When I was young, I enjoyed reading the Boy Scout Handbook. You could always find something useful there: things like how to tie a bowline on a bight, or what type of clouds predict thunderstorms, or the precise thirteen steps required to fold a flag properly. What I need now is some answers that aren’t in any handbook that I’ve ever come across: how to get better when your body doesn’t seem to have a clue. What I need is a manual that hasn’t been written yet: The Old Scout’s Healing Handbook.
This is a strange moment for me. After ten months of dealing with colo-rectal cancer, I’m thinking it’s time for me to be well again. I long to get better, but my body seems unable to do one simple thing, and that is to heal. But healing’s not all that simple for me now. For seventy-two-odd years, healing was a straightforward project for my well-functioning body: a little patience, a little rest and I’d be sure to be back on my feet. Not any more.
Although it’s been nine weeks since my last chemotherapy treatment, in all that time I feel like I’ve made little or no progress toward restoring my heath. I just don’t know what it’s going to take for me to get well. Throughout this illness I’ve experienced a good deal of pain. That, at least, I’ve pretty much learned how to handle. But this low-level, grinding malaise that depletes my strength and saps my spirit remains a complete enigma.
“Listen to your body,” people tell me, and God knows, I’ve tried. It’s like listening to a little-known, inscrutable symphony whose complexities are beyond my understanding. This once-dependable body is not giving up its secrets any more and I no longer trust my too-dull instincts to show me the way through. These days, every day is different and totally unpredictable. I never know whether I’ll be up or down. I remember visiting elderly parishioners as a young pastor. Whenever I’d ask how they were doing, they’d inevitably say, “Well, I have good days and bad days.” I recall vowing to myself then that I would never personally use that overworked phrase, but here I am owning it as probably the most accurate description of how I really am doing these days!
The big issue is that everything is on hold until a fistula heals. Fistula, which is the word for “pipe” in Latin, is the medical term for an abnormal connection that exists between my colon and an abscess in my sacrum, the ‘holy bone,’ as it’s called. This unholy, once-infected passageway was discovered on Christmas Eve last year and here we are now in September, still trying to get it to heal up. Meanwhile I have undergone thirteen CT scans, endured five successive drains inserted into my backside, and acquired two other reversible appliances in this all-out campaign to get me to heal. The result is that I now have near-constant fatigue, receding strength and a sense of making very little, if any, progress toward getting better. On any given day, I’m unsure whether to rest, to exercise, or to do both. Yesterday I walked three miles; today, I can’t manage getting out at all.
The truth is that most days I feel chronically weak and only sporadically energized. I don’t think that I’m any better today than I was two or three weeks ago. Chemo-induced neuropathy, usually in my feet and hands, sometimes spreads all over my body, making me want to jump out of my skin. I just wish I had a manual that would tell me how to handle all this while showing me the quickest way back to health and vitality. Instead, I’m stuck with a body I hardly recognize, that’s full of inscrutable needs and that functions, (or malfunctions), in entirely unpredictable ways.
What will it take to see me through? Maybe it’s just a matter of time and patience plus a positive outlook. Or perhaps things are growing more difficult because I’m now inside the ten yard-line where the going gets tougher the closer you get to the goal-line. Could it be something physical? Am I following faulty medical advice? Do I need what would be, not a second, but actually a fourth medical opinion? Is it something I lack? Greater faith? Deeper trust? Will it finally be up to me to write the user’s manual for this body that’s stuck between ill health and healing?
People never stop asking me kindly how I’m feeling these days. To be perfectly honest, I’m thinking of telling them that just now I feel like an overgrown boy scout without the right handbook who’s struggling with a once-reliable body that seems to have forgotten how to heal.