Fifteen years ago I was lying in a hospital bed thinking that I had just made the worst mistake of my life. At the age of 34 I had hip replacement surgery. In that moment as I lay in recovery I felt sick, in pain and, worst of all, couldn't move my leg at all. "You've done it now," I thought. I'd dreamed of being able to run with my three-year-old; here I was not even able to turn myself over in bed.
One year after surgery I could run with my son. I took up karate and earned my yellow belt. Ten years after surgery I travelled to west Africa, to the the village of Adexor-Kpodzi in the Volta region of Ghana. I travelled by airplane, trotro, taxi and boat. The final leg of the journey was a two hour walk along a dirt path, carrying on my back all that I needed for one month. The mere ability to do that walk was amazing to me.
Getting a joint replaced is an awesome thing. I know that I am fortunate and privileged to have access to the kind of medical technology and care that allowed me to walk again. As a story catcher, I also took it as an opportunity to capture a particularly poignant moment in my life. I asked local photographer Alex Waterhouse-Hayward if he would be willing to photograph the event. He suggested that we do before and after studio portraits. As well, he photographed part of the surgery. This is from my journal at the time.
Journal, June 11, day before surgery
Alex wanted me to come today for photos so I’d be nervous.
He’s right, I’m nervous. About the photos, about tomorrow.
Finn’s gone with my dad this morning. He seems singularly undisturbed by the closeness of surgery. “Bye Mom. See you when you get home from the hospital.”
Last night I dreamed about having the surgery. I don’t know what drug we used, but I want that one. No pain at all. I’ll tell the anaesthesiologist.
Now that the time is here, I almost can’t believe it. I have no second thoughts, yet I wonder about the oddity of getting a part replaced. It’s almost like I’m, we’re, too laissez faire about this. There should be some sort of ritual like birth, death and marriage. Some way to honour the joint that has served me for 34 (nearly 35) years, as best as it could. Now it will be summarily tossed aside. Quite literally thrown in the incinerator I believe.
Perhaps these photos can be my ritual. A way to honour and immortalize this part of me that I’m saying good-bye to. I want them to be beautiful. After all, this is the hip that carried my child, that made love to my husband, that helped me win a track and field award when I was 14 even though every indication is that it was already damaged.
I can’t believe I’m getting nostalgic about a joint that has given me such grief. But, at least, I’ve cut through my confusion about what I’m feeling. I love my hip. The bad it brought was only physical pain. The joy it helped me carry was so much greater. I guess I just want to give it a proper and fitting good-bye.
So here I am fighting tears on the Skytrain, weepy, thinking about replacing my hip. Oh, my. I think Alex wants to show my fear and trepidation. Now I want a joyful thank you to a part of me that has been so important, although I’ve never even seen it.
Good-bye old friend, and thank you.
One of my ideas was that I would publish some magazine articles about the experience, but I was ultimately unsuccessful in pitching the story. Alex garnered some press with a triptych of the photos in a gallery show. Pete McMartin wrote a column in the Vancouver Sun and quoted me saying, "After they tell you what you'll go through you start thinking before the operation, 'This is terrifying; this is awful.' At the same time, there were all these emotions I couldn't quite recognize, until one day when I was riding on SkyTrain and I was writing in my 'hip' journal about how I felt about the operation. And I'm realizing that a part of me was almost in mourning for -- and I know this sounds ridiculous -- losing a friend. . . [My hip] wasn't perfect, but it did the best it could, and it seemed disrespectful not to recognize that."
A hip is something that always travels with you, but eventually I put the story of it away and went on to other things. An anniversary, however, invites occasion for reflection.
When I first had the surgery I was told that an artificial hip lasts 15, maybe 20 years before wear and tear requires another replacement. About a month ago I saw a surgeon for the first time since having the staples removed from the surgery site. I was prepared to consider that after 15 years I would be looking at at least a revision to the surgery, which I thought preferable to a full new hip replacement. I dug my old film x-ray out of the closet and took it along for comparison to the new one. Before I even showed it to him, the surgeon commented that the old and the new would probably look a lot alike. The hip looks great, he said. Come back in 5 years.
This past year I took up hot power yoga. There are some things this new hip doesn't do. No lotus potion. No pigeon or frog poses. It's painful to do the kind of one leg balances where your body is not upright so not so much on the dancer's pose on the one side. But I can do a lot and in the year I've gained balance, strength and flexibility. Most people seeing me would not know that I have an artificial hip. A friend once commented that I could be the poster child for hip replacement surgery.
15 years ago I learned that sometimes situations that seem devastating, can, given time and nurturing, become life affirming. I learned that it's ok to need help. Following surgery I couldn't care for my son or myself. My husband, parents and friends were invaluable. Learning to ask for help was humbling, but a precious lesson. I have an understanding of living with a disability which was my life before surgery, as well as some of the trepidations that people feel as they are confronted by the possibility of needing surgery. This has made me more compassionate and, probably, a better pastor.
Now I have three hips to thank for the ways in which they have carried me through life. Thanks be to God.
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward has reposted this with the photographs that he took. He also includes the original column by Pete McMartin.
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