One of the most essential elements of healing a body that has been injured, damaged or ill is to soothe and comfort the psyche, the soul of the person whose corporeal armor has, in a significant way, (even in the aid of better health), been pierced.
But it’s the piece that is consistently left out. When you leave hospital after a major surgery, you’re handed a thick sheaf of instructions, some in boldface type, all of which are — of necessity — focused on the physical.
Who addresses the needs of the soul?
Which is why, when I met a fellow hip patient in the hallway, a former dancer, a woman my age, we couldn’t stop talking to one another about how we felt.
Not our bones or muscles, but our hearts and minds.
A sense of shame and failure that years of diligent activity and careful eating and attention to posture…led us into an operating suite. The feeling of isolation, of being cut from the herd of your tribe, the lithe and limber, the fleet of foot. The fragility of suddenly relying very heavily on a husband whose innate nature may, or may not be, to nurture.
And a husband who knows all too well that physical intimacy is almost impossible, sometimes for years, when your loved one is sighing not with desire but in deep pain. When your hips simply can’t move as you wish they would, and once did. It is a private, personal loss with no place to discuss it.
I’m deeply grateful to know a few women like me: feisty, active, super-independent and all recovering, now or a while ago, from hip replacement. Every tribe has a scar, a mark, a tattoo.
I’ve been fighting arthritis in my left hip, but some dead bone in there is more the issue. Now we’re hoping it won’t suddenly chip off, which will force me into the OR right away for the inevitable hip replacement.
What did I learn?
People are wayyyyy too nosy. I am now so glad that total strangers can’t grill me about what happened and when did I have surgery and why not and tell me all about theirs. Boundaries, people?
People are often incredibly kind. Many times, strangers in grocery stores (as I crutched with one hand, stuck the other crutch in the cart and pushed it, ugh) offered to help me or even do my shopping for me. Many opened doors and held them, men and women. Some even rushed to do it.
Most people have never heard of short crutches. They rock! Light, easy, portable. They don’t hurt your arms or shoulders or hands or armpits. They don’t hurt at all. Yes, you do develop insanely strong triceps and very thick calluses on the heels of your hands.
They see short crutches and assume they are permanent. I received many pitying looks from people who mistakenly may have assumed I must have had polio or suffer from MS.
Life goes on, crutches or no. While on them, I flew out to Las Vegas and spoke to a major conference. I scooched fast, sideways, in movie theaters, up stairs, down super-steep parking garage entrance ramps, up wet, grassy hills. I even used them to get in and out of the swimming pool. It is damn challenging to move across wet, slippery tile!
Life also moves a lot more slowly. This is not a bad thing, but it becomes necessary. Everything takes longer than normal.
Rainy or snowy days are a drag. With both hands used for crutches, you’ve got no hand left for holding an umbrella. They are also frightening as you pray not to slip or slide into concrete or in the road.
You will develop triceps of steel. Seriously!
It’s only crutches. On my most fed-up days, I was still glad it was nothing more serious. Many people are facing much worse.
My surgeon didn’t believe I’d do it. So he told me. Of course I did!
I can’t say I will miss them, but I am deeply grateful I was able to enjoy three pain-free months of such well-assisted mobility.
For some Americans still finishing up the last scraps of their Thanksgiving turkeys, hosting a meal for 8 or 10 or 16 or 20 is a feat worth celebrating in itself. Here’s a totally subjective list of activities or events I think mark the end of innocence:
1) Your first successful dinner party. I chose dinner, instead of lunch or a shower or a party with chips and dip, because, done well, it demands forethought, planning, shopping, inviting, re-minding the people you’ve invited, making sure they won’t die at the table of allergic reactions, choosing a menu that makes sense and, if you’re as insanely fussy as I (and my name has been used as a verb, meaning “to fuss”), choosing the dishes, flatware, linens, candles and flowers to make the table lovely. Nothing has to cost a lot, but it does require effort and grace and timing and coordination; sweating and shouting tend to run the effect. This is why the cook always needs a good stiff drink beside them in the kitchen. You’ve got the desire and skills to make a lot of people comfortable, welcome, happy and well-fed all at once.
2) Coping with injury. It might be a broken bone or recovering from ACL tears or rotator cuff surgery. Pain and months of rehab force you out of your private, swift-moving individual self into the wider world of the slower, those who wince when they reach for things, the land of imposed patience. It slows you down so much you start to notice much more. You also see who gives up a bus or subway seat or who kindly opens a door for you and those who let it slam in your face. It’s really hard for some of us to ask for help, to be visibly wounded, to accept generosity. It’s not a bad thing. People’s kindness can stun you.
3) Attending more than five funerals of people unrelated to you. It’s an arbitrary number, but it marks your soul to see someone you loved and respected lying in their coffin, and to watch a room fill, as I did at the service for New York Times photographer Dith Pran, with so many people they run out of chairs. People who met him once for an hour years ago and who drove four hours one way to be there to pay respects. Another Times colleague, David Rosenbaum, who was murdered the day after he retired; people came from across the country to be there for his family, as they did for Pran. A neighbor’s husband, who died a brutal death from cancer. A neighbor’s wife, my age, dead of cancer. It’s anyone whose family you want to support. You know someday you, or your loved ones,will need it. It’s our job to be there for one another. It is often not much fun, but it’s essential.
4) Buying or re-financing your home. Unbelievable! We’re, thank heaven for our good fortune, almost through the tunnel of re-financing our apartment, a process that’s included almost a month, so far, of negotiating with and coordinating with eight busy, and some incommunicative and deeply confusing individuals. (Talk to the paralegals, not the lawyers!) I’ve been on the phone sometimes three times a day bird-dogging everyone and trying to keep straight who’s doing what and when. People charging you $$$$$$ for their time need a lot of managing to get to your timely goal.
5) Coping with a friend’s serious illness or that of their partner. Right now, a friend from church is battling cancer and a friend out West has a husband likely to die of it within a month. What can you possibly say? Or do? It’s terrifying. They’re terrified. Their partner or spouse might be angry and lashing out at them, which I’ve heard of many times and have seen in my own family. It is so tempting, and so many people give in, to just flee. To hide behind your own fears or inability to help. I call, send flowers and cards. It’s not much, I know. I’m not sure what else, from a distance, one can do. I helped one overwhelmed neighbor find a hospice for her husband. Cook a meal, babysit their kids, walk their dog. Do whatever you can. When it’s your time, you will need help as well.
6) Prolonged unemployment. Much has been written of late about how all the fresh new grads will be scarred by coming out of school into this recession. It will hurt their incomes and their ideals. It might.
It might also, as those of who who’ve now lived — and survived — through three recessions since 1988 know, toughen them up, albeit sooner than they’d planned or hoped. Yes, student debts are onerous and scary. Yes, it’s deeply frustrating to not do what you want and have worked and studied hard for. Join the line! Right now, millions of unemployed people who have done the same are also staring at the walls and wondering what, if anything, they are going to do to find paid work and put food on the table. Your dreams may change, even for a while.
I moved to New York just in time for the first recession in my industry. I knew no one, had no job, no alumni ties. I cold-called strangers for six months and finally, truly in the depths of despair by that point, found my first Manhattan publishing job from a newspaper ad. Those six months of incredible frustration forced me way beyond my comfort zone and challenged every comfy certainty I’d had about my skills and talents and experience. It was useful prep for the next two recesssions. It sucks. It won’t kill you. You will, and will have to, find new reserves of strength, flexibility and ingenuity you had no idea you had. It will also remind you that a laissez-faire capitalist system is based on “shedding” labor whenever and wherever and as quickly as those million-dollar-earning CEOs think necessary. Don’t rely on their goodwill or loyalty, ever.
I know this list skips three standard measures, having kids — which some of us never do, getting married (which some people do four or six times) and facing the death of one’s parents. I am lucky enough still to have both of mine and dread those days.
I’m surprised to see little interest — according to the most e-mailed list for today’s New York Times — in Kristina Peterson’s front-page story on how some U.S. college athletes are getting stuck with some enormous and unexpected bills as a result of their sports participation.
It’s a little ironic. The country seems split between the sinewy hard-bodied we love to idolize and sometimes lavishly reward: college athletes, triathletes, marathoners, Ironmen and million-dollar pro’s — and the rank-and-file rest of us, the obese and overweight, the junk-food-addicted fatties forever being exhorted to get out there and exercise, dammit!