A painless anniversary

PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

A year ago today I was lying on a hospital bed, awaiting a second surgery to address the staph infection that had developed in my knee following a routine ACL replacement procedure. Some surgical thread had been left in my thigh following the original surgery, which had apparently provided a pathway for the staphylococci bacteria on my skin to make its way into my knee joint, eventuating in a midnight trip to the Emergency Room two months later.

My memories of those first few days in hospital are somewhat hazy. Mostly they consist of the electronic sounds of medical machinery, the constant darkness of the room, and people in masks leaning over me to draw blood, give me oral meds, take my temperature and blood pressure, and whatever else is involved in treating a serious infection. I also remember the strong scent of deodorant or perfume that lingered after the nurses left the room, mostly because it triggered the nausea that was a never-distant part of my overall misery.

The one crystal clear memory I have is of a brief period of profound fear when I believed I was going to die. I realize now that, until that moment, I had never seriously considered my own mortality. Sure, I knew that I would die like everybody else who has ever lived, but that was a distant reality, just another piece of information  about life which I possessed (albeit, a significant one), and one that I had never – apparently – truly internalized. I confess that after the intensity of the fear passed, I was shaken by the experience. In the lonely hours of the night, unable to sleep, the echoes of that fear would re-surface like waves lapping at the shore, and as I became more coherent, I began to wonder about these feelings. Didn’t I believe in the resurrection of the body? In “life after life after death,” as N. T. Wright is fond of saying? Had I not spoken of the “sure hope of the resurrection” at funerals at which I had presided? Was I not confident that death does not have the last word in life: God does? And yet there I was, in the wee hours, fighting off the fear of death.

I didn’t appear to be making much progress physically, and my surgeon became concerned that a pocket of bacteria somewhere on the pathway created by that thread was “re-seeding” the joint, and decided another surgery was necessary. And so, one year ago today, I was taken down from my room to a freezing cold surgical waiting area to await the surgeon’s arrival from another hospital. The nursing staff had stopped giving me pain medication in anticipation of the surgery, but unfortunately the surgeon was delayed, which necessitated my first and only experience with Fentanyl, which truly is a powerful and scary drug. As I look down at the six inch scar which holds the memory of that second (and successful) surgery, I am truly grateful to be alive, to have had access to healthcare, and to have had only a brief brush with opioid addiction during the whole experience (which I wrote about here).

At this point, you might expect me to pen something inspiring, perhaps about my determination to “make every moment count” following that experience. But the truth is, I have made no such declarations. I’m on what is proving to be a long and slow road to a full-ish recovery. I worked hard at physical therapy, and am able to kick a soccer ball around with my kids’ team (though I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to sit back on my heels again, which really bugs me). But it’s the mental and emotional recovery that has been hardest. I didn’t sleep well for three months, and my mental acuity has suffered for it. I often struggle to focus on the task at hand. My short term memory is filled with holes. I find myself fighting off anxiety in lots of areas that I have never had to before. And I allow my inner critic way too much head space. This infection and all that came with it have knocked me far further back than I could have anticipated.

Nevertheless. (One of my favorite words, and the word which Walter Brueggemann says summarizes the entire Hebrew scriptures.) There are other memories from that time that offset the painful ones. Hearing my daughter Maggie play one of the piano pieces she was learning a year ago evokes the memory of her and her brother playing the piano for me while I was in withdrawal from the opioids I had been prescribed, and which eased the misery for a while. Kicking back the leg rest on the recliner my sister-in-law Erin bought for me after she drove from Illinois to care for our kids so Rebecca could be with me. Neighbors who put their hands in their pockets to offset the financial challenge that season presented. Members of First Presbyterian Church who brought meals several times a week in the month after I got out of hospital. And the hundreds of people who left encouraging words on my Facebook wall, and who prayed for me throughout the worst of it. Those memories provide comfort when the waves of fear still lap at the shore on the nights I can’t sleep, and invite me to turn again to the God whose Presence I felt in those acts of kindness.

I still have a way to go. But I am, indeed, going, and that is something I celebrate today.

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One Response to A painless anniversary

  1. Thank you for this post, Sean. It was really moving to read.

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