As I begin to write, I must note that when I agreed to write this piece, I was filled with this zany ridiculous optimism that I would be well, and this would be more a retrospective on lessons learned from this experience. As it is, I still feel crummy (cue violins), so this will have to be more of a now-trospective on lessons still being learned during the process of being stuck in your bed for three weeks or more.
Lesson 1: Lying in Bed is, at First, Exactly as Fun as You Thought it Might Be
During my long years of having millions of babies, toddlers, middles, teens, and adults needing me for 30 hours a day, I would indulge in this occasional fantasy about lying around in bed. I would get a lot of rest, I thought; I would read a bunch of books. I would get tons of planning done. If I remembered to, I would pray for everybody I know. I would have a great excuse to just use my computer until it overheated, not till someone else decided my turn was over.
And the first four days were like that! Sure, I was in pain; incisions from a laparoscopy were healing; delightfully, what we used to call “my Aunt Martha” came to visit the day after surgery; and the gas that they use to shove your intestines out of the way during surgery was seeking to exit my body through my shoulder. Sure, we were living in fear from moment to moment that the pathology report would come back not so good. BUT! My husband was home for four straight days when he would normally have been at work. My mother-in-law, usually an inmate of our home, was being cared for elsewhere for three of those days. I DID read, and use my computer, and pray my distracted little prayers, and I even did some of the planning I had dreamed of doing.
So I was a chipper girl, a real trouper, smiling bravely through the pain, apologizing for putting people to the trouble of making me an English Muffin or helping me cross the room. I charmed myself- who knew I could be such a sweetie? Bed rest was, in a hideously overused and almost meaningless word, awesome.
Lesson 2: Lying in Bed is, After the Initial Fun Passes, a Giant Pain in the Patootie (subtitled You May BECOME a Giant Pain in the Patootie)
So then my mother-in-law returned, and I noticed a sensible diminishment in the almost exclusive attention of my husband. This led to some rather unfair crankiness on my part, as Chipper Trouper Girl gave way to Ungrateful Snippy Wench. It is a good thing I have had so much practice apologizing in my life; I have gotten pretty good at it.
Interestingly at about this time, I finished the books I had set aside to read and also unfortunately realized that Facebook is nothing more than a thinly disguised opportunity to make an ass out of one’s self. I mean, after you have importuned your poor friends (and you know who you are) with more than a few private messages about the deterioration of your physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual state, it starts to turn from your gift of a chance to do good for a friend to- well, friend abuse. Know the signs: usually these messages begin with “I think I may be pregnant!” or “I know you have to make dinner, slop the animals, finish math with your kids, and find something sexy to wear for your husband later, but I am pretty sure I am experiencing demonic attack- can you help?”
How to stay just this side of the Friend Abuse line: limit PMs/texts to no more than 3 a day, short ones with as little drama as you can muster, and know that you already have your friend’s prayers, because she loves you and wants you to get better as much as you do. Maybe more, because then she can actually make dinner and castrate the goats. Or something.
Lesson 3: Plan More Time than They Tell You to Recover
The day after my mom-in-law returned, my wonderful husband left to go back to work, because we had flippantly been told that the recovery time from having two orange-sized tumors removed from one’s body would be, oh, about 3 days, max. Lies. All lies. I still felt, 5 days out, like I had been worked over by a gang of toughs and left for dead, and now that my Lying in Bed Euphoria had passed, it wasn’t any fun any more. Kids were realizing they missed me; the dog was missing the regularity with which he had been fed and let out; I felt the weight of Unmet Expectations, my own and others, descend upon my soul, and I knew fear.
I felt so much pressure to be better, mostly from myself, but also from my family who had been led to believe they would have their mom and wife and daughter in law back at full speed 72 hours after four incisions were made in her abdomen and parts of her body were removed. This, clearly, was stupid. As my husband is fond of saying, “The key to happiness in life is low expectations.” I actually asked him to please stop saying that (people would always look at me accusingly), but he is right. Recovery is so very much easier if you set low expectations ahead of time for how healed you will be how soon. If you think it’s going to be 3 days, tell people a week, and tell yourself a week. Give yourself permission to heal fully before attempting reentry- you are doing nobody any favors by rushing things. This is especially difficult if you have young children, but this is a nice segué to Lesson 4.
Lesson 4: Ask for, and Accept, Help, in Advance if Possible
I live an entirely different life in my head. In that light-filled space, doctors tell husbands that their wives will need to convalesce for a summer by the sea. Husbands, in turn, are moneyed men of leisure who exist to dance attendance upon the mother of their heirs. The maid packs the steamer trunk, and we are away to Brighton or Bath.
The reality, though more harsh, is still pretty nice; I do have a wonderful husband who loves me and wants me to get the best care possible. I have 92% fabulous kids who also love me and want me to get better soon so I can cook again so we can once again frolic together in the Fields of Elysium. But there is only so much they all can handle, your illness is stressful for them as well, and they still have all the expectations and duties of regular life to fulfill, plus yours. Make this easier on them by accepting help from family and friends. If none is offered, ask for it, or offer a trade if your family/friends are particularly lame/busy. Mine aren’t, and immediately competed to bring the most amazing dinners and take my younger kids for a day to give us all a break in the process. It has made all the difference; they had an opportunity to be of real service, and my family had an opportunity to be humble and deeply grateful, always a nice state of being.
By the way, the trade I mentioned above is an offer of compensatory babysitting time, when you are well and truly better, to two or three trustworthy folks who could entertain your little ones for a day or two each while you recover, even for just a morning or afternoon around nap schedules. Most people are lovely and will tell you they would be delighted to just help you out, no return necessary, but it is polite to offer if you are the one doing the asking. Perhaps your friend is in dire need of a day off herself, and your offer will come like a vision of light at the end of a tunnel.
Lesson 5: Accept Meals, and Lower your Dietary Standards for a Short Time
If people offer to make you meals, for the love of Mike, just say a grateful and hasty “Yes please!! I love you forever!!” So what if you’ve got a kid with Celiac (like I do)- the rest of the family is magically fed, and all that remains for your exhausted hub or oldest kids to do is whip up ONE gourmet quinoa-based dinner. So what if 5 nights in a row your family has goulash? Goulash is FANTASTIC, and you can lay off it for a month or so afterwards to get everyone back in the mood. So WHAT if people bring brownies and ice cream and your family Never, Ever Eats Sugar. Give them to someone who will appreciate them, like me for instance.
Hint: do ask people to leave dinners on the porch or in the garage for you, and to let you know in advance when they are coming. It is a cardinal rule of life that the very moment your pain meds kick in and your kids are quiet and you are juuuust drifting off to sleep, the doorbell must ring. Try to minimize this occurrence with this one very reasonable request: people who are kind enough to bring dinner will understand. I always do Ding Dong Ditch Dinner when I bring a meal, with the difference that instead of ringing the doorbell and dashing madly to the car, I quietly shoot the recipients a text saying “Dinner will be left on your porch at 5:30pm. Get some rest and I will see you when you are well!” Don’t forget the heart and smiley face emoticons…
Lesson 6: Even When a Hospital has a Teeny Little Post-Operative Infection Rate of only 3%, You Should Still Plan to Get One
Sigh. More sighing. See Lesson about low expectations; see other Lesson about adding on more time for recovery if necessary.
Lesson 7: Always Have a Plan B
I totally forgot this most important rule of sickness, nay, of life itself. This is what comes of my youngest being 8. Truly little kids are constant living reminders of this rule, and great teachers of flexibility and docility to God’s Permissive Will. Plan B is vital to your happiness at all times. For instance, when you bring toddlers to Mass, Plan A is everyone will sit quietly in a pew in a well-dressed row, hands clasped prayerfully with their right thumbs over their left. Clearly, a Plan B is needed if one’s head is not to explode. Plan B, of course, is that you won’t be able to find a shoe so boots will be worn in summer by at least one child, you will be ten minutes late to Mass because the teenager left the car 3 gallons below empty, and Challenging Child will become Exorcist Baby the minute his or her little soul passes the portals of your parish church.
With Plan B, you blissfully accept the “early Taylor Swift” look of boots and dresses, you have a gallon of gas sitting in the mower can for just such an occasion, and you carry holy water in your purse at all times. You also just give up on ever hearing a homily again, no matter how much you need to. These lovely low expectations lead directly to contentedness. So, in sickness as in life, do have this Plan B in place: you will be recovering much longer than the docs said, you will get a post-operative infection, your mother in law will drain away your husband’s caregiving energies, kids won’t get a ton of school done but will be introduced by your former friends to Avatar the Last Airbender which will lead them to both question western religion and kick box. Full disclosure: I now love that show.
Lesson 8: Suffer Well- or As Best You Can
I remember vividly the advice given by a Catholic priest to a local Catholic warrior who was going into amputation surgery: “Suffer well!” he said. Great advice. Decide in advance that you will suffer, and that your suffering is going to be worth something to Someone. Decide for whom you will be offering up each day; with surgery you can do this in advance, but with illness it may have to be more of a seat of the pants thing, as in, “Lord…(retching), today I offer my vomiting for… uh… someone who really needs it.” God will know what to do.
Accept in advance that you will have cranky moments and less-than-stellar interactions, and vow to give it all to God, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Dwell momentarily on the deathbed of St. Thérése of Lisieux, be inspired, and then let it go. You are almost certainly not St. Thérése of Lisieux, but you can be St. You all the same, and offer up the gifts you have to give in your own way. Even when we blow it, these intentions are precious to God. Give yourself a break- you’re sick.
So these are the lessons I am learning as I rot here in bed, I mean rest prayerfully here in my retreat, and I dearly hope they are of some value to you, or at least have given you a laugh. Which, after all, is the best medicine— be well!