving, but he didn’t know that). After this happened, I started being careful about where people were when I told them it was my birthday.
Just as March 1 is the best possible birthday, 1949 is the best possible birth year. I’ve already gotten to live in three half centuries, and that’s the same as being 150 years old. When I was a kid, I felt sorry for people who weren’t born until 1950 because they always seemed so childish. Peggy wasn’t born until 1951, but that’s okay because it means that she will always be a nymphet and men are really into nymphets, in a manner of speaking. Sometimes, I lord it over Peggy because I was born in the half century that preceded hers. I’ll say, “Peggy, I was born in the same half century as two world wars. Your half century just had a lot of piddling little wars; how embarrassing that must be for you.” Peggy never seems much impressed by this line of thinking, which is why I have to keep presenting it to her. I figure that someday, she will get it and say, “Ooooooh, you’re my big, strong man. I don’t think I would have been tough enough to have survived two big wars the way you did.”
I care some that I am getting old, but I wouldn’t be keen on going back either. It’s like everybody says, “I wouldn’t mind being young again if I could take everything I’ve learned with me.”
Now, if old people think they’ve learned a great deal, why do young people hold their wisdom in such low esteem, sometimes even dismissing their opinions simply because they are old? Maybe it’s because old people have also lost a lot, things like the ability to play and to be spontaneous…also the ability to remember quickly…and to see and hear well…and to move fluidly; the list just goes on and on.
This means that young people are right in thinking that old people are an irredeemable mess, but then young people are too, come to think of it. That’s just how people are. You’ve got old and doddery, and you’ve got young and dumb, and you can’t even choose your poison. It would be enough to turn Joan of Arc into an atheist if she had lived long enough. The advantage of dying young is that you get to avoid a lot of aggravation.
Such bummer thoughts are why it’s important to think of life as a game, as something like checkers, say, so that you can enjoy playing it without getting overwrought about whether you’re winning or losing. Life is also like a conveyer belt. We all fall off sooner or later, so why clench your teeth about something that is about to end anyway?
I know why. The reason is that time seems drawn out when you’re suffering. All this stuff about life being a game sounds hollow when you’re lying awake in pain at three a.m., and you have no hope for feeling better the next night, or the night after, or any night in the future. In fact, you worry that you might feel even worse, and you don’t know how you can bear it if you do. Happiness is over in a heartbeat while misery just keeps on keeping on, and misery makes it damn hard to say that life is a game.
But what’s the option? Some might argue that God ordained it all, and so it all has a purpose. Okay, fine. If you can believe that, it might do you a lot of good, but it doesn’t mean squat to me. I don’t think life means anything more or anything less that what any of us thinks it means. Life is not serious unless we think it is, and life is not a game unless we think it is. There is life and then there are our thoughts about life, and we cannot know how closely the two coincide. Even so, we can't not think, and my thought is that the meaning of life, and therefore the worth of life, is entirely subjective. My worth comes from Peggy, nature, my dogs, my friends, my writing, and from those moments when I feel happy or when something touches me so that my heart melts. But all of these things are transitory; I don’t believe in anything that is lasting. Could I be wrong? Yes. Any of us could be wrong about pretty much anything. There’s always room for humility.