I have often viewed myself as one having a high tolerance to pain. I have prided myself on enduring discomfort rather than giving in to drugs like Tylenol or Aleve. Like one taking a Nazarite Vow, I have attempted to keep my body pure of all drugs. When I tore my Achilles tendon on a tennis court some years ago, I resisted the urge to open the Vicodin pills. I have never felt the urge to turn to narcotics of any kind to get through pain—until last week.
A week ago today, I was in pre-opt getting prepared for a hip replacement. The bill for fifty-seven years of competitive tennis finally came due. The surgery would be routine. I would wake up and the doctor would talk about the amazing muscle structure he had to cut through. I would be cleared by the physical therapists (after meeting and surpassing their medical and therapy goals), and be home by evening for dinner. My wife would insist that I take an aspirin, and I would do this only to appease her. By Friday, I might be over to seminary getting things ready for the Fall term. The three flights of stairs to my office would be good exercise. Spinning classes on Saturday would also team up to deny atrophy any of its intentions for my body. By Sunday, I might be operating heavy machinery.
Sadly, none of this has happened. Following surgery, I was in full-scale meltdown. Since my standard reply to the pain scale question was 7-8, drugs were dispensed like candy. Morphine teamed up with an array of opioids, leading to occasional narcoleptic comas. Entering into a world of hypnagogic hallucinations, I have had dreams rivaling Daniel’s. When I gained some consciousness, I was urged to get out of bed, but my blood pressure would go down and things would get dizzy. This went on for two more days. Once I could prove I could get by without a catheter, I was released. A lot could be said about catheters, a subject I would put right down there with stool softeners.
How did I suddenly become such a weenie? I have writhed in pain for the last six days, finding no relief no matter how I sit or stand or lay in bed. When you can’t shift your posture to alleviate the pain, you know you are in trouble. When you are requesting more drugs than your wife wants to give, you know it is over. One day, so bored the eyeballs were nearly coming out of their lids—and so tired of brooding over the pain—I turned on the TV in hopes of getting distracted. It was the Hallmark Channel. I did not have the mental nor physical capacity to find something more intellectually stimulating. I was watching a typical love story, one continuously interrupted with pharmaceutical commercials pushing the latest laxatives. I actually got more engrossed in the Flomax commercial than the movie. When you are living at this level—you really aren’t living anymore. Being lifted into and out of bed, getting around with a Walker, drinking prune juice for dinner, and taking drugs (leaving one with the attention span of a gnat)—is all quite humbling. Occasionally I have gurgled some incomprehensible speech to no one in particular. It’s one of those moments, as Anne LaMott puts it, that you feel like a tread mark on the underpants of life.
None of us like to admit to decline. We would like to assume we are ageless wonders, but the body’s deterioration creeps like a vine. As Atul Gawande puts it, “…the changes can be imperceptible. You adapt. Then something happens that makes it clear that things are no longer the same” (Being Mortal). In my case, a part of my body fell apart. Arthritis ran its course, and now, a certain mobility has been lost. I will not get to a 4.5 tennis ranking, run another marathon, or bike to the coast. I’ve told Heather we will have to prepare for weeks (months?) that I cannot mow the lawn, take out the garbage, or assist with dinner clean-up. And that’s okay.
God does become more real in these moments. There is a certain soothing He offers when invited—a presence that is unmistakable. He gives us the assurance that we have no need to lose heart, so long as the inner body is being renewed (2 Cor 4:16). I am certain I will get past all of this soon. This brief journey with pain is nothing compared to so many I know who have to live with endless pain. They do this with joy, finding a relational level with God I know little about. This is what really humbles me!