That last semester at college seemed the longest one of all. Senioritis hit me just as hard as it hit all the eighteen to twenty-somethings aching to be done and on their way to the next big adventure. And it seemed I had saved some of my hardest courses for last.
A professor who had received a head injury from a car accident was teaching the most difficult class I had taken so far. One day, after spending twenty minutes teaching us how to solve a formula, he turned to the class and said, “Oh, that won’t work. Well, see you Thursday.” I crumpled up twenty minutes of frantic note-taking and tossed them in the trashcan on the way out. I had pushed myself to get a 4.0, just to see if I could do it, and in that class I just couldn’t quite reach that golden ticket. I was also pushing myself to complete an honor’s thesis. I was driven, pursued by the demon of self-imposed perfectionism. Somehow, I needed to make up for getting kicked out of high school when I was fifteen-years-old.
But there was something else frustrating me. Pain was certainly no stranger. After breaking my neck six years prior, carrying books and sitting in tiny desks was not the smartest thing I could be doing for myself. But this semester had been different. My pain level ramped up to an eight on a scale of zero to ten. Nothing I did seem to help.
Finally, on May 6, 2006, I graduated Maxima cum Laude with a 3.96 GPA, and I felt like I had climbed Mt. Everest. I applied to the Masters of Social Work program at the University of Montana, and I got accepted…one of twenty-five out of many applicants. I was on my way to fulfilling my dream of becoming a psychotherapist. But the pain was really bugging me.
One day, early that summer while visiting my daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren, my littlest grandson came running towards me while I sat on the couch. I knew if I lifted him straight up, I could get seriously hurt, so I scooped him up and swung him sideways onto the couch. I cried out as pain shot through my left shoulder, but I quickly covered it up and laughed at my grandson. My husband glanced over with a look of concern, but I shook my head and smiled, not wanting to tip him off to the pain I felt.
Once home from the visit, my summer was filled with appointments to try to help me with the pain. I began physical therapy, but the treatments seemed worse than the injury itself. Finally I had an MRI. Diagnosis: Torn rotator cuff. Need surgery to repair. Ugh.
One day, as the surgery date approached, a friend back east sent me something she had written years prior. It was written as if from the mouth of God Himself. Titled “Through the Dark Night,” * it begins with a prayer:
“It’s OK, Jesus. Restore my soul. Oh, Lord, I submit to Your cutting away of the ‘something’ deep within me that is hurting me. I don’t even know what it is … but You do. I will ‘go to sleep’ within Your arms, knowing I am safe with you…but there are things that ‘go bump’ in the night!”
“Shhh…I am here. All is well. Don’t be afraid. Let loose your understanding and ‘go under’ in the anesthesia of my Spirit. I am at work, very deeply within you. I ferret out the offending matter swiftly and accurately. I am a skilled surgeon and you can trust My expertise. With precision I dislodge the usurper of your strength and allow the rest of you to go free. It was not a grievous thing in size, but its placement pressed upon vital organs to thwart My purposes in you. Its removal was paramount to this time and place.”
I know, crazy stuff, huh? I mean, it was only shoulder surgery!
The night before the surgery I was thinking about the writing from my friend, and it made me think of the “real” anesthesiologist, and how he could inadvertently hurt my neck. The next morning, I remembered to tell him to be careful with me while I was under. He showed me the flexible scope he would be using and promised not to move my head around too much.
I opened my eyes and tried to force the double image of the anesthesiologist back into a single frame.
“I need to tell you something, Linda. I saw something in your throat. I’ve never seen anything like that in twenty-five years…a mass. You need to get a CT scan done right away!” He walked out, leaving me shocked and anxious, half-awake and helpless on the gurney. I was alone in the recovery room. I weakly called for a nurse and asked her if I could have something to calm me down.
“Because of the news?” she said. So I wasn’t dreaming. There is a mass in my throat?
Within two days my primary care physician got me in for a scan. Soon I received a call to come into his office. Usually he would have called with the results.
“Well, we found absolutely nothing at all in your throat! I have no idea what your anesthesiologist thought he saw. There is just nothing there at all.” Relief flooded through me and I smiled. “But at the very top of the CT scan we can see something else. You have a brain tumor at the base of your brain. This is the worst place you could possibly have one. I am sending you out of town to a neurosurgeon right away.”
Just in case there was a saber-tooth tiger nearby, adrenaline rushed into my body, and blood filled the muscles in my legs to help me flee the scene, but I sat there and smiled. “Oh, good, so it’s not my throat!”
The following week found me sitting across from the relatively young, blond, and extremely blunt neurosurgeon as she picked up a plastic model of a skull and explained why an operation was impossible.
“Where would we go in…through the eyes? The nose? It’s impossible.”
“I was just about ready to start grad school,” I said.
She was quick and to the point. “Well you should not put off anything you want to do.”
We made eye contact and I looked away. I thanked her, got up, and walked out. I walked through the waiting room, out the door and down a long hallway. I passed other waiting rooms and wondered if other people were being told they were going to die. I almost made it to the truck before the sobs I had held in so tightly in the elevator gave way and echoed through the vast cavernous space of the underground parking garage.
Then I remembered my friend’s words. And I chose to believe them. And I chose not to believe the neurosurgeons, and in the following days and weeks, months, and even years, I held onto those words with everything I had.
* “Through the Dark Night” is from OH GRACIOUS LOVE by Lucy Brown, Copyright 1993, 2006 by Lucy Brown. Used by permission. All rights reserved.