I guess I should have predicted my fate over this, our annual solstice pivot.
Several months back, when confronted with the news that I had no cartilage left in my right hip joint, I chose surgery to replace the degrading bone on the very auspicious date of December 21. I would ‘go under’ when everyone else was retreating for the holiday season and take a full three weeks apart from the world of doing. As I lay in the hospital bed that night recovering from what felt like a full scale attack on my physical form, I spoke an intention out loud. I would “let this hip replacement journey transform me from the inside out.”
In that moment, my ask felt reasonable enough. For why else go through something so traumatizing, albeit to live henceforth with less pain, and not invite a broader change of scope to one’s life?
Listening intently from their watchful place, my ancestors, my angels, and whoever it was that heard my possibly drug-induced but coherent prayer responded with “So be it.”
“Furthermore, let’s clean out the far reaches of your closet. It’s the solstice, the start of a new year, what better time. Yes, it’s more that you planned for, but when has a request for transformation ever gone exactly as planned? As you must remember, Lisa, it doesn’t work that way.”
I didn’t actually hear their somewhat didactic response then, or even later. Given what transpired, it’s what I know they must have said, but wasn’t prepared to hear.
It took me a little longer to leave the hospital. My blood pressure was too low when I would try to stand up and I’d lose my balance. Finally, an occupational therapist appeared in the afternoon of the next day and was the first person to greet me by reaching out to hold my hand and ask how I was doing. Awash in tears of relief for her humanity, I felt the torrent of fear moving up and out. And with her help, I finally took my first steady steps and met their requirements for sending me home.
Those first few days at home, I entered some kind of opiate portal and submitted to total dependence on other people for sitting on the toilet, changing out ice packs and bringing in home-cooked food. I think it was day 5 that I felt the beginnings of a cold which, more than insult to injury, also felt slightly ominous. And then just a week after surgery, my dog Athena and sweetest companion of 9 years, stopped eating. The next 5 days shot me into another dimension entirely as we received her diagnosis of severe anemia, followed by that of incurable lymphoma.
At this point, the hip surgery seemed like the smallest of potatoes. I and my close friend—a recently anointed Florence Nightingale–started sleeping downstairs because Athena wasn’t getting up anymore and I couldn’t bear to leave her side. My son came home from Hawaii only to be greeted with the news of Athena’s rapid decline and, after some time wrestling with and trying to reject our new reality, we scheduled a vet to come to our home and put her to sleep.
Not so fast, sayeth the ancestors. You asked for transformation, remember? So sometime after midnight, my dear canine friend started struggling to breathe, just as they had warned she might. With no ability to ease her suffering, we held her as she labored, reversing the work her mother must have done while birthing her. It was beyond excruciating.
I would never have chosen this for her or for any of us. It was as agonizing a process as I have ever been through and ‘helpless’ can’t begin to describe our surrendered state. Yet bearing witness to suffering of this scope, the suffering any one of us may face before death, is transformational, far more so than having a portion of the largest bone in my body replaced. In fact, these two events are decidedly not even in the same league.
Stumbling around in the middle of the night, we, the chosen three, wrapped her body in a sheet, laid her under the Christmas tree, surrounded her with lit candles and sat for a long time in silence. Sleep came eventually for some of us, infusing my son and ‘Nurse Nightingale’ with just enough energy the next day to dig a hole between the three maple trees out back. Finally, we laid her to rest amongst all her favorite things, a ritual worthy of any ancient royal.
I spent the rest of the day with no access to the small, petty things. Brain congestive crap like grievances about my work, worries about paying health insurance bills soon to arrive, regrets about not calling a vet sooner, and wonderings about how long it would be before I could do the most basic of hamstring stretches. Nope, my ‘small self’ had been zeroed out. It was absolute liberation, not a tether in sight to my conditioned, anxiety-ridden ego.
I did start to wonder if this wasn’t exactly what it felt like to take a hero’s dose of psilocybin; it sure felt like everything I’d ever read when the ego stops clutching and the expanse of who we really are opens up for us onto the endless savannah of deepest memory.
Could I stay in this place? I didn’t think so, but I could already sense that accessing it just for a time was expanding my circuitry. I may not remain in this profound equanimity but I could soak in the memory of it, and maybe call it up again on my own. And for as long as it lasted, I sat on a new perch, looking out, awash in gratitude.
A week has passed. I’ve made a slideshow of every photo of Athena I could find. I still reach for her ears in the morning and miss her generous wiggling every time I walk in the front door. Yet a deeper truth soothes my soul. Athena’s death, though excruciating to witness, has become a gift 1,000 times over. All three of us present that night found new places inside we have never met before. We’ve shed layers of old skin to make room for bigger versions of ourselves.
And as each of us expands, I believe so shall the many friends, relatives, colleagues, and humans in general with whom we cross paths. Our new patterning will prompt new patterning with the world around us. Through osmosis. Through the phenomenon of morphic resonance. Through plain ’ole love, damnit.
So, here’s an idea. Just one among many. Faced with this formidable tanker ship of political discord, ecological devastation, and untenable disparities, let’s see ourselves as one of Buckminster Fuller’s metaphorical ‘trim tabs’ and claim our power as single individuals to slowly but decidedly steer this ship in a new direction. And when offered the opportunity, for there will be many ahead, stay fully present to the depth of your own or someone else’s suffering.
Even when that suffering looks like anger, blame or lashing out, do not look away or change the subject, but give it your full attention without trying to fix it or offer superficial palliative. If it feels unbearable, therein lies the medicine. Suffering, yours and that of others’, will not last forever. We just need to stay with it long enough for it to morph, as it always does, into something new. To make the transformational journey, we all need a loving witness.
So be that. And you too will be transformed.
Like all gifts of transformation, I know this possibility in my bones. Maybe also in the titanium femur head now resting inside my right hip. Yes, I do now know this one….most assuredly.
Love to all, Lisa