11/02/08This post is years overdue.
I was planning to write a poem about the following experience, but when the words came, they came in a flurry. Hence, the narrative below. Why write about it now? Maybe I'm just chronicling a certain period in my life, as I have done in some of my recent poems. Or maybe I'm just reaching out to anyone reading this who is going through a similar experience. In any case, this is the first non-poetry-related entry I'm posting here. Story-telling, here we go.
Will I be able to walk today?
That was a question I asked myself in 2005, almost everyday, for six to seven months. The result of the initial X-ray revealed that I had thoracic scoliosis, i.e. scoliosis concentrated on the mid-back, chest region. My first trip to the orthopedic surgeon led to a four-part series of worse news: (1) that the type of scoliosis I had was idiopathic, i.e. having no known cause, (2) that, while it did not result to a noticeable curvature of my back, it affected a lot of nerves in my chest area, (3) that it was slightly rotating my rib cage, and (4) that it was accompanied by a case of 'tender muscles' -- the primary culprit for my back pain.
"Take this once a day, and this, every eight hours, and this, in case of emergency when the pain becomes intolerable. Come back every two weeks for a check-up."
His voice was reassuring. For a moment there, I might have believed that all I had was a simple case of something like the flu, an irritant that would cost me only a week or two of my daily routine.
"It's a lifelong disease. You're going to have to take care of your back from now on. The good news I can tell you, though, is this: since it has developed just recently, at your age, the degree of the curvature will most likely no longer increase. There won't be any readily visible sign of your thoracic scoliosis, unlike in the case of lumbar scoliosis."
My doctor was calm. I wasn't. It was a good thing he wrote things down. Instructions. I couldn't pay attention, really. I was somewhere else -- dancing, playing professional pocket billiards, bowing to my sensei in the aikido dojo, lifting and rearranging furniture in my house. Reaching for my toes.
"When will the pain stop?"
I asked him, every two weeks. Getting to the hospital was hard enough. Lying face down on the doctor's table, having my spine tapped and knocked, tapped and knocked, I discovered different ways and pitch of crying out. Lying on my back, having one leg stretched up, up, up, until my grimace turned into a yelp or a shriek, I found out, sardonically and scientifically, that I was not made of snap-proof rubber. More notes on a piece of paper told me I was prescribed to take stronger muscle relaxants and a higher dose of pain relievers.
"We have to get rid of the pain first before we get you into physical therapy. Your back muscles are still very tender."
Tender. Who would've thought this word could carry such implication, such threat? I began to dread hearing it, for months -- time spent bedridden for the most part of the day, the pain and the medication, alternately, making me too groggy to think clearly, too weightless to move. My eyes became sensitive to the sun, as my room became the world far too wide for the few steps I could manage. By the second month, it was clear that my backache was not letting up anytime soon; it went from an incessant throbbing to sudden attacks of stabbing and slicing, punching and pounding. There were days when I could not even feel my legs. By the third month, the attacks escalated, when the stabbing pain started to accompany my breathing -- each inhale was immediately followed by a serrated-knife-thrust into my spinal column, pin-triggering nerves, explosions flashing white sparks in my brain. Seizures. Each episode would last several minutes; afterwards, I would find myself with quaky hands, bruised knuckles, apparently from hitting the wooden cabinet beside my bed, not remembering that I was doing it the whole time my body was mauling itself.
Will I be able to walk today?
Will I be able to feel my legs today?
Will I be able to breathe normally today?
Whenever I could answer 'yes' to those three questions, I was thankful. Every day had its own answer, independent of previous days. But I didn't stop asking.
Being able to say 'yes' three years later, now, I am still as grateful. Going through something I could not think, plan, charm, talk, buy, beg my way out of, for six or seven months, is just about the most humbling experience I can share. I've lost a lot that year, some I cannot regain. But striving to have a normal life afterwards became less of a complication, like finally learning how to appropriately pack for a weekend trip out-of-town. All the ambition and failure, recognition and criticism, support or lack thereof -- these concerns become muted in the background whenever I utter those three simple questions. Choosing to be grateful, and choosing what to be grateful for, re-align everything else.