Sometimes, on a good day, I’m able to accept my injuries as the price of admission. I wouldn’t call them essential costs, but they cost me nonetheless. It’s curious, how pushing beyond ordinary survival and into places scary and unknown enriches life. Even becomes an expression of life itself.
Yet so often one slip, one mistake, one random moment of bad luck can change or end everything. For the first fifteen years of my climbing life I felt like I’d hit the jackpot. Which, in some regards, makes the last five all the more challenging.
Since that perfect storm of a moment on February 1, 2010, I’ve had four surgeries on my lower leg and ankle. On Tuesday, I’ll have what I hope is my last. It’s the last real option, of the reasonable orthopedic options on the market (I don’t do snake oil). We’re fusing my ankle. After the prolonged recovery, I should be able to walk again without pain, without my tibia and talus grinding together with every step. Honestly, I’ve forgotten how that feels. It’s like a distant fantasy.
Some mornings, when I wake I stall on the edge of my bed, contemplating the distance to the coffee grinder in my tiny cabin. When nearly every step of every day includes pain, it grinds you down.
My range of motion will be somewhat reduced after fusion. But it’s already severely diminished, with the smaller joints of my foot compensating, and I’ve adapted OK in terms of technical climbing – my footwork isn’t any worse than it ever was. I just can’t walk far enough to partake in the greatest joy I’ve known: climbing in the mountains.
Anesthesia is so strange. One moment you’re there, and then you’re gone. You wake without realizing you missed a thing. My first time under, before my spinal fusion nearly ten years ago, I masked my nervousness with jokes. Joking not only masks fear, but sometimes it works. I remember feeling good – perhaps deluding myself, tapping into that requisite skill for alpine climbing and, sometimes, for dealing with life. I lay on the operating table, chatting with the good Dr. Wieder and his staff, when someone asked if I had any questions. Last words, you could say. They were about to put me under. I glanced around the room, and my eyes caught the warning sign on the door. “Oh – there is one thing,” I said, raising my index finger and looking at each of them before parroting the sign. “Remember…only YOU can prevent operating room fires.”
“We gotta change that sign,” someone said.
Several hours later I woke up. They’d cut me open, grinded this and moved that, harvested bone chunks floating in my spine to make the fusion material (no hip drilling needed). I knew nothing. I woke wondering when they were going to start. My smart-ass comment was that last thing I remembered.
It’s like a slice of your life is removed. Like a piece of cake, a sliver plucked away and gone, and then you’re back in. It’s not like sleep. When you sleep, you dream. Or if you don’t dream, somehow you know you’re still there. Still here. You roll over, scratch your head, steal back the covers from the one you love, then blissfully drift away again. Anesthesia is different. You’re gone.
I’ve gone completely under eight times – nine come tomorrow – plus some sedations for minor procedures. Bad luck, maybe. Along with a lot of good luck.
I’ve come to view anesthesia, necessary as it is for life, as preparation for death. To bring me come closer to acceptance, to peace, when the time comes to embrace the eternal nothingness beyond.
Until then, when I wake I’ll do my rehab like a fuckin’ champ, like I do every time, because it brings me closer to returning to the life that I love.
So, here we go again. Another round. One step closer.