I have been for some time feeling better. So how come I’m having trouble describing it and believing it? I am ambivalent writing about this or even talking about it as #1: superstition tells me to keep it to myself as telling anyone about this turn of events is a jinx, and #2: I have been locked inside a miserable cur of a body for over a half century and I don’t have much to go on when I say that for some time I’ve been feeling what I now call better.
The dictionary defines better as “of superior quality of excellence.” Now, this turn of affairs has me stumped. Am I saying that I am now experiencing a superior quality and that superior quality is, in this case, excellence? I’m really not sure. I know “excellence” does not justice to this feeling better business is about. Superior really does the trick, though.
But I can assure the reader that I’m not anxiously wandering about in a linguistic parlor game. No, it is my mind trying to come to terms with this; over the last summer I have begun to feel that elusive…
WE MUST INTERRUPT THIS COLUMN FOR BREAKING NEWS: WE’RE AFRAID IT REALLY IS LITERALLY BROKEN.
Our correspondent is sitting by a window in a coffee shop in Lincoln Park in Chicago where he lives. It is a balmy 0 degrees with a moderately heavy snow swirling around his perch in the semi-warm shop. Why might you ask, rightfully, I’d say, is he I doing this?
Last night he started this blog while lying on his bed with his furry pal, Dylan, lying next to him with his head on our correspondent’s outstretched leg. He’d just returned home with his son who gave him tickets to see his beloved Chicago Bulls play. It was a hoary January night. Traffic was light coming home but the temperature was 8 degrees south of zero. Not such a bad deal, but the front running Bulls got chased off their own court by the lowly Utah Jazz. Bad omen?
Bad omens need recognizing which, one hopes, leads to planning, the kind of planning that minimizes, again, hopefully, whatever damage is silently and inexorably swinging around the sun on its menacing parabolic arch headed straight for our unsuspecting, “feeling better,” correspondent
If, like the characters in the movie Melancholia he knew what was coming, would he have stayed home lounging on his bed? While our correspondent is interested in dystopian futures, he never thought that his previously dystopian life could round the sun aiming lustily for him.
Before describing the mayhem headed towards the north side of Chicago, a return to happier days with which this blog began is in order, at least as far as storytelling goes. As I was saying at the top of this post, I have been getting, slowly and inexorably better. I can feel some of you smirking even now: Never say things are looking up as the other shoe will always drop, most often with a direct hit to the offending skull. You know this is to be true as I’ve not hinted too obliquely at what was to come.
After I fell in the garage of a hotel in late winter ‘13, the night before moving into our new home, I was the happy recipient of three surgeries on my spine and back delivered me from the hardware from my implanted spinal cord stimulator and all the bolts, plates and screws from extensive spinal surgery 15 years ago to repair the multiplying disabilities from a long ago broken spine.
After the surgery, my new doc, a young man in his mid 30s, who seemed to me to be all ears, cradled a lovely medical intellect along with a nice dollop of courage. Why courage you ask, as might you well? Because this young man thought the dose of OxyContin on which I was relying to keep the panther of pain off my back was woefully deficient in curbing the pain I had been living with for decades.
By the end of fall ‘13 I was very aware of a happy diminution of the pain panther prowling in tight circles around my body. The arc of his circles frequently carried him and his hunger out of sight. I could hear his slow breathing in the shadows, but he was much to my giddy surprise, out of direct sight.
As my pain panther remained largely out of sight, I allowed myself thoughts of how I might widen the arch of my circle. To wit: I started the process of getting my clinical social worker license reinstated here in Illinois. By Christmas, I had fulfilled most of the requirements to be able to take the exam. This left me in high hope that I may restart a small practice working only with the chronically ill and those with chronic illnesses.
As I felt better I talked to my team of docs about returning to practice and all said they’d be excited to refer to me as they have so many folks struggling with panthers of their own. I’ve even begun looking at offices downtown where I may rent by the hour. It would be perfect as I’m only an 8 minute walk to the Red Line subway that delivers me to the Loop in 15 minutes.
The most obvious indication of reduced panther activity is seen in my daily walks with Dylan. I have gradually lengthened how long and how far we walk. Just a few days ago before the return to the Siberian Express, Dylan and I walked about 8 miles over two hours! I think you can imagine how I felt about that and you’d be right. Mostly, I was amazed and excited seeing my body as younger than the seven decades I’m working on. Hope rang like the Cathedral Bells in Paris on Easter Sunday. Yes, I felt as if I’d risen from the dead. And I wasn’t wrong about that.
Of course, you must be wondering how Dylan and I can walk under such harsh weather conditions: snow, subzero temperatures turned murderous by the constant presence of the Hawk flying in from the frozen lakes of Minnesota and Wisconsin: yes, the return of the Polar Express. Well, we have a nice little sweater for Dylan as well as his red bandana tied rakishly around his scruffy neck. I have a wonderful leather coat the just covers my butt and is lined with some sort of cold resistant cloth. I also have my Cubs hat, ear muffs, thick gloves and a black mask I wear that completely covers my face when the Hawk comes screaming from the north. We are both warm.
I’ve been able to go out more and more without my cane and can now stand for nearly a quarter of an hour. This is all lovely, exciting and a rather exquisite punch to the panther’s solar plexus. I am lighter, happier, humorous and more committed to things I couldn’t commit before. I am now on the board of the National Gun Victims Action Council, working on a justice project through my Unitarian-Universalist Church and working with the Socialist Party USA. I feel that I’ve returned to the world.
You know what’s coming in a way that I, in my exalted state of mind, did not. You’d be right to think that someone from a bit of Irish descent would be, at least partially, aware of the possibility of a looming potato famine. Yes, but in feeling better and better I began to rely, in retrospect, on a none too large helping of denial. And denial, unlike revenge, is a dish best served warm and lusty.
However…cliché aside, history, much to our correspondent’s dismay, does, indeed, repeat itself. Let’s return to our correspondent who is now lying on his back in the mouth of an alley a block from his new digs in Lincoln Park. Minutes before he headed to the coffee shop a few blocks from his apartment our correspondent realized quickly that being out in zero weather with the Hawk’s Arctic wings beating frostbite, that he’d never be able to last more than a minute or two without his balaclava ski mask.
Without hesitation he turned around to walk home. The hawk instantly pounced: its icy talons threatened to slice the skin from his face. With his computer bag securely over his shoulder, he held both gloved hands over his face to stop the pain. Walking gingerly since most buildings didn’t shovel the snow from their sidewalks he headed home. Looking down for the icy menace, his right leg flew upwards followed closely by the left and he watched his feet fly above his head before falling like a dead weight to the ice slicked sidewalk.
Dazed for a few moments he lay on the ice looking up at the snow pregnant clouds closing in above. With the ice beginning to make itself known through his jeans, he slowly got up, readjusted his computer bag and painfully and angrily walked in the middle of the streets the last 2 blocks home. After surveying the damage at home, at his insistence, his wife drove him to the coffee shop where he now sits writing this.
It’s little trials like this that so easily puncture a fledgling hope for continuing good health confined to a body that can be so easily upended and damaged. Though I was feeling better and more hopeful my doc suggested I invest in a third surgery on my right shoulder. I told him a few weeks ago that I was going back to the gym, for the first time in a decade, where I would slowly try to rehabilitate the bugger. However, this fall two hours ago was partially cushioned by landing on my right arm. You guessed it. I can barely type due to the pain and know well that I’m going to have to go in for my 16th surgery.
Feeling well and nurturing hope is a fragile enterprise, especially as we know our bodies can and will betray us in blink of a panthers eye. Right now I’m a bit numb to the anger frenetically dancing around my head. It’s there in all its hope killing glory. My hope is that writing this will help tame the anger and the pain panther. And underneath all of this, especially the two falls on ice in the last 1 ½ years, I’m gazing my age right in the dark of its eyes. Am I falling because I’ve been away from this kind of weather for two decades or am I, because of age and disability, not as balanced as I once was?
I purposely waited a few weeks before finishing this post. Why? Will that fall in the alley be the setback I imagined? The answer, as we all have come to know in questions regarding our bodies, is yes, to a degree, and no to an equal degree to the dystopian future I feared.
Yes, I now have an increase in pain in my back. But my mood of lightness and humor has not taken the hit it could have. You might be surprised to read that I believe my diminished time in the woods with the pain panther over the last 5 or 6 months is developing a life of its own. As the panther circled wider away from me, my overall mood lightened. That lightness has carried me through this downturn and, I hope, through the trial of yet another surgery.
But know this: what comes next may be the product of the last 6 months, or the awareness that comes with age, and, as in most things, probably a combination of the two and other factors with which I remain oblivious. I now feel the transience of pain, painlessness, health, of trials, and ultimately me. Of course, I knew this intellectually, but now, for reasons I’ve just stated, I know.
Transience: impermanence; the inevitability of dying.
A strange awakening coming with feeling better…The definition of transience used to piss me off. Not anymore. It’s the guarantor of rhythm, dance, song, connection, pain, loss, love and life.
With transience comes the sweetness of moments.
I’m pleased to have joined the village of Impermanence.
May your arrival here come sans a thud on the ice.