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In Praise of Pain

February 16, 2017

The knee news has been rather discouraging, and I’ve allowed myself a few weeks of feeling sorry for myself. I still haven’t really been able to walk since the surgery to remove the broken pieces of meniscus in my right knee. I can limp, the kind of limp that a person has to sit on the edge of the bed for a few minutes before attempting. I need to be conscious for the pain of putting any weight on the knee and in case of the occasional moment of such intense pain that it feels like the knee might give way.

On my recent trip to Oahu, a trip that an Ohio resident can’t conceivably complain about, I used a cane. I even took the cane (an inexpensive folding one) onto the sand, as part of my various attempts to try getting into the waves. Couldn’t do it, though. I was extremely frustrated; I took an inflatable raft to the edge, because sometimes that helps me balance if I can get into the water far enough, but every place I tried, I sank down into the sand enough to make my already uneven gait too uneven to continue, and I could see that it wasn’t going to be possible for me to take the big step down where the waves hit the shore. After a couple of days of carrying it around, I gave my raft to some kids and then I sat on the shore–on the chair I’d rented because I can’t just spread a towel on the sand anymore and be able to get back up– and watched them play with it.

I’d booked a ride to Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve to go snorkeling before I knew I would have so much trouble getting in the water, and so I went, with considerable trepidation that it would all be for nothing. I had rented mask, snorkel, and swim fins, and everyone was sitting in the shallow water putting on their fins, so I made my determined way to where I sat/fell down and then turned on my stomach and pushed off, which worked. I had a fabulous time swimming around and looking at fish—I saw many of the kinds of fish pictured on the “fish ID card,” the most spectacular of which was the male awela (“Christmas wrasse”) because it’s so colorful, even in a place where everything is already gorgeously and extravagantly colorful.

Eventually, though, I had to stop swimming because I knew I had to allow extra time to figure out a way to get out of the water and walk back to where my ride was parked. I swam up to the shallow water, took my fins off, and sat there looking around, enjoying the water and the sun (there was some that day!) and watching the people. I tried getting up a couple of times, and I could make it partway, but it was clear I was going to need a hand to get back on my feet. Being a reasonably cautious swimmer when alone, I had gone in and come back out right in front of the lifeguard stand–so I knew I could wave and get help, as a last resort. Some people who had been standing in the water near me for a while, getting ready to go in, had been talking to me a little bit, and after about ten minutes, a friend of theirs came down to say something to them—he was a reasonably big guy and seemed friendly, so I asked if he could do me a favor and give me a hand up. He did, and was very nice about it, so that’s how I got out of the water. Like Blanche DuBois, depending on the kindness of strangers.

I got back to the parking lot slowly, in stages, and sat down on a rock wall to rest my knee and admire the bay below one last time. I was quiet and still, and after a few minutes, I saw a mongoose run right in front of me, diving for some tall grass on the other side of the wall.

There are certainly good things that come out of pain and disappointment, but you have to diminish your expectations somewhat before you’re able to appreciate them much. I’m trying to reach that point, the one Heather McHugh writes about in this poem:

In Praise of Pain

A brilliance takes up residence in flaws—
a brilliance all the unchipped faces of design
refuse. The wine collects its starlets
at a lip’s fault, sunlight where the nicked
glass angles, and affection where the eye
is least correctable, where arrows of
unquivered light are lodged, where someone
else’s eyes have come to be concerned.

For beauty’s sake, assault and drive and burn
the devil from the simply perfect sun.
Demand a birthmark on the skin of love,
a tremble in the touch, in come a cry,
and let the silverware of nights be flecked,
the moon pocked to distribute more or less
indwelling alloys of its dim and shine
by nip and tuck, by chance’s dance of laws.

The brightness drawn and quartered on a sheet,
the moment cracked upon a bed, will last
as if you soldered them with moon and flux.
And break the bottle of the eye to see
what lights are spun of accident and glass.

When I was younger, I kept thinking that each knee surgery was going to fix the problem. Now I know that the rest of my life is going to be some variation on waiting for another surgery, recovering from surgery, and doing the series of exercises for the muscles that support the knee. It’s not anything a person does “for beauty’s sake,” but I guess a person might run mad (ha, only metaphorically) if she can’t learn to look for moments of “dim and shine” in the process.

When have you had such moments, of “dim and shine”?

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. Elizabeth Johnson permalink
    February 16, 2017 11:18 am

    I think I’ve told you before that in early 2006, I was on a pain management plan after my sixth abdominal surgery. I was pretty feeble, in a fair amount of constant, chronic pain and because I don’t tolerate prescription pain meds well (they make me barf), I got almost no relief.

    I was very lucky in that the seventh surgery did (mostly) fix things. I did tear scar tissue a year later and had microscopic internal bleeding from the tear. That was pain of another sort altogether, one I hope never to repeat.

    The whole situation left me with appreciation of how quickly my reality can change, and what life is like with chronic pain. I am so sorry that’s where you are now.

    • February 17, 2017 2:31 pm

      Yeah, you’ve been there and come back out.
      I don’t tolerate narcotic pain meds either, so I went through my left knee replacement mostly on Ibuprofen. It’s scary to contemplate going through another replacement, but my first one still works so well that I’d like to think that’s the answer for my erstwhile “good” knee, eventually.
      Ron says that the biggest difference after the replacement was my personality. I get pretty grouchy when I can’t go and do things without hurting.

  2. February 16, 2017 11:22 am

    Last year when the Christmas tree fell down. We gathered the pretty colored glass fragments, and photographed them – it became our card.

    I hope that someday soon your knee will be better and your pain will be abated.

    • February 17, 2017 2:36 pm

      I remember that card; it was very pretty.
      The knee is not going to get better by itself, that’s the scary part. I’m going to wish for a less painful five year span, I guess. Like a five-year plan.

  3. February 16, 2017 12:42 pm

    I cannot believe all you have done in that condition! I would hibernate on the couch till it went totally away. Very admirable of you!

    • February 17, 2017 2:36 pm

      Well, that’s the thing; it’s never going totally away. And hibernating is never the answer with a bad knee, especially if you like to eat, as I do.

  4. February 16, 2017 3:18 pm

    So glad you got to see the fish, and the kindness of strangers, and the mongoose, and the dim and shine.

    • February 17, 2017 2:37 pm

      Yes, the shine came from the dim moments, that’s for sure.

  5. Rohan permalink
    February 16, 2017 5:23 pm

    I’m so sorry about your knee – and I’m glad the snorkeling went so well. May there be many other shining moments.

    • February 17, 2017 2:38 pm

      Thanks! The trick is to look for them, or at least that’s a big part of what I think the poem is saying.

  6. February 17, 2017 11:59 am

    This sounds so rough, Jeanne, I’m sorry you’re dealing with this. Very cool to see a mongoose though! Was it in hot pursuit of a snake?

    • February 17, 2017 2:40 pm

      It was not pursuing a snake, but in my head I was thinking “that’s what Rikki-Tikki-Tavi looks like…

  7. February 17, 2017 2:20 pm

    This is really tough for someone who is so active…heck, for someone who just needs to daily tasks.

    Just a note on canes at the beach…I live near the ocean and spend lots of time walking it. I have seen people using a type of cane with a wide bottom that keeps it from sinking into the sand.

    • February 17, 2017 2:43 pm

      In the elevator at the Hilton Hawaiian Village, where my friend’s conference was being held, a man told me about that type of cane and recommended it to me. I ordered one (not the kind with a flashlight, alas, but a sturdy, folding one that has a kind of rotating tripod base). I’m going to try it out and see if that’s the cane to take on our upcoming trip to NM and AZ. Thanks for mentioning it!

  8. February 17, 2017 3:58 pm

    I am so glad you got to go snorkeling in spite of everything. I have been fortunate to not have to try to cope with pain or curtailing activities because of physical limitations, but my husband has MS and it presents a struggle sometimes and I see his frustration and how difficult it is to deal with. I hope your knees eventually reach a stable place that allows you do the things you want to do and don’t keep you sitting in a chair on the shore.

    • February 17, 2017 5:21 pm

      I hope so too–at this point, I’d settle for a sort-of-stable place for 4-5 years.

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