Waking at 9 pm on a Friday night, I promise myself I won't give into the pain. I try to go back to sleeping it off. Tears soak into my chapped lips and my breathing turns into moans and gasps I hope my roommate can't hear over his video game.
I tell myself I will not be that girl anymore. I will not call my parents sobbing. I will not ask my roommate for help.
I risk a peek at my leg. The two swelling lumps have now converged into a single huge mass. The weight of my comforter or any change in my position brings on excruciating pain. My bones hurt.
I give up. I call my dad. I call my roommate upstairs and ask him to take me to the emergency room. I explain that he will have to carry me. Putting my prosthetic leg back on is unthinkable.
He turns his back after tossing me a pair of shorts. I want to laugh. Over six feet tall, his head almost touches the ceiling. My loft room seems tiny. I want to reassure him I am now in patient mode –- a role I know well –- and all my other concerns are rubbing off like so much smudged mascara.
I don't mind that I am still in my work hoodie which is beginning to smell a bit from my feverish sweating or that I haven't shaved my legs in several days or that my roommate is seeing my stump/residual limb/I don't name it because I rarely talk about it.
I do mind the look of my lifeless prosthetic lying on the floor beside my bed still half in a pair of jeans. I've learned to accept people seeing me in shorts or dresses but I still kick the piece of machinery under the bed.
When it's on, it's a part of me. But when my leg is off, it seems obscenely dead. I can't shake the embarrassing aspect of shedding parts of my body and leaving them laying around. Or maybe I'm bothered by the fact that it will one day be left behind when I am gone.
My roommate carries me down the stairs, outside to the elevator, and into his car. I tell him he is about to find out what the rest of my life has been like.
As he runs into the ER to get a wheelchair, I say a silent prayer to my reflection in the cold window. It's a prayer I read about recently and it simply goes: I surrender to this situation. I repeat the words until they are true.
In the waiting room, an elderly lady goes out of her way to help my roommate. She looks at us sweetly. I realize she thinks I am pregnant because of the comforter piled on my lap, the nervous way my roomie jiggles his fingers in a loose snap, and the absurd way I am breathing. I whisper my observation to him and we laugh. Hospital survival tip #1: entertain yourself by trying to figure other people out.
We laugh about the serious ER doctor who tells me: “Let's poke it and see what comes out.” We mouth silent conversations about the drunk man who comes in with a posse of bleach blonds teetering in ridiculous heels around him like a flock of inebriate flamingos all reassuring him that he was attacked by four guys and that it is okay to cry when the doctor staples of his scalp back together.
My roommate stays all night even though I beg him to go home. He doesn't look away as yellow fluid is drained from my leg. He's there when I wake from a fitful drugged sleep. He hears me list off my medical history over and over again: bone cancer at 15, followed by four recurrences in my lungs.
He passes me my phone in the morning so I can text an explanation to my friend. I know she will cancel her visit now which is too bad because I've already spent a few afternoons crying in my car –- the tax I have to pay for spending weekends with her. She doesn't want a girlfriend until she's 30 and has everything together. She knows how I feel but I have to play it down if I want to see her. She doesn't like to be depicted as the bad guy.
I've been studying vulnerability lately. In an attempt to recover from religion and pull myself together, I daily read books from a variety of spiritual traditions. While I completely agree with Brene Brown's idea that “owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we will ever do,” I wake every morning desperate to move toward a more polished, together version of myself.
Some days, I'd rather believe in the spirituality of "The Secret" where I can visualize and manifest the perfect life. But I know better. God isn't interested in illusions.
One of my readers recently warned me to stop writing about my time in the hospital because being on that vibrational level would bring sickness back into my life.
“You're well now, write about that,” he told me.
In the ER, I feel the familiarity of it all sinking back in around me. I breath and stop fighting. I let go of the “why me.”
As I settle in, I remember the day I quit chemotherapy. My mom had given me a cross necklace to protect me and I could see it on the x-ray video above the operating table –- a delicate outline draped across my shadowy ribs, one half-gone from where they had carved out the cancer. Seconds later, my heart would go into dangerously erratic rhythms. Hours later, my oncologist would agree to let me quit chemo. Four years later, I'd be cancer-free for the longest time in my young adult life.
Spirituality doesn't promise to take you instantly away to a place where there is no pain. Spirituality simply promises to awaken you to the moment. As you surrender your plans, your fears, and your shame, you can see the beauty and love in the moments you'd rather flee.
My ex-husband was a photojournalist and he used to take pictures of me when I was sick. I'd get mad. Why would he want pictures of me with greasy hair, iodine stained skin, and a drained face? He told me the pictures were real, the moment was real. In his mind, they deserved as much attention as the milestones deemed more appropriate for snapshots.
Since getting a divorced, I've been fearing this moment. The moment when I am sick or hurt and helpless without a significant other to care for me. I put down one shield to become more authentically myself and have been frantically trying to pick up another. All my chosen shields seem to slip out of my grasp. Barely able to pay rent with my part-time job, I've been trying to make it in LA. I've been eager to become a fully-functioning adult. But I prayed to learn surrender and vulnerability. They did warn me to be careful what I prayed for. And more than anything, I've prayed the longest and the hardest to be a writer.
I used to ascribe to the idea that writing is like opening a vein. Now, I realize writing is more like closing a wound –- each word a stitch, a step toward healing. In order to stitch myself up, I have to acknowledge the ache. I have to examine the cut, swab it gently clean, and carefully draw the flesh back together.
Once read, those words are removed one by one until only a faint scar remains to tell me where I have been. I can trace my finger over the lines but they no longer hurt. I write not to return but to heal.
Each morning, I'd like to suit up in my armor of perfection. I'd like to call my parents to tell them I've landed the dream job. I'd like to tell you I don't harbor the secret and futile hope that, if she sleeps over enough, one day she'll wake up next to me and realize she loves me too. Or, if I must be broken, I'd like to be broken in a way that is cool and sexy with tattoo scars full of art and rebellion.
But I am here now -– not trying to hide but surrendering in order to heal. Like all relationships, self-love must be built on truth, flaws and all.
And on being able to ask the undeniably beautiful question: “Just for tonight, can you please carry me?”