The Long View

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As the summer season draws to close each year, I am reminded that taking the long view forward can have a toxic impact on my mind. There’s nothing like stacking everything that’s needs done in a year or more to provoke depressive feelings in me.

The half spent sawtooth sunflower shown above well represents where I stand at this time. If I focus on what is best in the present tense, I feel well, but if I mull over what is painful or yet-to-happen, I feel a bit crushed. It’s like dismissing the beauty of this plant just because it blooms for such a short time.

I’m already feeling a bit of nostalgia over my medical leave for back surgery this past spring. It’s not like this small era was packed with halcyon days. For two months, I had time to delve into the tangential things my ordinary schedule does not permit, yet I did not have the energy to accomplish much at all. Four months later, I regret that I tainted this time with any expectations beyond healing.

At the time, I wrote that my expectations were very low, but I now realize that such writing was my hope of deflating then-impossible goals. No, I was not going to craft a cookbook bursting at the seams with recipes both cheap and easy. I wasn’t going to document the daily unfurling of early spring with perfectly focused images. Worst of all, I would not have a house that was truly clean.

I did accomplish what needed to be done. My back is still fusing ahead of schedule. I was able to drive during my daughter’s spring break, so we were not stuck at home during the days of her vacation. After I came home from the hospital, I maintained my usual weekday wake up time (5:30 a.m., no less). This provided continuity for my family and ensured that I wouldn’t feel jet lagged once I returned to work.

Twice the time I had for leave has now passed since I returned to work. I can’t claim that the surgery was entirely successful. The symptom that made this procedure (an L4/L5 fusion) necessary was increasing numbness in my feet and in one of my knees. I had a long-term ruptured disc that exerted considerable pressure on my spinal cord. I had sciatica for a three month span prior to my surgery, but I didn’t have much pain obviously related to my back before that symptom began.

My MRI and surgery revealed that my disc ruptured 10 to 15 years ago. I had developed extensive arthritis and hypertrophy in my lumbar spine over that time. I’ve written previously of being stunned at my mental oblivion regarding this disease process. I literally had no suspicion of this degeneration, despite having several family members who’ve suffered from similar problems.

Looking back, the whole long interlude reminds me of that movie The Others starring Nicole Kidman, (spoiler alert) wherein she crafts an entire reality based on denial of her and her children’s passing. She has all sorts of elaborate excuses for why they can’t do the same things living people do, such as her warning to the children that they musn’t open the drapes because they are allergic to sunlight.

During Trick or Treat nine years ago, I barely endured walking my daughter around for a couple hours because my lower back was aching. Rather than go to a doctor about it, I decided that my problem was entirely due to obesity and lost 130 pounds over the next three years. I didn’t make any medical appointments whatsoever during that time (and for another year afterward) except for ear treatments I couldn’t avoid. Why? Because I assumed that almost every symptom I had was due to my weight, and my diet was the slow cure. How absurd that seems now!

Once I went back to my family doctor for myself for the first time in four years, she was so shocked at my change in weight that she sent me straight to a GI specialist. After running all sorts of tests on me (including colonoscopy, endoscopy, and biopsies), the GI doctor informed that I was the first 40 year old patient he’d seen who’d achieved a 50% weight loss without gastric bypass surgery or the misfortune of cancer. My advice to those who are planning a diet beyond a 10% weight loss: keep your doctors informed, or else they might assume the worst.

Now I wonder if my ongoing lumbar degeneration dampened my appetite. I didn’t struggle with eating less and walking more during those years. Now that I’ve had the surgery, my appetite and weight are much more of a challenge. I’m in the midst of trying to lose the 25 pounds I’ve gained over the past year, and the losing has been very slow this time around, 6 pounds in 8 weeks so far.

I started this post with the notion that looking too far foward can be depressing, but most of the foregoing is a backhanded homage to my recent past. The subject of my spinal woes is one in which I am better off lingering on the past than thinking too far into the future. Once I had my surgery, I started getting mild to moderate muscle spasms on the left side of my back and my left thigh. Physical therapy helped dampen this problem by strengthening these muscles. If I don’t do those exercises, the spasms are sure to be worse. Now here’s how I could depress myself with contemplating the future: I am not going to retire until I am 67. If I consider that I might be working with spasms for 22 more years, I feel steamrolled flat at the prospect of it.

If I take this problem day by day, it is just a pain that is fleeting, a sensation that reminds me that I need to keep building my strength.

Coming Around Again

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Thirteen days have passed since my spine surgery, which included L4/L5 decompression and fusion. My back has gained two rods, four screws and two 2.5 x 5 cm grafts of donor bone. I must not forget to write a thank you letter to the family of my donor, and the hospital provided me with a bar-coded form which will enable me to express my gratitude to this anonymous giver.

My recovery is progressing more quickly than I anticipated. While I need many rest periods daily and have been instructed to pick up no more than ten pounds at a time, I have worked up to walking 20 minutes straight and am driving again. My physical therapy goal was to start walking two minutes straight and add two minutes each day until I reached 20 minutes. Next I am to work toward walking a 20 minute mile.

I think all of the walking I ordinarily do at work optimized my chances for recovery. I am still weeks away from meeting the regular physical demands of my typical work day, but I am hopeful I will be primed to work again by the time my medical leave is slated to end.

When I saw my daughter after surgery, she first asked me a rather clinical question which had the odd effect of immediately lifting my spirits. She inquired, “have you had any hallucinations?”

I can only think that this was her sly way of letting me know that she has been reading my writing during the many times she paused to pat me on the shoulder as I’ve been writing seated on the living room couch. There have been several times when I’ve referenced hallucinations in my blog entries.

The day I arrived home from the hospital and settled to rest on that same couch, my husband was milling between our garage and the house to catch up on some small projects he’d let lie fallow during my hospital stay. Several times while my husband was out in the garage, I could hear my grandpa’s distinctive shuffle down the hallway. His walk had an unmistakable sound because he’d had six vertebrae fused in the aftermath of an accident he’d had working for the railroad. My grandpa passed away in 2012.

The next day I called my siblings and my mother about hearing Grandpa, and these were conversations that needed no I-might-be-crazy preface because to be related to my mother necessarily entails a bit of magical realism. While my grandpa I heard is my paternal grandpa, I tend to talk about such matters with my mother rather than my father. I figure that she is a better judge than I am on divulging these experiences to my dad.

Two days after my discharge from the hospital, I woke up in the morning from a dream that my mom had called me and told me that it was my day to visit Grandma. I woke up before I could explain to her that I was still too fragile to make the short trip across town for a visit.

I called Mom for real shortly after I woke up, and she let me know that the time was at hand. My grandma had passed away at the age of 88, after beating the odds time and again during her long life. She had survived a catastrophic wreck that had taken her sisters and her father. She was a 20+ year cancer survivor, and she had emerged from multiple bouts of sepsis in the past year.

From Grandma I learned that it is possible to rise time and again until God decides it is time for your life on this earth to end. Like my parents and the rest of my grandparents, she also taught me that there is no real love that is free of sacrifice.

I am grateful that as I get older, it feels like it is becoming easier to rise again, even after spinal fusion.

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