Saturday, March 26, 2011

Lessons my hip has taught me

Next week, I'm going into surgery for the third time on my right hip. In 1987, the natural hip was replaced with a new titanium one, ending months of agony and living on anti-inflammatories. Ten years later, the stem portion of the prosthesis loosened and was replaced. Now the hip has dislocated and it's time for an "acetabular revision" -- fixing the cup portion of the prosthesis.

The doctor is quite casual about it: "We'll replace the lining of the cup which has worn out. If the cup has loosened, we'll replace that too. Enlarge the femoral head to make it snugger. Oh, and there's a bit of the trochanter that's broken off and we'll find it and reattach it." "How long's all that gonna take, doctor?" "Oh...about an hour and a half." So simple. I feel like my hip is a car that's being taken in to be serviced.

The first operation was the hardest. I curled up in the hospital bed and threw a pity party for myself. Barely in my 30s, I had lost my natural hip. As far as I was concerned, life was officially over. Then God sent me an angel in the form of a nun who brought me communion. That nun had not one, but three artificial joints, and here she was, making her rounds and ministering to patients. There was life after joint replacement! Several weeks after being discharged, I taught my first ESL class on crutches.

My hip has taught me many things over the years. It has taught me to let go of vanity. I will never look good in a bathing suit with a long hypertrophic scar running down my thigh, but it doesn't stop me from suiting up, plunging in and enjoying myself.

My hip has taught me to be prepared and ahead of time. I can't run for a bus if I'm running late. I have to allow extra time for airport security since the hip sets off the detectors every time. Right now, I also have to be mindful of the hip at all times to make sure I don't put too much weight on it or turn it at an awkward angle that would cause it to dislocate again.

My hip has taught me to solve problems in my household and workplace quickly and through verbal communication because I can't run away from them, literally.

My hip has taught me empathy and patience with those who aren't as quick. I have personally experienced how people with disabilities can be left out -- a circle dance I must withdraw from as the leader steps it up to a pace my hip can't keep up with, so many places that are still not accessible to those of us who are wheeling or crutching, being left alone because I lag behind, those who push and rush to get on the Metro without caring who they run over and (a special place in hell is reserved for them) those able-bodied but self-absorbed folks who will look at someone standing before them with a cane or crutches and still not give up their seat. "Let the rats keep on racing," I think, as I walk slowly and steadily. It's hard, it hurts, this letting go and letting go of the fast lane I used to be part of, but it's good for my soul. It has made me a better human being.

Finally, each hip surgery temporarily turns the tables. I, who glory so much in being the giver, am forced to become the recipient of others' help. We have an illusion of being independent, and hip surgery exposes this pseudo-autonomy for its falseness, forcing us to acknowledge our interdependency, our dependence on others and on God. And -- I comfort myself with this thought -- allowing others to help us raises their self-esteem as they become the givers.

Some Catholics suggest identifying this suffering with Christ's or offering it up as reparation for sin, but that's not my theology. I prefer the words of another priest friend who describes these trials as ways in which God purifies us so that we will eventually become so bright that He will be able to see His image and likeness in us. I'm a practical person and this strikes me as a much more practical theological perspective, a way of making lemonade out of the lemons life tosses at us.

So I'm thankful for the one hip that still functions well, for the prosthetic one that needs fixing, for a practical surgeon, a practical pastor, an inspirational nun, lots of friends who have helped keep my spirits up for the last 24 years and for all the lessons my hip has taught me.

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