Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Stairs Are Not Your Friend

A little author's note: This little essay is really just one more version of what I seem to write over and over. So, yes, I know I have said these things. I just can't help it that they keep coming up. And, in case you wonder, everyone written about here had the chance to see it all and approve of it being online.

Recently, I got the worst text I have ever received:

I need your prayers right now. Coming home from work because Barbara had to call 911 because David fell. I have no idea any of the details but I did hear him screaming in the background.

My dear, dear friend (like, getting-my-children-if-I-die, basically-named-my-son-after-her “dear”), Brenna, had to write this. David slipped on the stairs while she was at work, and he was at home alone with their two girls. A couple of hours later we learned that he had fractured some ribs and punctured a lung. He received a chest-tube while awake, and then spent 5 days in the highest trauma-level hospital in our area feeling constantly nauseous. Brenna was several weeks pregnant at the time.

From the moment the text dinged, I was sick with worry. Obviously, my concern for David was great, and I was afraid of what the stress of it all could mean for Brenna and her fragile baby. Thankfully, it didn't take too long for the doctors to conclude that the pneumothorax was David's only big problem, but I was scared I may receive another text about some complication. The whole first night, I barely slept, and when I did I had nightmares involving the word “pneumothorax” and flashes from old memories.

Around 4am, I awoke to feed my baby and realized suddenly why this all was tormenting me so. Beyond all the obvious concerns for my friends and their children, this accident struck a deep, tender nerve. It was the stairs. He fell down the stairs. I shook my husband awake, “Rib, Rib! He fell down the stairs. It happened to him too! This is all freaking me out so bad because of the stair thing.” “Yeah,” he answered. “I know. I figured that was pretty obvious.” “Thanks for filling me in,” I thought.

As a child, I was very brave. Very little scared me (except for E.T., but...). I could run and leap and try just about anything. Now, as an adult, I'm afraid of stairs and risk-taking in general. The accident that ended my ballet life happened on a set of stairs. A mistake was made by someone else, and I fell down scenery stairs. “Off” is more accurate than “down.” My invincible youth came to a quick close. Vulnerability arrived, or, rather, was revealed. And then came the pain. Pain that was life-altering, devastating, and yet uncovered a profound strength that I didn't know I had.

As soon as I knew David would be ok, that his injuries were not going to kill him, I kept thinking over and over, “He's going to be a much more interesting, rich person now. His compassion and empathy will expand so much!” “Jealous” is definitely the wrong word, but a certain wistfulness came over me. A kind of deep longing for him to have great results, the kind of results that I have received from all the physical pain I have survived. At the same time, I was thoroughly sad for him and Brenna. Injury had touched them. It got in to their lives. New vulnerabilities were exposed, and new needs for protection would take up places in their minds, their preoccupations. Yes, Pain can be an insightful instructor. In a heart ruled by God's love, on guard for bitterness, it can teach essential, enlightening things. But, the lessons aren't cheap.

I hope and pray that David's pains and fall will not cost him too much (medical bills aside!). I hope his trip down the stairs proves to have been only a misdemeanor offense. For me, the fall turned out to be a shocking robbery. Grand Theft Auto. A homicidal home invasion. There are things I had before that are gone forever, unless God chooses to restore them to me in Glory. Sometimes, I really question whether what I have gained for now is worth all the losses. But, even the deficiencies teach me.

Even before I fell down the stairs, I had formed some positive associations with physical pain. I know what dancers, athletes, know about pain: it can have it's rewards. Muscle aches lead to strength and flexibility. Blisters lead to callouses. Bruised nails get tough. Stress fractures make thicker bones. Exhaustion develops endurance. Practice makes perfect. And, oh! It feels so, so good to be perfect, to do it how you know it can and should be done! My pains as a dancer had their purpose, and that purpose was beautiful and gave me pleasure like I have not know since. If the pain had made me give up, I would never have lived the joy of the results.

My senior year of high school, I was accepted to study for the Summer at the School of American Ballet in New York City. This was a very big deal for me and for my small ballet company in the middle of (ballet-related) nowhere. I could not wait to see myself in the mirrors that so many of my idols had seen themselves in. I would squeal with delight at the thought of being in “George's School,” as my friends and I referred to it. I was obsessed with New York City Ballet. I saw going there to study as THE best thing that could have happened to me at age 16. I prepared for it like the rite of passage that it was. I thought everything through, including the fact that I would have to wear my pointe shoes for every class, for the whole class. This was new to me. It should not have been, but then my training had some gaps. On my own, I decided that I HAD to keep my pointe shoes on, no matter what. Back then, my options for shoes were limited to what I could afford to try and get my hands on via the internet. If I ordered something that didn't really work, I usually wore them anyway because they were all I had. The shoes I finally settled on, I knew later, did not fit me properly and weren't doing me any favors. This is part of why they hurt so badly. But, I kept those boots strapped to my feet as though my life depended on it, and my dancer life kind of did. I bled through the outside satin more than once, and I felt so badass it was ridiculous. I got blisters on top of blisters and bruises in my bruises. But, I did it. My feet did toughen up, and I learned that I could make it through more than I had thought. When I got to New York, one of the first things I did was figure out how to walk to the Freed store, and I, for the first time had a professional pointe shoe fitter help me find shoes that worked better than any I had ever tried, and they didn't hurt like the ones to which I was accustomed. Amazing. My suffering had been worth it.

My fall, though, had no apparent purpose. Immediately, there was no result but disaster, undoing. This pain was the bad kind, not a measured, wisely monitored means to an end. It was a car wreck. It scared the daylights out of me and kept me scared for a long, long time. I still do not like stairs, and I frequently ask Brendan to please walk in front of me and to not touch me while we are on a big staircase. I know what it is like to have your life changed by a fall down the stairs.

So, how did I get to a place where I could have the thought of being strangely excited for David? Not “happy for him” because that's just screwed up; however, “eager” applies. Surviving pain, emotional and physical, showed me so many new things about myself. They are not all good, by any means, but they definitely aren't all bad either. As for the bad ones, I'm working on them. “You can't change what you don't know,” and all that. The knowledge of what I can take, of what can be survived and endured, does encourage me daily.

“What doesn't kill you makes you stronger.”

What?! Maybe. Sometimes it leaves you bed-ridden. I did not survive unscathed, and those wounds, though painful still, turn my attention outside of myself. They show me the need for others. When I am weak and bewildered, my family and friends are shown to be strong and sure. When I am without hope, they hope for me. And when they all inevitably fail me, God is there. And he is not the failsafe, not the back-up plan. He is the LORD, and all things are held together in him. He is the only thing that makes it OK to be in pain and hope for a lesson. With God, even bed-ridden can be a place of growth and value.

Whenever I try to sit and write about these things. I inevitably slant toward these neatly-tied ends. I have a few thoughts about that; the first, insecure thought being that I am coming off like some out-of-touch Pollyanna, an idiot in denial. As for how I appear: I suppose I cannot speak to that. While I don't think I am Pollyanna, I do acknowledge that I have an aversion to wallowing in bad memories for too long. I want to get out of the woods, so to speak, so that I won't be lost. I do not see much use in enduring pain, even the memory of pain, for the sake of proving I can. No, I've had way too much evidence in my life as a dancer, former-dancer, mom, and chronic-illness-sufferer that pain, if it ain't headed somewhere good, is best avoided! But, if it is thrust upon you, as a believer in God I can say, better milk it for all it can be worth! I have a longing to write about my short life as a dancer and what has transpired since it was taken from me. There are many reasons for this, but I think these strong beliefs about pain are at the bottom of it all. I just want it to all be worth as much as possible for anyone who cares to know!