Sunday, December 25, 2016

The Little Drummer Boy and the Carol of the Coyotes

This cold, wet night is better suited for October than December; Halloween instead of Christmas.
But there can be no doubt. This is Christmas Eve, incontrovertibly the night when Christians the world over celebrate the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the foundation stone of their entire belief system.

Perhaps that is why people like me find ourselves so baffled on December 24th. Christmas is a holiday rooted deeply in belief, both individual and cultural.

As a child, I believed. 

Christmas was a time of magic and wonder, and Christmas Eve was the night when all the small magics of childhood come together in a breathless kind of anticipation. Will Santa come? Will I get that doll/game/book/toy I asked for? Or does he know about the time I locked my three-year-old brother in the bathroom with the tub running. I’m sure Mom told him about that. She never forgets anything. As a result, Santa Claus doesn’t either.

Was there anything ever so delicious as slipping in between cool sheets with the heaviness of blankets and comforter, determined to stay awake so you could hear the hooves of the reindeer as Santa landed on the roof? How one moment, you were straining to hear Santa’s arrival and the next you were opening your eyes and finding that somehow, incredibly, it was Christmas morning?

But those are the happenings of childhood, when everything was possible.

As adults, that magic is lost.

For a decade, I didn’t have Christmases with my family. Any of my family. I created Christmas for my friends whose families had disowned them. The gay community was at its craziest, most frenzied pace during the 1990s. Especially around the holidays. We drank and danced and dared each other to think longingly of the Christmases of our childhood, and tried to create our own magic without the fallacy of Santa Claus and the unforgiving families we'd left behind. I wasn’t gay, but they didn’t care. I invited them all to my table—young and old, well and sick, forgotten and forbidden, and we created our own family.

A family for a day.

But that family, like the first, has fallen into the past.

Now I stand alone on the back deck, while behind me my family sleeps. My husband, secure in the home of his parents, sleeps soundly in our bed. But I can’t. My father is eight hours to the south; my oldest daughter eight hours to the east; my youngest daughter half an hour and a world of anger away. My children now have children, and they already sleep—seven little souls worn out with their own effort to stay awake for Santa. Seven little souls secure in the belief that on Christmas Eve, magic happens. My daughters are busily being Santa, arranging gifts under the tree and anticipating the morning madness.

The simple drama of Christmas, enacted by players who know their roles in the world of that personal and distinctly unique thrill of the holiday. 

And yet...

I once again find myself alone on Christmas Eve, but I don’t mind this aloneness as once I did.

The night is wild and wet, the wind whistling through branches stripped bare from a sudden and violent slide into autumn, and now face the winter with stoic desperation. The air stings against my skin, softly singing a susurrus of sovereign solitude. But I hear another song, a song I've rarely witnessed. I hurry to the rail of the deck in the corner nearest the forest, and I wait in silence for the song to begin once more. 

And it does.

Not too far from here, in the ravine near the spring, coyotes are singing as well. Their song isn’t lonely, but proud and autonomous. Not the Christmas carols we all sing, but just as sacred and far more rare.

You know, even as an adult I find that some Christmas carols bring tears to my eyes. The Little Drummer Boy always gets me. The imagery on its own is so perfectly expressed.

Little baby
I am a poor boy too
I have no gift to bring
That's fit to give our King
Shall I play for you
On my drum

Mary nodded
The ox and lamb kept time
I played my drum for Him
I played my best for Him
Then He smiled at me
Me and my drum

Think of a child who has nothing but a drum—no parents, no friends, no school. His drum is the only thing that stands between him and starvation, and his ability to play that drum is the only company the child has. So when he finds himself standing beside the manger where the newborn Christ lies on his bedding of straw, he feels compelled to give the infant a gift. He can’t compete with the gold, frankincense, and myrrh the three wise men bring. He gives the baby the only thing he can—he shares his talent. Playing the drum is his gift, and the Christ child smiled.

I’ve never been able to sing the whole song through. Every Christmas I try, and every Christmas I fail. For anyone who is both blessed and burdened with a creative talent, the imagery hits too close to home. Anytime you share your talent, it’s a breathless, terrifying sort of gift. Not everyone can understand what you’re giving them. Not everyone values it. But then you reach that one person, a total stranger, who experiences your gift and is grateful that you gave it.

And for that one, paralyzing moment, you are no longer alone.

Like me, now, standing in the dark, cold corner of the back deck. It no longer matters that my family is scattered over four states. It no longer matters that I, alone, am awake and welcoming the midnight’s ominous silence. For I am not alone. Instead, I listen to the coyotes caroling deep in the ravine, and as their voices rise into the heavens the clouds break apart and reveal an arctic
night’s sky. The stars are icy, their light static and brittle. The moon is still hiding her argent face from the field and woods beneath her.
And I? I am breathless with the wonder of the moment. This moment is a gift. I don’t know who gives such a thing to me. Maybe I’m fool enough to think it something significant instead of just a completely random jumble of occurrences. But for now, it’s mine and mine alone. No one else is experiencing this, so it must be meant for me.
A gift…and a lesson. I am not alone. I have never been alone. I have chosen before to keep myself aloof—apart—and therefore safe in my isolation. I have been the coyote singing a wild song to the aurora borealis…not because I saw the northern lights, but because I believed they was there.
Now the clock chimes midnight, and it is Christmas Day. The coyotes have fallen silent, and the skies have clouded back over. A rain that’s more solid than liquid has driven me back into the warm silence of the house. The kittens are curled up in their basket, and my husband still sleeps.
Leaving me to ponder the gift of knowledge Christmas gave me, and the strange gratitude I have for the perfect serendipity that led me outside, hurting and alone, so that some providence could remind me of the true miracle of Christmas.

I am never alone.
Merry Christmas.

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Post-Op Thoughts: Creativity Vanquishes Pain

I have three-quarters of a million dollars invested into my spine, but that's not the most expensive aspect of the injury that started me on this road to disaster.

Chronic pain in general and chronic back pain in particular are so all-encompassing. Every aspect of your life is impacted--mostly by taking things away. When I was in the car wreck that blew up my spine fourteen years ago, I had an extremely active lifestyle. Swimming, scuba, hiking, off-trail hiking, rock climbing, bicycling...all activities I loved. All gone now. I would walk 1-2 miles a day. The furthest I've been able to walk for the past four years is a block.

Half a block for the past year or more.

I do all my shopping online so it can be delivered. I haven't been in a brick and mortar store shopping in two years at least--mostly because even though I can't walk in WalMart, I don't think it's right for me to take the little carts away from people who "really" need them. And then I get pissed when I see people who don't really need them zipping through the aisles like it's a NASCAR race.

I can't pick up anything heavier than a gallon of milk. Been that way since 2012. And, of course, I ignore that rule when there are grandbabies or cats involved.

Or my laptop.

As a writer and editor, I spend the majority of my time on the computer. But I cannot sit up for longer than half an hour at a time, so I have learned how to awkwardly write with the laptop perched too high on my abdomen.

Basic life activities are gone--driving a car, for example. If I slipped behind the wheel of my PT Cruiser now, I'd automatically be guilty of an OMVI because of the medications I'm on. Housework is out save for a few easy chores and the ones I've figured out how to do by sliding around the house on my butt. As you can imagine, my baseboards are immaculate. The crown molding, not so much. I can fold laundry, as long as the basket is brought to me. For the rest, I've learned some life hacks but my house makes me fussy because it's not the way I like it to be or feel.

Now I am six days out of another major back surgery, and once again lying on my mother-in-law's couch while I fret and worry and wonder for the umpteenth time: "Will this one actually work? Will I get that life back I enjoyed so much? Or will this be just another patch-up job that raises my hopes and then destroys them, leaving me to fight out of the depression that came after the last four-five-six surgeries?"

There's no way to answer that. With the type of bizarre condition in my spine, the success or failure of this procedure won't be known for months--six months before it's official according to my spinal surgeon. But I'll know sooner.

I know--you're sitting there, reading this and thinking that I'm whining. And you're right; I am whining. Hard not to, if I'm being honest. But my whining doesn't lead to me lying in bed, feebly asking my mother-in-law for cups of coffee or just one more cupcake. (She knows me too well. That's why the cupcakes are here.) When I'm told to walk a half hour every day, I walk an hour. When I'm assigned exercises to do in bed every four hours, I do them every three hours. I push myself, always, to supersede my doctor's expectations.

For example, in order to get released from the orthopedic hospital I was in, patients had to walk 150 feet. I went 125 feet two hours after I got into my room post-surgery. Just like an athlete striving to improve their strength or agility, I know that for every extra foot, every additional effort, the healing will be faster and more thorough. I never do too much, but I never settle for just enough either.

My lot in life has been bizarre, and is certainly not helped by the piece of broken hardware in my spine that if it shifts can either kill or paralyze me without warning. No one could have anticipated the butcher job that took place during my first back surgery in 2006--when a surgeon put the wrong sized artificial disc into my lumbar spine, had to pry it out, and in the process of hammering the correct size prosthesis into place with a sledge hammer broke it and started this fourteen year spiral of doom. No one believed me for six years when my pain worsened instead of improved. I was treated as if I was a drug addict, looking for a bigger fix. Not until I got an infection at that same level did anyone finally diagnose the real problem--and in the process reveal that the artificial disc had been shredding my spinal column and could not be removed. The prosthetic was inserted from the front, and was now insinuated between arteries on the front and my spinal cord on the back. The subsequent fusions weren't done to 'fix' my spine, but to keep that artificial disc from killing me.

And after the gazillionth back procedure in four years, it turned out that the fusion intended to secure that broken artificial disc was also broken.

It's hard for anyone to look ahead at their life and accept that regardless of what they do, regardless if they do exactly what the doctor tells them, all the parts of their life they particularly loved are a permanent thing of the past. But there's an aspect of healing I possess that many of my disabled peers do not. An outlet.

Creativity is both a blessing and a curse. It's a curse because your parents were right. "You can't earn a living writing stories. That's just a pipe dream."

And for most people, it is. A debut author's first book is released, and when it doesn't sell they give up. Mentally, they've made the transition from "anyone can write a book" to "I am a failure as a writer" and they don't try again.

But creativity is also a blessing. For one thing, you're running around with your characters in your mind, watching their story unfold and finding a way to share it with your readers. For another, people with the right personality traits (for me it's being damn stubborn) are taught not to give up. Ever. Sure, the odds of me being able to walk much more than a block for the rest of my life are pretty much non-existent, but I have made the choice not to let that define who I am. I live vicariously through my words, and create new worlds that both intrigue and challenge not only my characters but myself.

And all of this led me down a path that once was closed to me, and brought me to Charlie Burris and the Orange & White Report--writing articles and features about college football when I was told during college that there was no place for women journalists in sports--unless they covered ice skating or gymnastics. Plus every Saturday, I get to interact with the other O&W writers and argue or theorize or analyze football games while they're ongoing. That transforms me from a woman old enough to be their mother lying in a huge back brace in Ohio to a sports journalist, and fulfills a long-ago dream of mine in the process.

In the end, then, my overriding thought after my fourth major back surgery in ten years would have been applicable whether I regain the life I missed or continue in the life I've had.

1. My spine cannot restrict my mind.
2. My world is much, much more than the four walls that I am usually trapped within.
3. My life is not over; it's richer and rewarding beyond my expectations thanks to the people I interact with every day online.
4. Never give up on your dreams and ambitions.
5. It's 11:14 am and Florida still sucks.

So don't feel sorry for me; I don't feel sorry for myself. And as you look at your life and the things you wanted but didn't get, don't think those things are past you either. Life or circumstance don't dictate your destiny--you do.

Even with failed hardware in your spine.