For an audio recording (podcast) of this story, click here.
By the time I went into surgery on July 19th(2007), I had completed my trips to San Antonio, Austin, Malibu, and St. Petersburg, Russia. In fact, it was my trip to Russia that tipped the scales in favor of surgery. At the time, the scales not only tipped, but fell over and broke. I had been dealing with pain in some form almost constantly since the early days of my stress fracture—18 months ago, a year an a half. It was time to take aggressive measures.
Still, looking back on the time, events, and, most of all, my decisions in the months between the day I rolled into surgery and the first twinge of pain in early 2006 haunt me with dreams that won’t leave me alone, ghosts asking questions that I can’t answer: “When did the nerves in your foot first begin to lose control? What confused them?”
I whisper, “I don’t know.”
But a ghost yanks me up, glaring into my eyes, “Yes, you do! You waited three, even four months before you got help for the pain. What if you’d gone to the doctor within two or three weeks? Wouldn’t the fracture have healed faster with less pain? We wouldn’t even be having this conversation.”
I shake my head, “I can’t know for sure.”
“That’s what the doctors say, but you know—you know you do. What about the day you made that split-second decision in the boat? The day you hit your foot and fell into the water? Didn’t it reopen the fracture? piss off the nerves again? And still you waited weeks to get it checked.”
“Maybe it never healed from the first time.”
Another ghost interrupts,“So it was still hurting but you didn’t say anything? You didn’t ask for an X-ray?”
By now, I don’t know what to say.
But the ghost doesn’t stop: “So let me ask you, after it healed, just how much did it really hurt? Did it hurt as much as you claimed? Was it so bad that you really needed to go back to the doctor and run those tests? Don’t you remember, the nerve study didn’t show any big problems? Compared to now, how much did it hurt then?”
The ghost nails me with this question, “No, the pain is much worse today.”
“Then you traveled everywhere, even flew away to Russia. And when you get there you were too proud to tell anyone about your problem. You had options. You didn’t have to take all those tours or do all that walking, but you did it anyway. You made the pain worse. It’s your own fault.”
A third ghost finishes the nightmare, “Tell me. Did you really need to have surgery? Isn’t it true that without that surgery you’d be okay today?”
I can’t agree with that claim, but I also can’t disagree. It could be true. But how was I supposed to know what to do? During those two years, my life at home wasn’t easy, and my work was long and stressful. I traveled to escape the stress and help pay the bills at home. I didn’t have time to run to the doctor for what appeared to be nothing. And how could I possibly know when the nerves began to lose their bearings? The confusion may have started in the early weeks of 2006 with the original stress fracture—and from that time on, nothing else mattered. Nothing was going to stop the pain: not healing the bone, re-healing it after my fall into the water, or surgery to take pressure off the nerve. Or the confusion and discomfort could have begun at any of these times—or any day between them. How was I supposed to know what to do, or when to do it?
More important, how are we to know when a decision will change the rest of our lives? or how to make that decision? As we experience the aches and pains of life and aging, how do we distinguish what’s normal from what’s abnormal? How do we avoid becoming like my dad, a tough, stubborn carpenter who never willingly went to a doctor: only the day he shot a nail through his arm and couldn’t pull it out himself, but not when he fell from a roof and landed on the rocks. He woke up in time to refuse the paramedics and drove himself home. Or how do we avoid becoming hypochondriacs like a friend of mine from my hometown who over a four-week period was convinced she had five different types of cancer (cancer of the bladder, uterus, colon, mouth, and throat), each time desperate to get to the emergency room for treatment. What are we supposed to do? Sometimes our response doesn’t seem to matter at all, but at other times it’s the difference between life and death. How are we to know when it matters and what is the right thing to do? Is it possible to live without the ghosts?
When I wake from my dream, I eventually come to the same conclusion: No. I don’t think it’s possible for us to live in such a way that ghosts from the past will not haunt us at night. We are human, not gods. A god may be able to look at the present moment and see the end of each decision. But we don’t possess the vision of a god. We are limited by what we can see, feel, sense, and know—now, in this present moment. Perhaps the only time we can be certain is when we look back on the past. But even then, our lives are too complex to know precisely which cause led to which result and precisely when our destiny was set. As much as we would like to know, we can’t. And honestly, as alluring as it may sound, I’m not sure we really want to know: that if we marry, within ten years we will divorce; if we have a child, she will die young; or if we go out dancing tonight we will be critically injured and never walk again. If I could have seen ten years into the future, to see what I look like today, sensed all the pain, and noticed all that has changed—the vision would have destroyed me. The weight of the future is too much for a mortal to carry. It’s an anchor that would hold us in place, chains of fear that would never allow us to venture out of our comfort zone, much less take a risk. In other words, knowing the future would rob us of the present.
The best we can do is live in the moment and do the best we can, knowing that we will live with ghosts (and people) who will second-guess us for the rest of our lives. It comes down to weighing our options and making our best decision in the moment. For me, looking back, I can see a chance that surgery might have resolved my pain. And I can see the possibility that nothing would help or that surgery might even escalate what was already in motion. No matter what I did, the pain would get worse. So I am at peace (most days) because, faced with these same options today, I’d choose surgery again.
—to be continued—
Excerpt from a working manuscript, A Fire in My Bones: A Memoir of Life with CRPS (copyright Glenn Pemberton).
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Glenn Pemberton is a minister turned professor turned writer. After serving churches in Texas and Colorado, Glenn completed a Ph.D. (Old Testament). He then taught at Oklahoma Christian University before coming to Abilene Christian University in 2005, retiring as professor emeritus in 2017 due to a severe chronic pain. Glenn now spends his time writing for the church. Along with short essays he has published four books, including The God who Saves: An Introduction to the Message of the Old Testament (2015), and Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms (2012). Glenn and his wife Dana continue to live in Abilene, Texas.