The Light At the End of the Tunnel

The Light at the End of the Tunnel
I closed my eyes and allowed my thoughts to slip back into time, to a place that I rarely allowed my spirit to visit. I saw myself when I was in my early late teens and early twenties. My heart seemed to physically react to the memory, squeezing in pain.
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The neurosurgeon put his hand on the small of my back and gently guided me into another room that had the lighted x-ray boxes affixed to the walls. He stopped, as if positioning me for maximum viewing exposure, before he began flipping the power buttons on the squares of film, each one filling with brightness, one after the other as if choreographed. I was surprised at the expression on his face, a smile that widened more with each flare of bright white light suffusing the darkened films. Once all the frames were illuminated, I expected him to say, “Ta DA!” in the style of a magician that had pulled off a wondrous illusion, such as making an elephant disappear before my very eyes.

“I have to tell you, Dr. Malone, that these black and white images are merely puzzle pieces and I have no idea which piece is supposed to go where to make it whole.”

“That’s what you pay me to figure out. And believe me; I’ll be earning my money on this one.”

“Okay, just promise me that you won’t sugarcoat it, that you’ll tell me everything, in terms I can understand. If it’s going to be bad, I need to know going in so I can prepare myself for it. I can take anything, as long as I know what I have to deal with. I made it through a mastectomy and chemo, and that was the hardest thing I’ve ever lived through, medically. Just don’t pull any punches.”

He paused as he stood beside the first set of films, the results from the MRI I’d had done. “Withholding facts isn’t my style. I won’t intentionally scare you but I am going to be honest with every facet of your diagnosis and the surgery.”

All of this seemed surreal, especially considering the fact that I had initially gone to see my primary care physician because my hip had become so painful it was misery just walking. After being shuffled from one specialist to another, incurring multiple co-pays and paying for several prescriptions that did little to nothing to alleviate the pain, I’d wound up with a neurologist that was certain he’d found the cause of all my pain. After nearly two years of increasingly worsening pain with each step, I hoped he was right.

The black rectangles that illuminated the images of my spine began to come into focus. I’m not a radiologist but even I could see a couple of questionable spots on the films. The surgeon picked up a special pen, much like a magic marker, and started drawing circles on the x-rays, explaining each one as he did so.

“You have several problems: mild to severe stenosis, which I expected; beginning curvature of the spine, not expected but it’s understandable, spondylolisthesis and retrolisthesis.  Those last two long medical terms are what I didn’t expect and are causing the most problem right now. In two different sections, these cause the bone, or vertebra, in the spine to slip out of the proper position and onto the bone below it.”

Dr. Malone continued.  “And in your case, if left untreated, in later stages this may result in kyphosis as the upper spine falls off the lower spine. Where these spinal sections are sliding off, the material above and below are also degenerated, and will have to be scraped out and replaced. Since you have osteoporosis so bad, I won’t be able to use your own bone for grafts. We’ll have to use cadaver bone, mixed with some other substance to make it bond to the spine.”

He leaned over to pick up several items and then showed us the various sized rods, plates and screws he would have to use for better stability.

 “Doc, any idea what might’ve caused so much damage? She’s not that old so surely it’s not old age,” my husband asked. He chuckled, but I didn’t mirror his humor. I already knew the answer.

“You’re right, it’s not old age. Gloria, have you been in an accident or ten? In my opinion, your spine deformities are due to what I call ‘traumatic arthritis’. At some point in your life, your spine has been injured badly, either all in one fell swoop, or there was some type of repeated trauma. Over time, that damage was exacerbated by aging, true, but it shouldn’t be this bad at your age. What happened?”

I closed my eyes and allowed my thoughts to slip back into time, to a place that I rarely allowed my spirit to visit. I saw myself when I was in my early late teens and early twenties. My heart seemed to physically react to the memory, squeezing in pain.

Youth may not be terminal, but decisions made during those arrogant, “I know everything” years may make you wish it were. Or it may come back to haunt you in the form of sickness/injury from which you may never fully recover. I know, because it happened to me.

I was the oldest, and the only daughter born to a woman who worked harder at maintaining a fun, party-like personality than she did as being my old-fashioned ideal of a perfect mother. She remarried after my father died and had two sons who were seven and eight years younger than me. I’m ashamed to say that, while I loved my little brothers dearly, I resented the way our mother appeared to have turned them over to me soon after their birth. Don’t get me wrong; our mother loved all three of us, she did the best maternal job she knew how to do, yet therapists told me later that she’d forced the role of disciplinarian onto my shoulders and perhaps my brothers resented me for that. I wouldn’t blame them if they had.

When I reached high school my ever-present daydream was to go to college, preferably on the other side of the planet, find a career, live alone for awhile, visit my mother only on major holidays and live in peace forever and ever, amen. When has life ever gone according to plan?

For different reasons, our home life went down the tubes during my junior year of high school. The husband that my mother would prove to love until she passed from this world asked her for a divorce--while he was in Panama. Being career Air Force, it wasn’t hard for him to escape his responsibilities. He stopped sending any money to support the family and we began a downward spiral that included weekly threats of eviction and subsisting on macaroni with margarine and a piece of bread for most dinners. And my mother made the spiral complete by deciding she needed to “get out there” and find a new husband as fast as possible. Without going into all the details, suffice it to say our entire family suffered. And then I found a solution-at least for me. Or so I thought. Later on, when you no longer have the scourge of youth, all you have left is the aftermath, something I’d discover.

He was tall, slim, bright blue eyes and the cutest dimples ever. And oh, how he loved me. Why, he told me on our very first date that he intended to marry me! For those of you smarter than a seventeen-year-old girl desperate to escape her home life, you hear the blaring siren and see the flashing red warning lights. Step one in staking your claim. I just thought it was amusing and romantic that he liked me so much so quickly.

Not long into the marriage he “taught” me his definition of a “real wife”. I was to cook, clean house, take care of the children, keep up the laundry, cushion him from all stress, (even if self-induced) and available for other wifely duties. Over the years I tried, God knows I tried, but I always fell short. He made sure I always fell short so he’d have an excuse to “correct” me. Where else was I going to learn the fine art of being a perfect wife, other than through the one who deserved my services?

In the beginning, fear of pain kept me subdued, docile, withdrawn. But that fear is only so strong until you no longer fear the pain; that you’d rather hurt than feel nothing at all.

When my husband realized that, he amped up the terror quotient.  He threatened to kill my mother and younger brothers, telling me, in horrid graphic detail, just how he would do it. Yet, even that, grew stale after several years. Then came the ultimate threat.

“If you ever try to leave me, you’ll never go far enough, be gone long enough that I can’t find you. And when I find you, I’m going to slit our daughters’ throats in front of you. I’ll make sure you see every slash, hear every scream, cry at every plea for me to stop. Maybe then I’ll slowly, so slowly, kill you. Or maybe I’ll let you live so that you’ll spend the rest of your life knowing your killed your own children. Yes, YOU because, remember, I told you before you left what would happen.”

The last beating nearly ended all the fear, all the threats, all the terror, forever. It was the night he found an iron bar lying somewhere in our neighborhood and thought he’d keep it “just in case”. That “just in case” came the night he was so intoxicated he imagined I had packed suitcases and prepared my daughters to run. For the first time, though, it wasn’t just his imagination; he’d somehow figured it out.

As he ranted I told my two young daughters to go to bed. At their questioning looks I only shook my head slightly, warning. They understood they were to wait. As soon as they closed their bedroom door, I was thrown onto my belly on the bed, my face pressed into a pillow and it proved to be that “just in case” time I’d been promised.

He finally passed out from exhaustion from swinging that iron bar. I waited until his snoring vibrated the walls and I then slid to the floor, crawling into the hallway. When I got to my daughters’ room, I pulled myself upright, pasted a smile on my bruised face and said, “This is it, girls. We’re out of here.”

It took me months of hiding, working two and three jobs and the help of a loving family to get back on my feet. Eventually I met a man that proved to be kind and protective. Though I never had another physical problem with my ex-husband, it was good to know I had someone to stand beside me if I needed it.

My surgeon’s voice brought me back to the examination room. 

“Gloria? What happened to your back?”

I hung my head, realizing the stigma of being an abused wife never truly abates. “An ex-husband is what happened.”

The surgeon’s eyes rounded and his eyebrows shot up. “Is he…?”

I chuckled without mirth. “No, he’s alive and well in another state. It’d be a nice ending to my story if he weren’t, but there you have it.”

He put his hand on my shoulder, a kindness in his eyes most abused women never see. “So how do you get through it?”

“I forgave him.”

No words, just an expression of shock.

“I had to. That hatred I carried around was killing me; the burden was greater than I could bear, so I had to let it go. Oh, it took a long time, nearly 20 years, but I finally did it. So, with no heavy burdens on my heart, no anvil of depression hanging over my head, how about we get my spine lined back up so I can stand as tall as I feel?”

The operation lasted over five hours. I came out with several pieces of hardware, including “cages” that looked to be made from chicken wire in the lumbar section of my spine. I even have one holding on my sacrum, or tailbone to you laymen that like a chuckle.

It’s been, by far, the worst surgery I’ve ever recovered from. I know I’d thought the mastectomy was the worst but boy, was I ever proven wrong! I’m half-way through the physical therapy and my surgeon said I’m about three months further advanced that what he thought I’d be by now. That’s a great prognosis in my opinion!


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