Today marks the one-year anniversary of my surgery. Because my spirits were so dismal in the days immediately following the operation, on day 11 I began writing a log of the small daily victories that marked my healing and recovery. While I was initially unsure how long I would keep it up, I have maintained the log to this day and have no plans to stop, not when I still have so far to go.
One year ago tomorrow, I strapped on my back brace, leaned on a walker, and shuffled slowly from my hospital room to the nurse’s station and back, flanked by my wife and a physical therapist. Due less to pain and more to my fear that the operation had not worked, I cried the whole way.
Going into the operation, I was under the impression that I would not need a brace. When I found out the surgeon was prescribing one, I angrily and defiantly informed the nurse that I refused to wear the contraption. Over time though, I became attached to it. While the brace was at first just a literal support, over time it took on a figurative role as well, sort of like my version of Wilson the volleyball. During the first two months of healing, my brace and I walked for hours and hours together, and during long walks when I was otherwise alone, unsteady on my feet, unsure of my present, and scared of an uncertain future, my brace was always there to keep me upright and give me the courage to keep moving forward.
On day 67, we walked the entire Boston Marathon route together. Shortly thereafter, my surgeon told me it was time to stop wearing the brace. Truth be told, I was sad to jettison my sidekick. Finding the brace by surprise in the house triggers a similar fondness to randomly running into an old friend in the grocery store.
My surgeon was astonished by how quickly I progressed in the first few months after the operation. “You will be back to your crazy workouts in no time,” my physical therapist told me last summer. Turned out she was way off. As I wrote on day 197, we are only somewhat in control of our destiny and life does not always unfold the way we might expect or wish for ourselves.
Setbacks have been plentiful. Activities that my surgeon said should be fine at the time, like swimming, remained intolerable until seasons after his timetable indicated. Some of the bone grafts were unusually slow to heal and for a couple of months we faced the legitimate possibility that they might never fuse. Once I got the green light to resume weight training, I hurt one shoulder, then the other, and had to leave the weight room once again while I rehabbed them. Raking leaves in the November twilight and rushing to finish before darkness, I swiftly walked into my leaf blower, broke my big toe, and ended up in a walking boot. My most recent MRI showed a bulging disk at the surgical site, a highly unusual complication, and the radiating pain down my leg has returned. What can I say, Robert Smith taught me a long time ago that life is neither fair nor unfair.
Before the surgery, I expected that my healing would plot out a linear trajectory with each week being better than the previous one, but quickly I realized that was unrealistic and a setup for disappointment. Real life has its downs, but thanks to good fortune, hard work, and help from many people, it also has its ups.
Although my ultimate goal remains to resume playing competitive tennis and I am working hard in a physical sense to make that happen, simultaneously I am doing my best to prepare myself emotionally for the possibility that it may never come to fruition. Although I remain light-years away from returning to the court, accepting the latter feels much harder – and much less likely – than ever achieving the former. Past opponents and fictitious foes have contract court time in my dreams and we battle it out several nights most weeks, and my wife does not know that I often tear up when I watch her own matches from the sidelines.
Recovery does not end once the surgical site heals. Despite all that has happened in the past twelve months, in some ways I feel like I am still at the beginning of the journey with a long and unmapped future ahead of me. One year ago, I was bawling on a hospital gurney awaiting my turn in the operating room. Today, I went for my first run outside in 18 months. It was slow, short, uncomfortable, and really, really difficult. And it was totally and completely awesome.