Carol A. Hand
I struggled with the title for this post. Should it be “finding a reason to breathe in times of pain?” Yet as I sat on my back step this morning, it seemed more fitting to view this time of my life based on the metaphor provided by my immediate environment – a warmer morning of dense fog created by the melting snow with the dark skeletal tree branches highlighted against the grey sky. In many ways, this image describes the first three years of my earlier-than-anticipated decision to retire from a job I loved and did well on some levels. I loved the challenge of exposing students to a variety of perspectives so they could think critically about themselves and the world as it was, is, and could be. Retirement has forced me to ask deeper questions. Who am I really? If I could do anything, what would it be? Where are the visions and passion that inspired me to create and survive despite the fog and pain I often had to endure in the past?
Photo Credit: Duluth, MN – November 23, 2014
I know these questions would not have come to mind without the events of the past two weeks of excruciating physical pain, fear, and frustration. I know I don’t mention the physical challenges that I sometimes deal with that are often simplistically viewed as a normal part of the aging process. Really, that started for me in third grade when I was diagnosed with myopia – near-sightedness. Fortunately the ever-increasing vision loss I have experienced since then could be corrected with eyeglasses. Granted, in grade school, I was often teased with the mocking label “four-eyes.” The only frames available then were made of thick plastic, way too big for my tiny face, and the lenses were ground from real glass. Participating in sports required lenses made of safety-glass – even thicker than real glass – quite attractive with the addition of a heavy metal screen face guard 🙂 . But corrective lenses meant the end of constant nausea and headaches and the ability to read the blackboard without resting my face on my open palms with just the right position to slant my eyes at the outer corner. (This really did help bring the chalk messages into clearer focus.) Yet the most amazing outcome I remember was the ability to see that the tree tops were not really like cotton balls – I could suddenly see the details of individual leaves.
Despite heavy thick glasses I could still read, sing, draw, study snowflakes on my mittens or pond water life under my microscope and see the stars in the nighttime sky. I could ice skate, play softball, run races and ski. And I could still continue attending public school in an era when children with visual, hearing, or cognitive differences that could not be “corrected” with existing technologies were housed in segregated institutional settings. In this public school and community environment, I was unaware of the need to contemplate the reality that we are all at best temporarily able-bodied. (“Before the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) was enacted in 1975, U.S. public schools educated only 1 out of 5 children with disabilities.” Source)
Often with age, severe myopia places one at greater risk of other conditions, and in my situation, retinal detachment and optic nerve damage. As someone who loves to read, write, and travel, and who lives independently, the threat of losing my sight at this age is indeed frightening. I don’t normally think about it but have tried to diligently engage in preventive strategies, relying on the expertise of ophthalmologists. Moving to a new community meant changing to a new one whose competence I increasingly questioned, so two weeks I got a second opinion from another practitioner that was both hopeful and alarming. The recent vision loss in my left eye is correctable because it’s due to a cataract, not optic nerve damage. When the vision loss is serious enough (more than 20%), Medicare will help cover the cost of an operation (if it still exists at the time.)
In the meantime, reading and driving are challenging but not impossible. But it does make me somewhat clumsier than normal, and so two weeks ago, just before my doctor’s visit, I stubbed my little left toe on a chair leg – HARD – and it broke. Still limping in pain on my swollen foot several days later, I discovered I could still fit my swollen left foot into my overly large winter boots without the heavy woolen sock that could still cover my right foot and went out to shovel snow. I didn’t take into account the delicate movements I always make when I am lifting heavy objects to avoid provoking an old back injury. Because I was dealing with a painful toe by the time I finished shoveling, I failed to recognize the faint muscle twinge in my back that presaged the excruciating spasms that would spread across my entire back by the next morning. Normally, I would have simply applied an ice pack as a preventive caution. The next morning, I awoke in agony. The simplest tasks were excruciatingly painful. All of a sudden my ability to maintain my independence in my own home became uncertain.
The pain was constant and excruciating and made me remember the dream message I shared in a recent post.
“You have a choice. You may leave now. You don’t have to stay to face the storm.”
But what would happen to the little special needs dog I adopted, Pinto, or my parakeets, Queenie and Bud? Pinto has finally learned not to go into the snarling and biting fits in my presence – a condition that made him unadoptable for most homes. And what about my daughter and grandchildren? Yet, what use would I be to anyone in these difficult times if I become totally dependent on others for everyday care?
I had to face these questions and breathe through the pain, sleep, and sit on my exercise bike, the only seat I have with a hard straight back support that can hold an ice pack. Because it didn’t make sense to just sit still, I pedaled – over 50 miles so far. It’s all I could do because I don’t take pain relievers or use medical services other than ophthalmologists or dentists. Pedaling made me feel better, so I decided maybe Yoga would also help, and ended up rolling on the floor in even greater pain, almost laughing at the absurdity as I struggled to find a way to get up off the floor. “Enough’s enough,” I thought. “Either end your life now or decide you’re willing to bear the pain because you love others enough to see if it’s possible to heal.”
The quirks that helped me survive abuse as a child can sometimes be serious flaws – being stubborn and fiercely independent, unwilling to admit that I ever need help from anyone else. I decided to seek the only assistance that I have found valuable in the past. I found a Reiki Master who helped be begin the long journey of deeper healing. She helped me remember that physical pain and challenges provide an opportunity to connect or reconnect with the deeper sense of love that can help guide us through the fog. This morning, I realized that there are still meaningful gifts I can contribute. With this realization, the pain began to ease. The path before me will require endurance and hard work, but I still have promises to keep. I choose to live the time ahead remembering to allow love to light my way through the fog.
Photo Credit: Mystical Path through a Forest
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