Well, we’re on day four here at the beach and my busted wing has finally settled back down to its pre-trip pain level; a four or five in the morning, up to a six or seven by the evening, depending on the amount of time spent in a sitting position. I’m holding at a five right now, despite the car trip with my sister to the urgent care clinic this morning for tetanus shots. Amusingly, we both needed one – her for a nasty cut she got opening a can and me from getting bit by a dog.
Yep, you read that right. I got bitten by a french bulldog in the elevator last night on our way out to dinner.
It was nowhere near the worst bite I’ve ever gotten. During my years working with domesticated and research animals I’ve sustained countless scratches and bites from a variety of species. Administering health care to animals is a bit like giving it to toddlers, except the toddlers have claws, canine teeth, and exceptional muscle strength. Every so often, an animal decides he’s not communicating his displeasure effectively enough with the struggling and vocalizing and lays his teeth onto you.
But all of my training in that arena conveniently failed to surface, of course, as I bent down to let a couple of strange dogs sniff my hand in a crowded elevator. The first one was quite friendly, and I thus was unprepared for the second to snarl, leap at my outstretched hand and hit it with two warning bites in quick succession. It was only then that the years of experience kicked in, and I stayed where I was, leaving my hand in the dog’s mouth. Not feeling any resistance and having effectively halted my approach, the dog let go instead of biting down, and we moved away from each other, neither of us much worse for the wear.
This all happened in the space of less than a second. The owner was less apologetic than he should have been, but it was so fast, it’s entirely possible he didn’t even realize I’d been bitten. Either way, he should have said something before I knelt down to introduce myself to his pets, but then again, I’ve been around animals for too long not to have thought twice about thrusting my hand into the face of a strange dog trapped in the corner of a full elevator.
I surreptitiously checked the dogs’ collars as we spilled out into the lobby, and each had a colored rabies tag clinking merrily against a silver ID medallion, indicating a recent vaccination. I had been doubly lucky, then, in that it was a a vaccinated dog that had dispensed with my proffered pleasantries. The bite was so minor, in fact, that I didn’t even realize it had broken the skin (barely) until the man and his furry pals were long gone.
My family, however, not having the same animal experience as me, made a much bigger fuss, my father threatening to have “a word” with the guy when he came back from taking the pooches for their evening walk. I reassured them that not all dog bites are the same and that this one really was no big deal, showing them the curve of bloodless indentations in my hand as proof.
That would have been the end of it, except that it’s been so long since I’ve worked with animals that my last tetanus was at least a few years ago. The family insisted I go in for a booster the following morning, and I took one look at my sister’s hand and advised her to do the same. So off we went, driving into town at 9 AM to spend a little quality time in the vigorously air-conditioned waiting area of the local clinic.
While I had intended to spend some extra time with my sister this vacation, chatting in the lobby of an urgent care facility wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind. Nonetheless, it was a chance to catch up, and we decided we might as well go for pancakes afterwards, too, since we were out and about anyway. Ensconced in the booth of a nearby diner, we sipped coffee as she talked about her family, and her as yet unrealized desire to add a dog to it, my recent run-in notwithstanding. I took the opportunity to thank her for driving us to the clinic and vent my frustration at my complete and total uselessness with regards to the whole vacation.
She wasn’t having any of it. “It’s not your usefulness that makes people like you,” she cut in. “We like you for you, no matter what.”
“Yes,” I agreed, “but it’s my usefulness that makes me like me.”
And there it is. Other people like me just fine, useful, useless, it doesn’t matter to them. This obsession with wanting to be something besides scenery on our vacation is all on me.
Here I thought the lesson from this injury was supposed to be my utter powerlessness over the things that happen to me and my inability to control the world around me. But it seems that I am also being tested on how well I learn to like me just for me; not because of the things I do, but because of who I am. As another friend reminded me last week, “This,” she said, gesturing towards the outline of my body, “this is just an envelope. Everyone has a messed-up envelope. It’s what’s inside that matters.”
It’s the truth. Despite the fact that the houses for our souls are living, breathing entities, and that our existence would be impossible without them, many of us think of them as separate from “who we are,” and it’s often to our benefit. It’s only recently, since my personal house took a major hit to the northeastern wing, that I’ve realized how much I identify myself by the broken frame that carts me around. I still can’t escape a feeling of shame about it, as though it were a car with a busted fender that I just hadn’t bothered to fix, despite the cracked plastic and strange scraping sound every time I make a right turn.
To be fair, progress has been made. I’ve figured out how to distill my injury into a few sentences for interested parties without minimizing. Phrases such as “chronic pain,” “seventh doctor,” and “nerve injury,” are enough to satisfy the politely curious, where as “they don’t know,” is a suitable reply for the impolitely curious inquiring what it is, how it happened, and/or if it can be fixed.
Furthermore, I’m getting used to casual observers seeing me as a physically impaired person. I’m no longer self-conscious about using a handicapped parking space and hanging the red handicap tag from my rearview mirror. I’m able to ask a stranger to get something off of a high shelf in the grocery store or hold open a door for me as I go about my business. I’ll take a handful of pills in public if I happen to be in public when it’s time to take them.
So I think it’s fair to say I’ve adjusted to the outward appearance of my present disabled state. But the most important parts, the inner rooms, are still decorated for a different owner; a physically well owner; someone who can run and jump and swim and throw herself into lots of activities. That owner doesn’t seem to realize she doesn’t live here any more, and still frets at the changes and doubts the new truths that have come to be revealed. Like the fact that she and I are one and the same, and the trappings don’t matter nearly as much as either of us thinks they do.
How to convince myself of this? I don’t know. If I did know, I could probably write a book about it and sell billions of copies. I do feel as though I’m getting closer, but there remains an uncomfortable sense of fumbling around a dark room with poorly placed furniture. Is this the right chair? Or was it the one I just tripped over? Or is this a chair at all? Am I even supposed to be looking for a chair, or something else entirely?
Animals don’t carry around this kind of baggage. They see a situation, reference their prior experience with it (or lack thereof), and take action accordingly. They don’t hem and haw. They don’t go back over the situation time and again and try to figure out how it would have gone differently if they’d done something else. And they certainly don’t spend hours fretting about what the other participants in the situation might think about the action they took.
I need to be more like the animals I used to work with; just accept my response to a given situation as my best option given the information at hand, and move on. My response to this trip has been a lot of maintaining a horizontal position while things go on around me. However I or anyone else might feel about that, that is my best option given the information at hand, which is that if I try to do any one thing for too long, I will exhaust myself and the pain in my shoulder will shoot up from annoying to unbearable.
There’s no point in trying to figure out what would be happening if I tried to ignore the pain and fatigue and do more pitching in with things like unpacking and running errands. There’s nothing to be gained from worrying about what my family might be thinking behind their protests of concern and willingness to go out of their way for me. And there’s certainly no reward to be found in trying to see if I can change their thinking in any way, because, as I have [hopefully] already learned, I can’t.
The only person’s thinking I can change is my own. The people and animals around me are going to think what they’re going to think and do what they’re going to do and it doesn’t matter how – or how long – I think about it. If I applied even a fraction of the energy I spend worrying about such things to my own mental state, I might be able to enjoy the recognition that on the inside, I am a good and likable woman, whether or not I perceive myself as being helpful to anyone.
I may not have the blessed simplicity that comes with claws and teeth, but I have self-awareness. It’s not supposed to be a weapon, even though we bite ourselves with it more often than not. It’s a tool, and I need to start using it on this home improvement project I’ve been working on for the last several months. Me and that version of me that used to be well; we’ll work on it together.