As I move through a complex and complicated healing process, I draw from Buddhist wisdom
I am, or at least was, an athlete. After twelve fabulous years doing seriously badass adventure travel all over the world, my body is up on blocks for some major work. I had a choice to stretch it out over years, but I chose instead to get the whole shebang- both hands, both feet, serious damage and arthritis- fixed, all in one year.
There was a bit of an inkling about what was coming but I'm a fast healer. I didn't plan for complications, and there are complications. You deal, right?
It seems like every single day something else gets taken away. Just about the time I get used to being upright and mobile for a month after foot surgery, I have hand surgery. Then shortly after that I have another foot surgery.
Now, as I heal from what is now four surgeries on all my extremities and a shattered knee cap, my hands have decided to form hard, painful cysts on the insides of each thumb, making it nearly impossible to grasp anything. And I am already only on one foot, balancing on a scooter to get around.
I happen to find all this very funny, even though it is also all very painful. Foot and hand surgery offends a lot of nerves, and it would be hard to describe the kind of daily discomfort that I am juggling.
Worse, I have to use a walker, a scooter, crutches, all of them dependent upon the very hands that are now in severe pain from the cysts. One foot is freshly in a boot, and within two days I will have yet another surgery rendering my left hand useless for two weeks. Then the same surgery on my right hand, rendering that useless for two weeks.
I have a house to manage, laundry, cooking, cleaning, all of it. Got to get that done, parts or no parts down. However, a little dust on the floor won't harm anyone, but I do kinda need to eat once in a while. And bathe. And, well, you know.
You see my dilemma. I have no family, no partner and no funds for extra help. I am damned glad I've worked out for fifty years and also that I know how to plan my house and my world for being limited. That includes practicing getting in and out of a tub using only one hand and one foot.
Up and off the toilet without landing on the floor.
I have stopped asking what else could go wrong because I am likely to find out.
What does this have to do with Vietnamese monks?
The great Buddhist monk, teacher, writer and peace activist Thích Nhất Hạnh wrote one of my favorite books twenty-four years ago: The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy, and Liberation.
That book has pride of place where I can pick it up, stick a random finger in it and read something profound for the day. One of my favorite quotes of his is about "non-toothache:"
“When you have a toothache, you call your dentist and ask for an emergency appointment to relieve your pain. You know deeply at that point that not having a toothache is happiness. Yet later, when you don’t have a toothache, you forget and do not treasure your non-toothache.”
Each time I have the use of a foot, a shoulder, a hand, anything that I have heretofore taken for granted taken away for a time, I am reminded of this quote.
This week I have to prepare yet again for "useless-hand." That means significant challenges with balance, safety and moving my scooter in and out of a bus designed for our mobility, while being unable to hold both handles. The other hand is in a lot of pain, too, so that is also "useless-hand."
I've been invited both to laugh at this situation as well as come to deeply appreciate those moments when things work.
I've learned to have great and abiding love for those hours, and they are very rare, when I experience "non-pain."
I had a month of being able to walk. I'd not walked since October of last year, and the joy of having both legs working even if just for four weeks was over the moon for me. I hiked the sandy beaches, went horseback riding and generally celebrated having the use of most of my body, even with one hand down.
Right now I am deeply appreciating being able to pull up my Lycra workout pants with two hands. They hurt like hell, but they work. That's going to be a lot harder after Wednesday. I've not been able to do buttons, zippers, clasps or hooks and eyes for months. Bras? Very funny. I'm lucky to tie a shoe.
This January, as I have written elsewhere, Eugene-based writer Cai Emmons' life ended after a two-year battle with Lou Gherig's disease, or ALS. Like other types of neurodegenerative diseases, it steadily robs you of your ability to eat, talk, walk, everything. There is no getting better; there is only managing the process from which there is no return.
Emmons wrote about her condition with the kind of wise hilarity which endeared her to readers like me. I have a way back. She didn't. All she had was her ability to appreciate what she had today, because tomorrow, ALS might take something new away. That's a guarantee.
For now, at least, that's not my future. I'll heal, most likely, and according to my foot doctor, the future of my adventure travel is wide open. Hands? We don't know yet. Even if I don't get full use again, I can revel in being able to do most things.
In fact, there's a damned good likelihood that sometime next year- after the last of the PT and all the rest- I will be back in the saddle, if not sooner. Cai didn't have that option. She continued to write, laugh, love and live in the face of her awful diagnosis.
She also understood that being right here, right now, was the best it was going to EVER be for her.
Just like realizing that right here right now, is the youngest you will EVER be, no matter what you and I do.
I hear people complain all the time about all kinds of things without having any idea of what they already have. Most of us live in the kind of relative comfort and luxury which makes us kings compared to most of the developing world where I've traveled. It's not until you are out of work and homeless that you appreciate when you had a home, no matter how humble it might have been.
Right about the time I want to complain about something, I remember how wonderful it is to have non-toothache. Given my dental history, you can trust me to say I really appreciate it. More than you can possibly imagine.
I appreciate a lot of other things too: non-debt collector, non-evil boss, non-(fill in the blank). Whatever you and I have had to go through that was bad and is no longer here, let's appreciate.
But let's also appreciate what we do have: life. Life. The chance to be in it and breathe in, take in what we can. For tomorrow there may well be non-life for us, as there was for Thích Nhất Hạnh, who finally died at the ripe old age of 95.
Wherever he is now, he is celebrating non-life.
Let's celebrate life while we have it.
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