I was doing so well.
I was running and training and trying to be healthy several times a week.
I ran my first 5K.
I was getting healthy.
I was facing down my demons from life and growing to know, accept, and love myself.
Then, as Lent wound to a close, some of the greatest trials you can imagine came to challenge me.
A friend shut me out of their life.
I bent down wrong and threw my back out.
Things began to unravel.
Why today? Why now?
A few weeks ago, someone dear to me just entirely shut me out. I don’t have much I can say about that because I don’t really know the reason. I know that I can be quite hard to love and my wounds from the past can make it so that I frustrate people. I was so proud of myself that the things that really caused that were finally being faced down. I was finally seeing some of those lies I had told myself for so long for what they were. I was finally overcoming the wounds that were still festering from growing up in something less than an ideal environment. Sadly, though, it seems that some of that healing was too slow for this person, and they were no longer to be part of my life. It hurt, but I could survive. I had other friends and my continuing growth and the strength I had been finding to keep me going. I could depend on the spiritual life that I had been building in the time I’ve already been in seminary. It would hurt, but I could do it.
Then, Sunday, March 17, 2013, I bent down and felt a pop in my back. It’s happened before, but this was worse. I tried to straighten up; I couldn’t. I tried to walk it off; I couldn’t. I asked one of the other men to get me a chair, and I didn’t walk on my own from then until a few days ago. I was in a wheelchair or leaning heavily on a cane. I went to the emergency room that first day, and I was diagnosed with “backache.” Thanks, guys. I hope I didn’t pay you too much for that diagnosis. They gave me some pain pills and muscle relaxants and told me to go home and go to the doctor the next day if the problem was still there.
Sunday night, I couldn’t even get into or out of bed on my own. Two guys had to pick me up and put me in bed. It was humiliating. It was hard. I may have never been in great shape, but I’ve always been able to take care of myself. Now, I had to have help to stand up, to get in the wheelchair, to go into the bathroom – everything. Archbishop Hughes came in and offered me the Sacrament of Anointing of the Sick, and offered the first of his words that were to go viral in the seminary community. During the reflection/homily time built into that rite, he said, “It is so important that we never waste suffering.” I winced. Paul Squeaked. The guys in the room gasped. Really! I’m not exaggerating. All I wanted to do was lie there in pain and feel sorry for myself. I was hurt. Emotionally, I was still hurt from the loss my friend. Spiritually, I was looking for God, and he was distant. Physically, I was in agony. And here, I’m being told that I shouldn’t waste my suffering. I admit, I smiled about it; I was aware of the profundity of what had been said. Inside, though, I was in agony, still. Why did God want me to go through this in my weakest time. I wasn’t ready for this. I was just now finding strength again. I couldn’t do it. But I had to. He hadn’t asked if I was ready; he had just sent along the challenge. On top of that, he inspired this wise old priest who I respect too much to ignore to give me this assignment.
Evening came. Morning followed. The first day.
Monday came, and I didn’t feel any better. I put in a call to the orthopedic surgeon I had seen when I started running. His 10am appointment had just been cancelled that morning, and he could see me. God was opening a door. I saw the doctor, and he indicated that I needed to go on a steroid dosepak to lower inflammation, stay on the muscle relaxants, and he gave me a proper dosage of pain medication for my size. I returned to the seminary, still in quite a bit of pain and needing help for most things, but I could sorta function. The doctor had instructed me to stay in bed for the rest of the day (except for using the restroom, etc.) even if I felt up to it to let my body start healing. I followed his directions.
Evening came. Morning followed. The second day.
The rest of that week, our last week of classes before Holy Week, I was on light duty, but I was able to attend classes and liturgies with the community. I didn’t want to be absent from the community more than necessary, and I wanted to be me again. Besides, Tuesday was my patronal feast, The Solemnity of Saint Joseph, so I wanted to be there for the celebrations. I went down in my wheelchair. I attended Mass in my usual seat. I stayed in my seat for the most part, but I was at least there with the community. Wednesday and Thursday, I did everything normally with the community. I decided during that time that it would be best if I asked to be excused from returning to Nashville for Holy Week, and, instead, rested and recuperated here in New Orleans.
Evenings came. Mornings followed. The third, fourth, and fifth days.
Friday, I was still not better, and I called the doctor again. He decided that it would be best for me to get an MRI. I went in that afternoon and got an MRI, and we scheduled an appointment for Monday afternoon to go over the results and decide our next steps for treatment. I tried to go easy on my back, and I did as little as I could over the weekend. Most of the guys headed home, and the seminary mostly emptied. I went with Father Wehner, the rector, to the parish at which he was helping by covering a Palm Sunday Mass to attend Mass on Sunday since there was none scheduled in house. I went to bed Sunday night with my plans to see the doctor and make treatment plans Monday afternoon. Let’s just say those plans quickly changed.
Evenings came. Mornings followed. The sixth, seventh, and eighth days.
The ninth day – little did I know this would become a novena
Monday morning, the doctors office called me shortly after they opened. My orthopedic surgeon let me know that the MRI showed what he described as a Mack truck sized herniation in my L4-5 disc. The doctor let me know he was almost certain that I would need surgery, and he had called in a favor to get me an appointment that morning with another surgeon who specialized in spinal surgery. I saw him, and after looking at the MRI and going over my symptoms and problems, he determined that I needed surgery, and I needed it immediately. It seemed God had intervened here, too, because a surgery scheduled for the next morning had just been cancelled, and he could slot me in there. I ended up admitting to the hospital through the ER since it was an emergency surgery, and I had surgery Tuesday morning. All went well. The surgery took just over two hours; I don’t remember any of that two hours, though, so you’ll have to ask someone else about it.
I woke up in the recovery room, and, after a few minutes there, I was wheeled to my room. I was forced to get out of bed a few hours later and walk up and down the hall a little. Then I started getting some visitors. Father Wehner came by to check up on me. Later that afternoon, Paul and Eric visited, and we prayed evening prayer and chatted for a few minutes. Shortly after they left, Matthew came by and brought me communion (Father Wehner had planned to, but he forgot to pick up Jesus before heading out) and dinner. While Matthew was visiting and chatting, Archbishop Hughes dropped in for a visit. During this visit, the second of his soon-to-be-famous words of wisdom (note – I can’t promise I’m getting the quote precisely right, here. But it’s close enough, and I’m going to treat it like a quote):
You have been given a gift to participate in the sufferings of Christ and the Paschal Mystery. Those mysteries that we enter into symbolically in the Triduum, you are actually experiencing.
Again, I’m lying there in pain, and he says this to me. Well, I was taken aback, but it really is a profound thought. After visiting for a few minutes, the archbishop left, and Matthew and I chatted for a while (some of which you will get in part II of this entry). Finally, Matthew headed home; I slept. I woke up Wednesday morning, and, after a few more doctor visits and checking a few more symptoms, I was finally discharged round about 2:00pm. I got my medications, had lunch, and returned to the seminary. Father Wehner celebrated a small Mass for Matthew and me in the sacristy, and I showered (finally) and went to bed.
I slept a good 15 hours (with a few interruptions), and here I am. I can walk again. I’m carrying my cane with me just in case. It hurts a little when my back bends to stand up or sit down, but it’s nothing compared to the pain before the surgery.
To be continued in Never waste suffering – Part II: The reflections.