When I was thirty one, I realized I was going to die.
I’ve had back problems for most of my adult life, but I mostly ignored them until a couple of years ago. I was sitting on a picnic bench at a birthday party for a friend’s child, and when I stood up, I could feel my back go out.
Oh well, I thought, and sat back down. My back had gone out before. I’d go home, ice it, pop some Advil, and in a couple of days I would be fine.
Ah, the arrogance of youth. When I got up to walk to the car, I couldn’t stand up straight. My walk to the car was more of a hobble.
No problem! I would be fine once I got to my couch.
Then I got home, laid down on the couch and started screaming.
My back had never hurt this badly. In a panic, I searched for a position that didn’t hurt. Flat on my back on the floor was the only one.
My wife and I thought that things were OK now that I wasn’t in pain. She was about to leave to visit some friends who were visiting from out of town. I stopped her and said “Hold on, just let me make sure I can stand up.”
I couldn’t. The pain was so bad that I screamed.
Now, I’ve always had a reputation for a low pain threshold. But this was different. I called the doctor’s office. It was the weekend, so I spoke to the on-call nurse. I described my symptoms, and she calmly said:
“Ok, I need you to hang up and call 911.”
“Really?” I said. Surely ambulances were for old people.
“Honey, we can’t just leave you on the floor.” she said patiently.
Point taken. The ambulance arrived, and I learned what a “scoop stretcher” was. It’s a stretcher cut in two pieces from top to bottom. Both pieces are slid under the patient, snapped together, and then you’re off to the races.
I’m not usually one for small talk, but I chatted up the EMT in the back of the ambulance like there was no tomorrow. Anything to keep my mind occupied. My brain was fixated on one question: What the hell is going on?
It turns out I had ruptured my L5-S1 vertebrae. It had probably been bulging for years. Oops. I had surgery to remove the ruptured bit that had been causing all the pain.
I had never had surgery before. Here’s the thing they don’t tell you about recovering from surgery: It hurts. Quite a bit. They’ll tell you that the recovery time is six weeks, but they don’t tell you that you’ll be hurting during that time.
While I was recovering, it hit me. This isn’t going to get better. My body will continue to find new and interesting ways to betray me. There will be more surgeries, if not on my back then somewhere else. If I’m lucky my mind will stay sharp, but that’s not a guarantee either.
And, one day, this meat sack that I call home will simply stop working.
This is what religion is for, right? This is what my mother is talking about when she frets that if I don’t have faith in God, I’ll have nothing to fall back on in times like this.
Let me tell you something, dear readers: I fell back, and fell flat on my pasty white ass.
I wasn’t mad at God for the situation with my back. In the grand scheme of things it wasn’t a big deal. I knew there were people who suffered much worse.
I also knew that sooner or later, I and the people I loved would be the ones suffering much worse.
Here’s another thing about surgery and getting older: you start spending more time in hospitals and doctor’s offices. I began to become very aware of the elderly patients I saw. I saw them being helped out of cars by their children. I saw them hobble along with oxygen tanks and walkers while people my age and younger breezed past them effortlessly. I saw them sitting in waiting rooms, waiting to discuss conditions that were probably much more serious than mine.
And one day, that will be me. It’ll be my wife. My children. Everyone. Assuming we don’t get hit by a bus or die of cancer before that happens.
I got a taste of this when I was unable to walk. Also unable to pee. I almost had to get a catheter, probably because the ruptured disc was pressing on whatever nerve allowed me to empty my bladder.
Here’s a pro tip: If this ever happens to you, push like you’re taking the biggest crap of your life. It worked for me. Luckily, I had my wife to lean on (literally - I needed help standing).
Then, when I was able to pee, and hobble around a bit, I fell in the bathroom and couldn’t get up (you know, like the woman in the old MedAlert commercial). That emergency cord in hospital bathrooms isn’t just for decoration. Nurses had to come and scoop me up.
Of course, this happened before I had pulled my pants back up. Awesome.
And what did my faith have to offer me through all this? Why, the fact that we all deserve this horrible fate because some guy ate an apple six thousand years ago. But no matter - God loves us SO MUCH, that even though he abandoned us to this fate, a select group of us will get to join him in paradise if we believe the right things. The rest will burn in hell for all eternity.
Wow. What a horrible story.
What a horrible God.
Now, I know some of you will be quick to point out that the God I learned about in Evangelical Christianity isn’t the only game in town. Many believe in a more loving inclusive God. However, all views of God (Christian or otherwise) have one thing in common: this deity allows horrible, horrible things to happen to his “children” every day. You can blame it on free will, you can say it’s for his “glory”, but you can’t escape that fact.
I’ll say one thing: the realization that I was going to die eventually lit a fire under me. I started seeing a therapist, got on Prozac to control my anxiety, and began writing on a regular basis.
I know what some of you are thinking - “Don’t you see! God used this terrible thing for good in your life!”
Well, la dee freaking da. That’s the best he could come up with? If I injured my child to show her that life is a precious gift, I’d be hauled off to jail, and rightly so. I’m not impressed.
I don’t know how much progress I can make in my spiritual journey without getting past this question, and that’s a problem because there’s no answer.
And yes, I’ve read Job. It’s a horrible, horrible story. If that’s God, you can have him.
But I will keep searching. Because, honestly, the story that atheists offer isn’t that great either. I’m not saying it’s not true, and I can see why they think the way they do (I’m tempted to agree with them), but I can’t help it.
I’m a storyteller, and I like good stories. And, if I’m honest, I like searching.
Because, hey, you never know what you might find.