I am back at Kendal in the rehab area of the nursing center that encompasses my own room in the Assisted Living wing. The surgery went well. Four and a half days in a small local hospital was hard, and I experienced the worst physical suffering of my life for two of those nights. Off the chart post-surgical pain, nausea, and a pounding headache created a harsh mix of sensation. Drugs both helped and didn’t help, but it is what I had to work with. After my last surgery, a Kendal friend of mine who used to be a nurse gave me a get-well card that said, “People who say that laughter is the best medicine have never tried morphine.” I say, first the morphine, and then the laughter.
There is something very pure and clarifying about undergoing intense pain. The urge to disassociate from my body was strong. It was not a “near death” experience, because my pain was not signifying life or death. Nonetheless, I had to summon something that insists on life not usually called upon from deep within. It happens during childbirth, on the battlefield, extreme athletics, or at any time the body is threatened at that level. I kept breathing, and the pain receded by degrees. I know I went through an ordeal, but the body memory fades it from view as soon as it passes. I remember sobbing on the toilet (sitting up at all was hard) with a nurse calmly standing by without judgement as I wailed, “I can’t take this anymore.”
My pride was in shreds. I wanted her to know that this is not my usual reaction to pain, that I am very strong, that I am not some flaky wimp. I calmed down and staggered back to bed with my rollator. I was glad she held neutral ground. My pain meds were adjusted, and then I could laugh at the picture of helplessness of me weeping all exposed in that hospital bathroom. That reassertion to live is a gift and, I begin to realize, so is the pain that precedes it. I have worked on embracing chronic pain for many years. Though I never would call it my favorite teacher, I see now that it is, in fact, a gifted teacher. Pain is an immediate humbler of the ego. It is paint stripper to the personality, creating an opportunity to see what else you are made of beneath the carefully cultivated images we strive to maintain.
At Kendal, the nurses here know me, and I know them as well. They know me as a person, not just a patient. We work together as a team and exchange helpful dialogue where my personal perspective counts as much if not more than theirs. That atmosphere in and of itself is healing. I do not need to push for self-advocacy. We all need to be truly heard and seen. It is Love in action. Hospitals are filled with professional strangers and do not provide a nurturing environment. Nurses run from room to room filling out endless paperwork, running meds, checking stats and have little time to give compassionate care. For the last three nights in a row I asked my three different new young night nurses how they liked working at Kendal. All three gushed that they loved it. Here they get to care for patients as people. I am beyond lucky to be here.
I learned something else. In my humbled vulnerability while waiting for the ambulance to transport me, I couldn’t wait to come HOME. I hadn’t realized how significant that thought was until I was back in my rehab bedroom. Once I was settled down, people kept dropping in to see for themselves that I was back. Some were friends, some were members of the community I know only a little, but everybody knew that I had been gone and had now returned. I hadn’t been wishing to go to back to my former house and home. I wanted to be here at Kendal with my community. These people are my home now. The transition from my former life has already happened. Home is not a particular room or a house, or a specific time of your life. It is the interactions of the heart cultivated with others around you. Corny, but true- home is where the flexible, spacious heart is. Home is not a static location. It includes all friends and family, the beloved old ones, and the shiny new ones still to come.