Slowing Down and Embracing Surgical Recovery is Still Living

A cup of tea and pot of honey, a notebook and pen, and a blanket resting artfully on a bed, indicating relaxation.

I am working through one of those once a half-decade-or-so massive health shifts that folks with any chronic condition may find familiar: a rapid shift in function, surgery to implant more metal bits in me that set off alarms whenever I go anywhere with security, an opportunity to discover somewhat terrifying “fun” facts about the configuration of my unique body, an unwanted break from work that is not super well timed, and a chance to revisit and continue unpacking a lifetime of medical trauma.

Clearly, this is not a situation anyone would sign up for with enthusiasm. But here I am, several weeks out of skilled nursing, delighted beyond reason to regain capacity for things like cooking hot meals and showering without an audience.

All of this easily falls into a frame of frightening tragedy. More than that, it is aggressively shoved into that frame by folks who wish me well. Looks of sorrow and pity abound as declarations like “poor you” and “I wish this wasn’t happening to you” fly my way. I appreciate the empathy, but so many sad expressions can weigh a person down like cinder blocks.

There is a cultural expectation that when bodies shift quickly away from their usual functions, the time it takes to return to how they once were or adjust to the way they are now isn’t actually living. It’s as though the hour glass of my life got tipped 90 degrees while everyone else has continued rushing around doing the substantive work of being a human.

In theory I have spent my entire adult life rejecting this idea, rejecting this notion of tragedy. I say “in theory” because my body has been holding largely steady, fluctuating far less than when I was a child. My adult stasis allows easy use of this body to accomplish all that I desire. But the past few months have given me a crash-course in rejecting the idea of tragedy in practice – rejecting it in the face of a body that is falling apart, aching, and needing more creative maintenance than I am accustomed to.

I was completely prepared to feel terribly sorry for myself, to wallow in misery when my leg collapsed under me as I slowly walked across the smooth concrete of the parking lot. I enjoy a good wallow every now and again, and this one would have been entirely justified. What a dull way to break bones, and how poorly timed. I have half a drawer dedicated to consumptive Victorian pajamas that I call the “Woe is Me collection” set aside for these occasions. I may be anti-tragedy, but I believe in the restorative power of dramatically taking to one’s bed.

This has not been an easy recovery. Surgery was scheduled, intubation failed because of a fun new position my neck decided to hang out in, surgery was rescheduled a month later and finally done. Of the contingency plans the doctor had, A – Z for what he would find, seven hours in he ended up somewhere around plan S, basically using all of the screws he could find to stick my leg back onto my torso. Having no in-home support before this incident and living alone meant I had to organize supports with a head full of highly effective elephant-strength narcotics. And, apparently waiting for bone to grow onto metal takes longer than I had remembered.

But it hasn’t felt like recovery. It hasn’t felt frightening or tragic. I don’t feel like anything has been lost or gained. It has felt simply like my life. A good life. Time has passed, I read books, spent time with friends, learned new ways to move. Bone has grown and continues to grow. I have taken to my bed in Victorian gear, not out of misery, but rather out of a very ordinary love of comfort and rest.

Earlier this week I left my apartment alone for the first time in months. I crutched my way across the parking lot where my bones gave way late last summer, making it safely to my car, then on to a drive-through for greasy junk food, finally parking by the river to watch a squirrel sunbathe.

After spending months in my apartment, having this car picnic was a speeding up of my life, and I felt it as such. But it was the overall slowness that allowed me to take pleasure in the loveliness of the moment. My life is closing in on a pace nearer the one my body is accustomed to. This is great because I have a lot to do and I know I am lucky to have the chance to do it. And yet, the slowing down is not tragedy. For me it has been, and I’m sure will be when it comes again, an opportunity to notice details in life that blur past at higher speeds.

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Christian McMahon is one of the 2018 Rooted in Writing Fellows. He is a disabled trans writer living in Sacramento, California as well as the communications specialist for The Arc of California. His work has appeared in publications including the Toast, Catapult, and BuzzFeed, among others.