Once again, we welcome a rare and wonderful writer, Katrina Kenison. Each of us can identify with Katrina today and in all our days, as we learn to embrace rather than deny the wealth of experience an ordinary life can hold. We find her open and honest as she shares her experiences in the bewildering, bewitching journey through midlife and beyond that all of us are bound to share.
It is November. . and we share delight as Katrina’s long-awaited collection of essays come out in book form. Moments of Seeing – reflections of an ordinary life gives voice to the simple joys and private longings of women everywhere — the ups and downs of friendship, the challenges of marriage, the death of loved ones, the march of time. This book has touched my heart and my life. I am sure it will yours as well!!
– Joan Larsen
four lessons I learned from surgery
It’s been two and a half weeks since my second hip replacement, a bit more than two months since the first. And I’m finally approaching the moment when I can look back and say, “It was worth it.” As of a few days ago, I’m getting around the house on one crutch, which leaves a hand free for pouring tea or emptying the dishwasher. I can pull on my own compression socks and cut my toenails and drive downtown. Best of all, I can press up from all fours into a downward-facing dog.
What I didn’t expect yesterday, as I spread my palms wide on my yoga mat and lifted my tailbone to the sky, were the tears. Moving from crutches into my first post-op yoga pose was a bit like coming home after a long journey to another land. Things are the same, but different. After twenty years of yoga practice, I arrive on my mat a beginner again, feeling my way forward tenderly. These two prosthetic hips? They are my new teachers. And I am a willing, humbled student.
There have been so many times over the last two years, when I found myself thinking, “I want my old life back.” This morning, sitting once again at my writing spot in the kitchen, healing and breathing, I find myself writing different words: “This is my life.” And every moment? Another opportunity to practice. Here, four lessons I’ve learned so far.
Some day your body will surprise you.
No matter what you see on the x-ray, no matter what the lab results show, no matter what the doctor has just diagnosed, no matter what operation you’ve just found out is in your future, one thing is for certain: the disturbing thing going on deep inside your body wasn’t part of your plan. Perhaps we all presume, in our secret hearts, invincibility. I certainly did. But my body has begun to teach me that there’s no special protection from pain, from aging, from death.
The moment my orthopedist flipped the switch on the light box and brought up the ghostly X-ray images of my two arthritic hips was the first time it hit me: I’m not indestructible after all. In fact, I’m not even in charge here. I’d done everything “right” — exercised regularly, eaten well, practiced yoga for years, bought well-cushioned new sneakers every spring. I was pretty sure all that good living was buying me both time and health.
And yet, the pain I’d been believed for months to be a groin pull was suddenly revealed to be something else entirely. And with that my illusions were shattered.
“Looks like you’ll be needing a couple of hip replacements,” the doctor said, pointing first to the bone spur that was not a groin pull at all – it looked like a shark’s tooth, sharp and vicious; no wonder I was gasping every time I moved my leg to the side — and then to the deterioration in the joints. “Bone on bone here,” he said, tracing the fuzzy line at the head of my left femur. “And clearly degenerating over here as well,” he said, pointing to the other side.
And so, standing there staring at the first of what would be many x-rays, I got a little wiser. I learned what advanced osteoarthritis looks like. And I realized I’m not in control of the way my body is succumbing to the realities of wear and tear, age, and mortality.
How you respond to that surprise is up to you.
You probably already knew this would be the second lesson. It took me a while to learn it though. Looking back, I now see I went through something akin to the stages of grief as I absorbed the news that at age 57 –still youthful in my mind — I already needed replacement parts.
There was denial. Surely, if I juiced every morning and cut out sugar entirely and chewed turmeric and sipped ginger tea and took glucosamine and saw a chiropractor and tried acupuncture and stretched a few times a day, I could avoid surgery. I did all those things. There were good days and bad days – that’s the way it is with arthritis– but the pain got worse.
There was anger. No, I didn’t have an incurable disease or even a frightening diagnosis. Even so, I indulged in my share of “why me?” moments. I watched a stream of college students running along the river in Cambridge one spring day, annoyed that they all clearly took their strong, straight legs and well-lubricated hip joints for granted. I waved to my adorable 80-year-old neighbor as she slowly jogged past my house, and silently cursed my own bad genes and bad luck. She was loping along, smiling, her white hair blowing in the breeze, and I was hobbling out to the mailbox. Yeah, I was pissed. (And perhaps this goes without saying — I was scared, too.)
Bargaining was irresistible. Ok, I would give up running for good, and tennis, too, if only I could hike. And then, fine, I could even let the hiking go, as long as I could manage a nice long walk. Or, even a short walk. I would modify my yoga practice, become more yin than yang, sit on two blocks, no on a chair, and I’d promise never, ever to even try to cross my legs again. Eventually, just walking up the stairs was hard. I gave up everything in the bargain, except the pain. (And although we don’t often admit this, pain is scary.)
I’m not the sort of person to sink into depression. But eventually depression and physical pain become inextricably intertwined. I think of all the days my husband and I would get up early for our morning walk, as we have always done, and how, after just a few minutes I’d have to turn back, admitting that the idea of a walk had become way more appealing than the actual experience. One by one, I lost all the physical outlets that have always relieved my stress and kept me strong and made me happy. Just getting in and out of the car was something of a project. Becoming increasingly sedentary I also became, almost imperceptibly, sad. “I feel as if I’m watching you get old before my eyes,” Steve said, more than once. That made me sad, too. (And it also made me scared – would I ever feel like me again?)
Acceptance, when it finally came, was a relief. A few days after the diagnosis, when I made an appointment with a surgeon in Boston, I was pretty sure I’d end up canceling it. Certainly in the eight long months between that initial phone call and his first available consultation, I’d cure myself! (See “denial.”) By the time I finally made my way to the surgeon’s office, all I wanted was two dates, one for the right hip and one for the left.
I had to wait five more months for the first surgery, and during that time my self-pity slowly gave way to gratitude that I had such good options. I couldn’t control everything, but I could control some things. And my own attitude was at the top of that list. Soon, I could shift gears at last, from coping to healing. I would begin the new year with two new hips. I hadn’t failed myself, I was taking care of myself. I was on a new path, toward renewed health and strength and mobility. I had family and friends ready and willing to support me. I could begin to make plans for the future. There was so much to be thankful for. It took a while, but I got there. (And perhaps this goes without saying – I was still scared.)
Ask for help. Then accept it.
This seems obvious. And yet as an able-bodied, nurturing, middle-aged mom I’ve been so much more comfortable being a caretaker than receiving care myself. I suspect I’m not alone in this. But people dowant to help, and it’s our job to let them know how.
A year or so ago, on the evening before going into the hospital to have a kidney removed, a friend of mine sent out a group email, asking each recipient to pause the next day and send her healing vibes at the hour of her surgery. I felt so privileged to be on that list, glad both to be reminded of my friend’s surgery and honored that she wanted me to be part of her circle of support. Later, she said she felt all the love coming her way, that she rode that wave right into the operating room.
And so, the night before my first surgery, I followed her example. From Maine to Hawaii, good wishes poured into my email box. The next day, lying on the gurney in the pre-op room, watching the old-fashioned clock on the wall tick toward the appointed hour, I grew strangely, unexpectedly calm, even before the sedatives began to drip into the vein in my arm. The fear that had dogged me for weeks leading up to this moment melted away, replaced by something I can name only as peace. Was I held in an invisible web of care? Maybe so. Seven weeks later, the same thing happened again. Silent, stealthy, sacred: this is soul territory, the mysterious awakening of the energies of love.
Coming home from the hospital on Christmas eve, with little choice but to accept helplessness, I watched from my chair as a meal came together in the kitchen, one son making soup, the other assembling a salad with a friend, Steve pouring champagne and fixing my plate. Christmas cookies arrived at the door.
Saying yes to help was new to me. Having my husband help me into my underpants was new to me. Asking a friend to vacuum my kitchen floor was new to me. Accepting every offer of assistance that came my way was new to me. And yet, what lovely gifts these weeks have brought: delicious dinners, bags of groceries, fresh juice and homemade biscotti, a clean garage, rides to appointments, flowers and cards and books to read, an exercise bike for home, a hospital bed for daytime naps.
Saying yes to help is a way of saying yes to things as they are. Saying yes to help is about softening around the edges and loosening the boundaries. It’s about accepting that life is not to be controlled but surrendered to. And in that surrender, something new and beautiful begins to grow: the kind of openness and intimacy that deepens and fortifies a friendship, that burnishes a marriage, that acknowledges how very much we need each other.
Some day your body will surprise you again.
It happened sometime around three a.m., two nights ago. I was awake, content to be snug in my own bed, listening to the rise and fall of my husband’s breath. It was as cold as it’s been all winter, the sky crystalline, the bright crescent moon climbing higher, until it slipped into a dark tangle of branches in the maple tree outside the bedroom window. Stretching one leg out long and then the other, flexing my feet, I realized that for the first time in recent memory I felt no pain: no pain from arthritis, no pain from an incision, no pain from a new prosthesis, no pain from traumatized muscles. Nothing hurt.
Lying there in bed, at peace, relaxed and comfortable, I was acutely aware that something had shifted, deep beneath my awareness, from struggling to healing. This is me, I thought. Not perfect or intact, but not broken, either. It felt like a miracle.
While I have been diligently doing my exercises and taking my vitamins, drinking water and eating green veggies, resting and celebrating each small step of progress, my body has been doing its own invisible work. Day by day, I’m getting better. And for me that’s been the other big surprise: it turns out that even my wrinkled, saggy, puckery 57-year-old body is possessed of extraordinary regenerative powers.
And so, this paradox. So much of growing older is about learning to surrender, relaxing our attachment to what was and trusting that we are where we’re meant to be. At the same time, for as long as we’re alive, we dance in partnership with these mortal, resilient, remarkable, vulnerable bodies. And being a good partner means treating these bodies with loving care and respect, listening carefully to what they are telling us, and creating a calm, nurturing environment in which self-repair can continue to happen. We are all aging and healing at the same time. Growing a little every day and dying a little, too. This, it seems to me, is the holy wonder of the human journey, its beauty and its frailty. As Rilke writes, “Life always says Yes and No simultaneously.”
“I feel so lucky,” I said to my mom this morning. “I have all this time now that’s just for me.” It’s true. Although I knew I’d spend the month of January recovering from surgery, I didn’t ever expect these post-op weeks to feel like either a vacation or a gift, but it turns out they are both. I’m grateful for each quiet, solitary, elongated day. For expanses of time to nap and read and stretch and be. For nourishing food provided by dear friends, for texts that ping on my phone to say “I’m thinking of you.” I’m grateful for good books and dark chocolate and fresh coffee. Grateful to have no place to go and nothing much to do. (Except for PT appointments, my calendar is strangely, beautifully empty.) I’m grateful for a fire to sit beside and for my husband’s evening foot-rubs and for early bedtimes. For starry night skies and crystalline winter sunrises, for the cardinal at the bird feeder and for the pure rose light at dusk. I’m grateful for every step I take without pain. And I’m gratefully still learning all these lessons, it seems. Yes, always learning to be fully present.
We look with uncertainty
We look with uncertainty
beyond the old choices for
to a softer, more permeable aliveness
which is every moment
at the brink of death;
for something new is being born in us
if we but let it.
We stand at a new doorway,
awaiting that which comes…
daring to be human creatures,
vulnerable to the beauty of existence.
~ Anne Hillman
Katrina Kenison is a wife, a mother, a homemaker, a slow writer and a life-long reader, a list maker, a recovering perfectionist, an inveterate seeker. A graduate of Smith College, Katrina Kenison spent many years working in publishing as an editor at Houghton Mifflin Company in New Haven, New York, and Boston. She is the author of three books, and her writing has appeared in O: The Oprah Magazine, Woman’s Day, Real Simple, Country Living, Family Circle, Redbook, and other publications. A Reiki practitioner, gardener, and yoga teacher, Katrina lives with her family in rural New Hampshire. See Katrina’s work at her eponymous blog, where she celebrates the gift of each ordinary day. Be sure to see her “About” page for a complete list and links to her published works! Her latest, Moments of Seeing: Reflections From an Ordinary Life, was just launched on 1 November – enjoy!