My surgery is scheduled for four days from now. I spent my spare post-holiday hours drilling down on the research, gathering what few common factors I could glean from the various case studies. I brought my resulting bevy of questions in for my surgeon last week. To his credit, he answered them thoughtfully (although of course in favor of the surgery), but more important, he assured me that even if it doesn’t work, I’ll be no worse off than I am now.
I’m still not completely convinced, but I just don’t have the energy any more to engage the universe in useless scrabbles over the course my life is taking. So I acquiesced. And despite my considerable misgivings, I’m already slipping on the dangerous rink of making plans for when I’m well again.
This past week, I have been shadowing a PhD in the graduate lab I will be applying to, and it has only increased my eagerness to get in there and get started. The lab is my new boyfriend I thought to myself as I scampered down the hallway for a package of 10 mL tubes. I feel like I have a crush on it. I woke up Friday morning at 5 AM planning to go in at 8:00, despite too little sleep all week and abominable pain.
Fortunately, I have learned to second-guess my more self-destructive impulses, so I was able to turn off the alarm clock and sleep for another couple of hours. After all, there was no point in going in early; I only had one thing to do, and no-one cared when (or quite possibly if, as everyone is wrapped up in their own business) I did it. The P.I. (Principal Investigator; i.e. rock star) himself doesn’t usually show up until 10 or 11 this time of year. And sure enough, when I entered the lab bull pen at a quarter to ten with a container of cookies (just in case), the cookies were of far greater import than the timing of my appearance.
But I was surprised that I’d gone to bed the night before automatically preparing to march right back into that lab first thing in the morning on my fifth night in a row of less than six hours sleep. I’d already stayed late three out of the previous four days (including a snow day, when there were only two of us left in the entire building). My old habit of jumping in with both feet and the attached wagon is apparently alive and well; I can practically see it straining at the tie-off, waiting for me to cut it loose again. And with my brain already intoxicated by nips from the bottle of “I’ll be better after the surgery,” no doubt a whole host of my other Type-A personality traits are already lining up, clamoring to be the next one to slip into its old groove.
As troubling as that is, though, it still feels manageable. In fact, I’m grateful for the reminder that I will need to be on my guard if/when I start feeling better. It’s been easy to avoid burning the candle at both ends this past year; the consequences were always immediate and dire, and even though I didn’t learn right away, I learned quickly enough. It will be much harder to maintain my self-care regimen when those consequences once again take weeks to develop. But now that I know how close to the surface those old patterns are, I can plan. I can prepare. I can know what will happen if I’m not careful, and take steps to avoid it.
But there’s no planning or arranging around the tsunami of fear that is making its way towards me as the date closes in. I’ve never had a major surgery before, but I’ve seen it enough times (granted, in animals) to know that the anesthesia is usually the most dangerous component. I’ve never been under general anesthesia, and the different ways in which it can go wrong keep popping up in my head like fireflies, intermittent, appearing where I least expect them, fading only as another lights up a few feet away.
Then there’s the procedure itself – they will be resecting bone, for goodness’ sake – and no matter what the outcome, there will be a lot more pain before there is less. I will be well and truly immobilized for a few weeks, and it will be at another few months after that (at least) before I will be strong enough for normal activities, if it works.
And then there’s that.
If it works.
I want to hope that it will, but I don’t dare. Because it might not. Or, worse, it might work for a little while and then the pain will come back. Or even a long while, like a few years, before reasserting itself – how cruel would that be? I know there’s nothing to be gained from thoughts like those, but there’s not much left in the bag of coping mechanisms I had before all this happened. I need to feel I am doing something to keep the demons at bay.
So I’m trying to prepare myself for the crushing blow any one of those possibilities would entail. Experience tells me that this type of proactive effort rarely yields perceptible results, but faced with the uncertainty to end all uncertainties, I don’t know what else to do. I don’t know what will happen next. The obscurity is so thick and encompassing that I don’t even know in which direction I’m pointed. And that is more terrifying than anything that has happened thus far.
Most of the time, we don’t have to face up to the fact that we never know what is going to happen to us from one moment to the next. This is because most of our existence is fairly reliable, like a sunset, or the feel of a door knob, or the strains of a familiar song. None of those things are going to stop being what they were yesterday. We cloak ourselves in the familiarity and our routines, and take comfort in taking them for granted, and we feel safe.
What little routine I’ve been able to cobble together is already coming apart. As the medications wear off, and the withdrawal symptoms compound the increase in pain, my ability to do even the small handful of things I can still do for myself will taper accordingly. Then comes the surgery, and with it, that giant, gaping, unknowableness.
I do not know how I will think or feel. I do not know if I will be grateful or angry, elated or despondent. I do not know if the surgery will work. I do not know if I will be able to take my last class this semester before I graduate. I do not know if I will be able to pursue the graduate program I so recently set my heart on. I do not know if I will still be handicapped or not. I do not know – I cannot even guess – what my life will be like starting four days from now, and it’s so utterly paralyzing to even consider it that if I pull down what’s left of the barricade standing between me and that fear, I do not know if I will be strong enough to go through with the surgery at all.
Of course, none of us know what the future holds for us, beyond a few days or even a few hours. But we don’t think about it much, until we have to. And now I have nothing else to think about. And I’m so, so scared. I don’t know how I will keep the fear in check once the pain medications wear off.
Maybe the pain will take up so much room in my existence that there won’t be room for anything but getting from one moment to the next. How strange to think I might be grateful for such a thing.
How strange my life has been, and I know, one thing I do know, is that it’s not done being strange yet. The tsunami is coming. I hope I can be strong. I hope I still know how to swim.