Sometimes, no matter your preparation, no matter your tenacity, no matter your resilience, life seems to conspire to bring you down. 2023 has certainly started out that way. As I compose this now grievously overdue piece the morning before a too-familiar surgical procedure, I find myself determined to make lemonade out of the lemons that seem to be rolling my way from every direction.
These lemons are all first-world problems to be sure. That does not make bearing them any sweeter, nor does that permit me to ignore them. Reminding myself they are first-world problems, however, surprisingly seems to permit me to let go a bit and be kinder to myself. That is important, for self-compassion, which I have written about previously in this space, and is an important tool in our kit for staying emotionally healthy.
The first blow was the news that my partner of four years—a spirited, fun, tenacious, growth mindset, and insanely physically active physician—received news that she was going to the bench for spinal fusion surgery. This is her second back surgery since we have been together, and third overall. While the news was not a shock, it was still a psychological blow.
Compounding the felony is that we are presently in a two-city relationship. Thus, I will not have the same luxury of being present to provide both physical and emotional support as I have in the past. Instead our current physical separation exacerbates the emotional weight we each must bear individually at a time when we already have diminished reserves.
As I wrote, Dr. J is relentless, and she received permission from her surgeon to go skiing a few weeks ahead of her surgery. We are both athletic by nature and love the feeling of being on the mountain. She planned a trip to Vail (my first for skiing) over my birthday.
On day two I took a low-speed fall on a catwalk. In the time Dr. J and I have been together, I have had a rotator cuff repair on my left shoulder. That 2019 surgery was the fourth time my “weekend warrior” athletic pursuits have put me under the knife since the turn of the century. The good news is one rarely speeds down a catwalk. The bad news is that the snow on catwalks is typically more likely ice than snow. My shoulder felt sore, so a few runs later I called it a day.
I am writing this the morning before I return to Vail for surgery to repair a pretty badly banged up shoulder. This will be my fifth cuff repair, and this time it will be my right shoulder. So I have not been in the best of moods. Because I am familiar with the recovery path from this surgery (spoiler alert…it is a long one), it is easy to get down. Really. Easy.
In doing my best to channel Eric Idle in the final scene from Life of Brian, I take a deep breath. I count my blessings. I sing to myself, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” I laugh to myself, although it is a knowingly dark laugh. I go down a rabbit hole of familiar comedy on YouTube and start to feel (marginally) better.
This is the point in the infomercial where the announcer pauses, kicks it up a notch, and adds, “But wait. There’s more.” Seriously?
Strike Three, Mom’s “Out”
So with one surgery set for a late Friday in February, and the second for the following Monday, it seemed we knew what was ahead of us—a couple of ostensibly overachieving professionals rehabbing a time zone apart.
Ten days before the first surgery came the phone call with the curve ball. The message was simple and direct. “I’ve requested authority from Mom’s health insurer to take her to hospice care. They have approved it,” said my younger sister, a medical professional who has managed health care for the generation above us the way our younger brother handles insurance matters and I handle the legal stuff.
We cannot control the curve balls that life throws us. We can control, however, the way we choose to react to them.
So instead of using a weekend to get ahead of work commitments that would be ignored for at least two weeks post-surgery, or to prepare two-plus weeks of meals while I had two hands to use for cooking so I could eat healthy, I was on a plane to Chicago.
My 94-year-old mom was already slowing down when she fell and fractured her hip in late 2021. This injury, however, robbed her of her remaining independence and dented her spirit. I was drained (and my shoulder aching) when I got back on the plane Sunday afternoon.
Is Letting Go All We Have to Hold On To?
So, “bad things come in threes,” or something like that. When I got on the plane, I was wiped. What else would be on my plate when I landed in Denver? I stretched out in my exit row seat and fell asleep before takeoff. When I awoke, we were in the air and probably halfway home. A bit refreshed, I reflected on the whirlwind of these three items. With a rested brain, it wasn’t so bad.
I was lucky to have provided respite care for Mom after she moved in with my sister. That gave me 10 days of one-on-one time, during which my sister and her husband took well-earned tropical vacations to rest and recharge.
I noticed between the first and second trip, which were about six months apart, a marked decrease in Mom’s energy, ability to pay attention, etc. It was clear by the visit before Christmas that she was tired and ready to let go, but her generation does not do that, or at least Mom doesn’t. This is probably why, when I said goodbye, I told her how much I valued those trips and that we are ready to let her go as soon as she feels ready.
I reflected on Dr. J’s situation, marveling, just as I did on our first date, at her physical tenacity. I wrote out a snarky card to mail when we landed because “laughter is the best medicine.”
Finally, I reflected on my own upcoming surgery. Yes, it’s a pain and a long rehab. Then again, like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, “I’ve had worse.”
That’s a true statement if ever there is one. In January 1988, I spent two weeks in the intensive care unit and three total in Georgetown University Hospital. I left with a 14-inch scar running from the bottom of my right ribcage on my abdomen up around my back to under my right shoulder blade. I beat the odds and was discharged exactly 12,817 days before I submitted this story for publication.
We cannot control the curve balls that life throws us. We can control, however, the way we choose to react to them. For 35 years, I’ve seen a scar on a daily basis that reminds me how close I came to an early exit. It reminds me to choose to “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.”
If I am lucky, I will continue to maintain that perspective until it is truly my time to exit this mortal coil.
Rosemary Beckman was a quietly brilliant woman who married her intellectual equal, Chicago PD detective John G. Beckman, in 1960. A dedicated educator, she taught at an inner-city school upon graduating college, completing a master’s degree in 1957 for good measure. After starting a family, she returned to work and taught until she retired. She was revered by her students as she treated each one like they were her own child—demanding responsibility, accountability, and appropriate behavior. She passed on March 2, 2023. She will be missed greatly as her life meant more than she would ever dream to take credit for (sorry Mom, I didn’t mean to end a sentence with a preposition, but if anything will bring you back, it would be to correct my grammar!).
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