“How can it smell so bad? We just showered you yesterday!”
As I stand in the kitchen sniffing my fingertips, Byron is incredulous.
Bruno Mars is still backstage polishing his loafers, yet there is some serious funk going on. I press my fingertips to my nose, and it is a testament to my steel stomach that I do not vomit.
A minute before, I had been slowly, gently tucking fabric from my shirt into my armpit. Having recently undergone a rotator cuff repair, my right shoulder and arm are immobilized in a sling for the next month, and I had been trying to push cloth into the armpit to minimize chafing and maximize moisture mopping. When I removed my fingers from the armpit, a festering funk hit the world of oxygen and light and unfurled its wings.
The smell was like a shiitake mushroom had been rolled in a clay bowl of goat cheese, dragged through a ramekin of beaver feces, and dipped into a fondue pot of sulfur-rich water collected from a geyser in Yellowstone Park. In other words, it was fungus meets mold meets poop meets rotten eggs.
“But we just showered you yesterday!” Byron reiterates his disbelief, certain that our careful spraying, soaping, and dabbing of my muffled pit should have kept it tamed for more than a measly 24 hours.
For all the work that it had taken to clean that pit — I had leaned gingerly to the side so that gravity and body mechanics could passively arc my arm away from my body, allowing Byron to softly run a bar of soap up into the pit’ s folds before using the shower head to blast the suds away, after which he had tentatively eased an edge of the towel into the crevices to soak up the moisture — we had expected a more lasting payoff.
But no. The funk dominated. Wrinkling my nose distastefully, I accepted that dangling my fingertips into a bottle of rubbing alcohol would provide the most efficacious countermeasure to the stink. Ever my partner, even in the most gorge-raising situations, Byron snapped a chip clip onto his nose and helped me remove my shirt. “Holy crap,” he commented before pitching the offending fabric down the stairs to the laundry, “that is rank.”
I am only a week into my recovery, but already it’s been quite a journey.
Outside of the astonishing funk, I’ve had a few other eye openers:
- being a post-surgical patient is a whole lot like being a celebrity. For both me and Jennifer Aniston, we are most constructive when we are passive. We have people do our hair, we have people dress us, we have people bring us food; the way we show up most actively in our lives is predicated upon being docile recipients of other people’s attentions
- when the anesthesia wears off, and the three-day pain pump running into the neck through a catheter runs out, BE SURE TO HAVE SOME OTHER PAIN MEDICATIONS ALREADY GOING, OR DEATH WILL SEEM A REASONABLE OPTION
- I am almost ashamed to admit that the cliché “laughter is the best medicine” has proven true; nothing has been more effective in recent days that a good, hard belly laugh. In my absolute worst hour, Byron was sitting near me, keeping me company, when he started chuckling at an article he was reading on his phone. I asked him what was so funny, so he read it aloud. By the end of the piece, I had the best kind of tears running down my cheeks. (Here is the article he read: “Hummingbird Back at Feeder Again, Grandmother Reports”). I also continue to snortle every time I remember my best friend advising me before the surgery to take a Sharpie to my feet and write upon them “Do Not Amputate.” The morning of the surgery, when the doctor came out and asked if he could write his initials on my shoulder, I was possessed by a private, unexplainable giggle
- there are few things more satisfying than a bowel that remembers how to move
- it is tear-droppingly gratifying when a physical therapist looks you in the eyes while you are hurting and whimpering and and secretly believing you’re a sad, weak thing, and he tells you that you’ve had one of the most painful surgeries there is, harder even than a full shoulder or knee replacement
- it is really hard to put toothpaste on a toothbrush when you have only one hand
- it is really hard to open a container of yogurt and stir the fruit from the bottom with only one hand
- it is really hard to reach toilet paper located on the right when only your left hand is functional
- it is really hard to squeeze a zit with only one hand
- it is really hard to open the Percocet when the container is childproof and you yourself are on Percocet and therefore essentially a toddler who just sucked down a juice pouch of gin
- it is really hard to do buttons; this is a lifelong problem for me and has nothing to do with surgery, but I thought I would mention it
- it is really hard to do a whole lot of fundamental tasks when you are limited to one arm and or one hand, and I never before had the opportunity before now to appreciate the nuance and minutiae of the challenges
- I am having an opportunity to learn new kinds of empathy, and that feels like a deep, unanticipated, most-welcome, sideways gift. Having never broken a bone, or suffered profound physical trauma, or had to maneuver through my days with any sort of disability, I have been fortunate to trip along life’s path singing tra-la-la, occasionally stopping to look at someone who is dealing with a trial and think, superficially, “Oh, that poor person. What a difficult way to live.” After clucking sadly for a nanosecond, I begin to skip again. In this past week, however, I have been registering all the things that are taxing when the body is not at full capability, and I have been witnessing how much grace lives in the hearts of the caretakers, and I have been appreciating the systems that evolve for coping, and I am, in the quivery cinema of my mind, sifting through all the images I have seen over the course of my life of the hurt, the wounded, the crippled, the maimed, the war torn — right down to replaying mental scenes with the extras who roamed the grounds of Downton Abbey during Season Two when the manor house was used as a convalescent hospital — and I am humbled by how many people in the history of the world have suffered a physical blow or been born with a congenital problem and who, nevertheless, figured out how to get their teeth clean or stir the fruit into their porridge or wipe their private parts, every day for their Always. I am astonished by the millions and millions of people who have been able to smile, to laugh, to plan, to create, to live full and rich lives even though they sometimes cry with pain in the darkness of the night
- thanks to this passing elective surgery of mine, I am being permanently improved. I am figuring some things out that will help me live more compassionately, and that is an incalculable lesson for which a shoulder dotted by sutures is a beggarly down payment
- despite all the goodness that is resulting from this procedure, there is one eye-opener that is not necessarily positive: I am willing to put my own needs over the future of the planet — because after Byron threw my funky shirt down the stairs to the laundry, I totally added the words “aerosol deodorant” to the shopping list. Hole in the ozone be damned. No fingertip, no matter where it’s been digging, should ever smell that bad