Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Helpless - One Year Later

Most of the following is my essay from 8/23/16.

At the bottom is a short reflection on my experience one year after.

The thing that first struck me was the view.

I never noticed how blank and empty the ceiling was even though I must have glanced at it thousands of times.  It made me realize that all of the things I wanted to see were around me and not above me, but it took too much effort to look.

I had been having chronic back pain for a while.  After it got intolerable, I was told to go on bed rest.  Then sometime before noon three weeks ago, I noticed something was off.  I looked down at my left foot and I noticed I couldn’t flex it.  I immediately texted my wife who was at work.  It was decided that she would leave right away and bring me in for medical attention.  By the time she arrived, my right foot followed suit and I was unable to flex it either.  So my poor wife had to carry me to the car.

I have not been able to walk on my own since.

When we got to the hospital it was decided that I would have surgery.   They discovered that my L3 disc in back had shattered and the fragments were pressing on the nerves causing what they called a bilateral foot drop.  The surgeon told me that it was so bad that when he cut open my back, fragments of the disc popped out.

Since then I have remained in the hospital.

There is much for which I should be very thankful.  For all intents and purposes, the surgery was a success.  However the damage to the nerves will take a very long time to heal.  The nerve runs from my spine to the tip of my foot and it can take up to a centimeter a month to regenerate.  But I am no longer in any serious pain.  There is still soreness and weakness from the surgery, but that, I know, will pass in time.  Also during my recovery I have had many friends and family members help ease the passage of time with refreshing fellowship.  And of course, my wife has been a saintly pillar of support throughout, working all day at her job and then spending all night sleeping in a hospital chair by my bed.

But the biggest struggle for me is the feeling of utter and total helplessness.

Those first few days were the most humiliating and difficult.  Every turn, every movement was painful.  My back was not strong enough for me to even sit up on my own.  Even with support, the strain was incredible.  

Please forgive these next sentences if they are too vulgar.   But I think there are very few things more humiliating for an adult than to not be able to use the bathroom independently.  You feel gross, disgusting, embarrassed, humiliated, and weak.  You are literally infantilized and cannot help feel concretely the powerlessness of your situation.  In an activity for which we normally demand and expect total privacy, I had to call and ask for help.  And while the hospital staff went out of their way to alleviate my sense of shame, it lingers nonetheless.

I came to realize how utterly dependent I was on the staff here at the hospital.  Anything that was out of reach for me, even putting socks on my own feet, was something that required their assistance.  I now have an incredible amount of empathy for residents of nursing homes.  The feeling of absolute dependence on medical staff is terrifying because you keenly feel the power imbalance.  If you get even the slightest inkling that a member of the staff is annoyed or upset with you, fear grips your insides because that person has complete power over your life.

And as I lay there flat on back staring up at the ceiling of my hospital room, I thought about Jesus as a little baby.  I imagined Him lying flat on his back in a little crib.  And in that image I saw Our Lord take on a voluntary helplessness.  If I could through sheer force of will, like the Bride in Kill Bill, get my feet to move the way I wanted, there is little doubt that I would.  But in that manger at Bethlehem you had total and complete Omnipotence crying helplessly because He was hungry or in pain or covered in his own waste.  Can you imagine the restraint of that Divinity that patiently endured the slow passage of seconds to minutes to hours to days to weeks to years before even the smallest bit of independence could be managed?

Here’s the kicker for me: no one would blame Jesus if He used His Godly powers as a baby.  Imagine this baby being able to perform miraculous feats as if by magic.  In fact, I think that many would come in wonder and offer gifts Magi style.  So why did He not?

Because when you love someone, you want to be as close to them as you can.  God wanted to know our helplessness.  While He is always exalted above us, He is also with us.  He knows our struggles and feels our pains.  I cannot think of a single miracle He performed that was done purely for Himself?  If I had access to His power, I would be worse than Bruce Almighty.  But the Lord only used that power to help others and bring them to faith.  He never cheated.

I cannot walk on my own.  But on the road to Calvary, neither could He.  Even as He was fulfilling the purpose to which He was born, He was helpless.  Simon of Cyrene helped Him along the way to where he was crucified.  And all the while He had the power to stop it but did not.

This is a love that is complete.  Nothing was held back.  And now I can never doubt that He is with me in my suffering.  When I struggle to walk, I remember so did He.  When I am gripped with crippling fear, I remember He sweat blood in Gethsemane.  When I feel shamed and humiliated, I remember they stripped Him naked in public and mocked Him as king.  When I lose someone I love, I remember He wept at Lazarus’ tomb.  When I feel the pangs of rejected affection, I remember the hollow kiss that betrayed Him to death.  When I feel lonely, I remember that all of his best friends abandoned Him the night He needed them most.  And when the day comes for me to die, I will remember how he had to endure the slow movement of time from second to minute to hour after hour on that horrid cross.

The angel said that of Him that He shall be called Immanuel, which means “God with us.”

And He is a God who is with us.

Maybe that was the reason He took away my ability to walk.  Because as I lay flat on my back helpless, I have no choice but to look up to Heaven.


I wrote this essay exactly one year ago today.

As difficult as that month in the hospital was, I can tell you that not a day has gone by that I have not been grateful for the ability to walk.  I have never complained since about having to get up and move around because I am keenly aware of what a blessing it is.

I would not want to wish my experience on anyone, but I have learned so much.

I learned that my life hangs by a thread and that if I continue in good health it is only by the grace of God.

I learned that feeling trapped in your own body might be the worst prison of all.

I learned that one day this body is going to break down with age or sickness again and I need to take advantage of my health while I can.

And I was reminded that my friends and family are generous and continually kind.

I was reminded that being a Catholic school teacher meant that I was part of a faith community that rallied around me and supported me throughout my recovery.

I was reminded that I married the greatest woman in the world.  After working a full day at her job, she would stop by the house to take care of any needs there and then come to my hospital room at night to spend time with me and work on her second job.  Then she would sleep sitting up in a chair next to my bed just so I wouldn't be alone at night.  Then she would get up in the morning and go off to work and repeat the process over and over again.  For a month.

And her work did not stop there.  Once I came home she was my primary caregiver.  She had to wake up early and cleanse and bandage my wounds.  This was especially important after I developed an infection and was hospitalized for another week followed by another surgery.  Every morning she would have to help me get dressed and drive me to anywhere I needed to go.  And keep in mind she has had rheumatoid arthritis since she was four-years-old.  She never once complained.  She never once grimaced.  Never once did I hear her sigh in exacerbation as she had to put on my socks for the hundredth time.  She never once made me feel like a burden and I will never be able to thank her enough.

Finally, I was reminded about God's generous love.  One of the worst things about a chronic condition is that you often feel as if you will never get better.  But the Lord saw me through and healed me.  Since then every sin of laziness on my part feels like a heresy against his generosity.

But in the end, I am reminded that when I am helpless, He is my help.

And I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

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