My journey as a long distance runner who started the sport later in life.
I was exactly one month post-op yesterday. While a month seems like a long time, it is actually an insignificant milestone given the specific problems I have. It certainly does drag on, believe me, I know this better than anyone else because it is I who suffers from chronic pain and lack of hand function. Since this whole thing started, the behavior and actions of those who interact with me have been both a source of happiness and sadness.
There are those who say, “Your hand is better now, right?” “It’s as good as new?” “It will be 100% soon?” These questions make me feel bad because the reality is that my recovery time is an unknown variable, and it could be measured in the unit of years. Every hand trauma is as different as the health, physiology, and treatment compliance of every patient, and I have the mother of all hand traumas. My therapist has suggested that I might be lucky to regain 60%, which is a downer to think about in the face of a cheerfully oblivious person quoting 100% recovery. It’s even worse if the cheerful oblivion is coupled with incredulity when I answer. Why would I lie about something like this?
There are those who say, “What can I do to help?” Just as the second pregnancy often elicits less fanfare than the first, the offers of help dwindled significantly with the second surgery; people literally dropped off the map and I never heard from them again. One person continued to ask and made us some greatly appreciated meals, another wonderful person helped with massages and passive range of motion exercises, but that was about it. The reality is that a chronic problem like mine requires chronic help, and few are unable and/or unwilling to invest that kind of time in anyone other than themselves or possibly family members.
There are those who commiserate for they have been through a similar trauma. What they specifically say varies depending on their own personal trauma story, but their words are often of great comfort, or at the very least, are neutral rather than upsetting. Some of the most comforting conversations were initiated by those who have suffered an immobilized knee or ankle, a broken finger, a fight against cancer, or coming to grips with their child developing diabetes. I truly appreciated their kind, thoughtful words, but lament only that empathy must be restricted to such a small group. I could have used a lot more of it; I still could.
At a month in and with summer holidays upon us, interactions with strangers will be the most common type. In the streets of my neighborhood everyone wants to know, “Como va tu mano?” These people know me only as the güera of the neighborhood, but they seem genuinely interested in my progress, more so than some “friends.” Many of them have actually heard the story of my original fall, and no doubt more than a few of them wonder about the progress, especially when they see me splinted up months after the accident. It is honest compassion and curiosity that I see in their eyes, which assures me that my adopted land brims with kind strangers.
The interaction that has been most upsetting is that of avoidance. There is the avoidance of my eyes when I pass people in the hall; if I remain unseen, both I and my problem need not exist. This type of avoidance is typically carried out by acquaintances, and who can blame them? If I am being honest, which I invariably am, I will not be providing a pat, quick answer to their question of, “How are you?” There is the avoidance of talking about it, most typically carried out by people I consider(ed?) friends. In these circumstances my hand remains the white elephant in the room, seen but not acknowledged, a difficult issue to me alone. This seems overly harsh coming from people who are supposed to be “there for me” in a time of need.
By now you are probably thinking, “So what should one say or do?” This is a tough question to answer because it depends on the context of our specific relationship. As stated previously, more genuine empathy would be nice, but I am starting to think that is not possible from anyone other than those who have also experienced a physical trauma. What a shame it is that we know how important empathy is for the future of humanity, yet so few of us are unable to give it. If you have called yourself a friend of mine in the past, then actually be one, and care at least as much about my hand as my neighbors seem to by actually engaging me in conversation about it. Maybe what you say won’t be perfect, but it’s better than pretending the problem doesn’t exist, because from my point of view that looks like you just don’t care.