It was December 31, 2019, at 8:00 p.m. I lay still on the cold table inside the claustrophobic chamber. The loud humming vibrated my whole body. I closed my eyes so as not to panic.
The MRI merely confirmed and provided detail for what I already knew: I had a herniated disc in my lumbar.
I’m not sure exactly when this first happened. From what I’ve learned during the process, a disc herniation can go undetected. A true herniation is when the gel-like disc between the vertebrae breaks through the membrane that encapsulates it. This might not produce any symptoms. However, pain often arises when that portion of the disc that is protruding begins to compress the nerve that runs down the back and into the leg, causing sharp pain anywhere between the lower back and the toes.
My pain was in my hamstring and calf. The pain was minimal to absent while I was standing. However, sitting down in a chair would be debilitating. It felt like someone was stabbing me with a knife. Standing would fatigue me, too. My days were spent in pain. I couldn’t extend my leg all the way, thus resulting in a limped gait.
The doctor informed me that eighty to ninety percent of cases resolve on their own. However, this leaves ten to twenty percent of cases that require surgical intervention. He — and most surgeons — preferred not to operate unless it was absolutely essential. Therefore, he wanted to give it time. Time, coupled with physical therapy, might do the trick.
In January of 2020, then, I had a game plan: I would move through physical therapy and wait. Through the first two months of the year, I became optimistic: though I was still in pain, I had a plan in place, and early signs were hopeful. The pain lessened. I could hear distant rumbles that light would be found at the end of the tunnel.
As with the rest of the world, I experienced dramatic upheaval once COVID–19 took over our lives. The more immediate effects for me, personally, were that I had to transfer all the classes I was currently teaching from in-person format to online format, and that I would become the primary caretaker/“teacher” of our kids five days per week.
I do not wish to pretend that I had it harder than anyone else. Many lost their jobs; many have lost their lives. But it was my burden, and it wasn’t insignificant. And remember: I was in constant pain during all of this, limping around and trying not to pour my burden out on others. In a word: it sucked.
The summer helped, as kids were out of school. Slight lessening of the pain gave me a false sense of hope that I could avoid surgery. But by the fall, I knew that a procedure was necessary. Plus, gotta get in while those deductibles are met!
I met with the surgeon in September, and we scheduled a procedure for October 13, 2020. I had a date now set. It was tangible. I could see it on the calendar.
In a small stroke of coincidence, October 13 was only two days removed from the six-year mark of when I ran my (first?) fifty-mile ultramarathon. I remember how I felt at the end of that eleven-hour run. I had never been in more pain or more tired. But I was so proud to have crossed that finish line, to have faced a seemingly insurmountable obstacle for me. I felt invincible. Now, six years later, and I cannot even walk.
You may or may not know this about me, but a large part of my Ph.D. dissertation was concerned with a small, but well-known, story from Genesis 32. In this story, Jacob wrestled with some mysterious figure. Was it God? Was it an angel? I have my own thoughts about this. Whoever it is, they attack Jacob by striking him so that he limps from that day forward. From a modern scientific perspective, it seems as if he had some form of sciatica, at least. He limps away from a battle, victorious, yet with a physical mark of the cost.
October 13 finally drew near. The end of my pain was in sight. A return to my more-or-less normal self seemed attainable. As they rolled me into the O.R., I shed tears of joy.
On the ride home, I already felt relief. For the first time in a year, I could sit down without excruciating pain. This would be the first of three surgeries I had between October and December — all unrelated; one other was on my nose, and one was to remove some cysts from my back.
On October 14, the first day after my back surgery, I was beginning to move around and notice the immediate improvement. I couldn’t believe how quickly I felt better. Then my phone rang. It was my father. He was calling to check on me. He was just as happy for me as I was. I could hear him choking up on the other end, knowing that my pain has lessened. He hated seeing me in pain.
It’s a funny thing: you don’t usually know the significance of a moment when you’re in it. There are exceptions, for sure. But many crucial moments in life seem mundane or insignificant as they unfold. It’s only afterward, as you look back, that you see their true significance.
That phone call from my father would be the last time I spoke with him. He was sixty-two years old. Two days after that phone call, he would begin to feel ill. Three days after, he died. My first time to leave the house after my surgery was to go be with my family to mourn.
I have known, thought about, and prepared emotionally for the moment in life when I lose my parents. I’ve lost a lot of people who were close to me over the years. But I knew that this would be different.
The opening lines to a song entitled “Backseat” by the band Arcade Fire have haunted me for over a decade now:
I like the peace
In the backseat
I don’t have to drive
I don’t have to speak
I can watch the countryside
And I can fall asleep
My family tree’s
Losing all it’s leaves
Crashing towards the driver’s seat
The lightning bolt made enough heat
To melt the street beneath your feet
I remember comfortable rides as a child with my parents. I would watch the electric lines. It appeared that they were dancing, if you followed them with your eyes as the car sped past. But one day, I would be pulled to the driver’s seat.
Since October, my back has continued to improve. I woke up this morning, January 1, 2021, feeling better than I’ve felt in well over a year. It makes my eyes water — I’m thankful to the men and women who have spent their lives learning how to perform such magical, precise procedures. I’m thankful for a family that has literally had to carry me for a year. I’m thankful for friends. I’m thankful for our church.
I see the sun rising as I walk from what for me has been a battle. I’m changed because of it. I’m counting my blessings. I thank God for going before me and with me.
But I limp.