I should have picked some other verse for 2023. Something that has to do with health and victory and success. Instead, I chose a Psalm about suffering and tribulation, and how I need to “be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46:10)
Be careful what you pray for. Because not two days into the first year, as I was setting down a bucket of rice, I felt something snap in my lower back and I fell down on my butt with a cry.
“Oh my God, are you OK?” my nanny exclaimed from the dining room. She had heard me crash onto the kitchen floor, and she came rushing over with Tov in her arms.
“I think I tweaked my back, is all!” I replied, getting up. I could feel the instability in my lower back, but I wasn’t in horrible pain.
“You’re doing too much. You need to sit down,” my nanny ordered.
I couldn’t sit. We had moved into an Airbnb while our house undergoes renovations, and I had just lugged two heavy bags of items from our freezer to the Airbnb that needed to be put away. The place was a mess and needed organization. Tov was running out of solid foods and I needed to make more. I haven’t had lunch yet, or even my first cup of coffee.
So I hoped and wished that it wasn’t that big a deal. I took a hot shower. I massaged my back muscles. But as the day went on, I knew I had done more to my back than a slight muscle strain. My torso was all wobbly on top of my hip, and I could feel a dull, throbbing pressure on my lower back.
The very thing I had been fearful of has happened, and all because of a bucket of rice that wasn’t even 10 pounds. The last time I hurt my back about three years ago, it had taken months to recover. But I had a baby. I didn’t have several months to lay off heavy lifting. Yet each time I picked Tov up or nursed him, I could feel the grinding pressure on my vertebrae.
I found a chiropractor, and she took some X-rays of my back. When she sensed some intense pressure on my neck, she took X-rays of my neck as well. She showed me models of vertebrae in various stages of degeneration. “If you’re here,” she said, pointing to the second vertebrae, “I can help you back to here,” she pointed at the healthy, normal vertebrae. “But if you’re here,” she pointed at the third vertebrae, “I can’t get you back to normal. By then we can only try to prevent you from getting here,” she said, pointing to the fourth vertebrae whose disc had degenerated so much that the bones were jiggedy-jaggedy from rubbing against each other.
Uh-huh. My stubbornly optimistic self immediately assumed I can’t possibly be the third or fourth vertebrae. I expected a full recovery after a few months of recuperation. Annoying, but not a big deal.
I got my test results two days later. The chiropractor marched into the office and once again explained the various stages of disc degeneration to me. I began feeling uneasy– why is she going through this again? And then she announced, pointing at the third vertebrae: “You are here.”
Oh no. Oh no.
I felt my belly sink. She began explaining to me what happens to the disc when it goes through constant wear and tear. How the disc is supposed to act as a jelly-like shock-absorber, and how when it degenerates or oozes out, it no longer protects the spine as well, and how that affects the nerve system, how that affects everything from my thyroids to my digestive system to my wrists. She held up charts in front of me like a lecturer, and I stared blankly at them, not hearing anything she’s saying.
All I could hear was, “If you’re here, I can’t get you back to normal”– and stare at that stupid, broken third vertebrae with the decayed disc.
Turns out, I have degenerative disc disease on my neck, upper back, and lower back. A couple dics on my neck had degenerated enough that the cervical spine was curving the opposite way it’s supposed to. That was triggering the nerves down my arms, which explains why I suddenly can no longer rotate my right wrist without sharp pain. My bad neck is why my back gave out– it was over-compensating from the misalignment in my neck, which then caused a misalignment in my back and hip. It’s not technically a “disease”– everyone has degenerative discs at some point due to aging– but mine is pretty early for a 35-year-old, possibly caused by my young gymnastics/Taekwondo days, two car accidents, the physically grueling task of childbearing and child-rearing, and me constantly cracking my neck and back several times a day for years.
“You probably want to kill me for this news,” my chiropractor said. “Maybe you want to toss me out the window.”
I think she might have said a “but” afterwards with some better news about treatment plans, but I didn’t hear it because all I could hear was a loud buzz of worry– what does this mean? Will I be able to wear and carry Tov like I did before? Will I be able to have a second kid? Will I be able to lift weights again? Run? Carry heavy groceries? Travel? Will I have chronic pain for the rest of my life? Become a hunchbacked cripple?
The chiropractor asked me what I wanted: Did I want to focus on pain relief? Or try a treatment plan to correct the misalignment, though the result is not guaranteed?
“I just want to be normal again,” I said, swallowing back my tears. “I want to be able to carry my baby.”
How strange, when at that moment, every day before the diagnosis suddenly felt like the golden happy days. Post-diagnosis, the future felt bleak and gray. The chiropractor put me on a six-month, 22-treatment plan, open to adjustment if my body doesn’t respond well to it. I hate such uncertainties. I wanted to hear a confident declaration that yes, the treatment will 100 percent work, and you’ll be back to running 4 miles and doing 150-pound leg presses in no time! But I returned home with no such promises and a disheartened heart.
That weekend, David fell sick. He mostly stayed supine in bed, groaning and moaning about his pain while I moved around the house with a back brace, a wrist guard, and ice packs on my neck. Add to that a pumping device and I felt like some kind of barn animal. I had been expecting him to help out more with Tov, but now I had two babies to take care of– one small and cute, the other big and not as cute. As much as I felt sorry for David, I also seethed. Where was help when I needed it? Who’s taking care of me?
That Sunday, we had planned to go out on our first date since Tov was born. David’s cousins had offered to babysit Tov while we went out. They were busy people so we had booked this date a month in advance. Now we had to cancel, and instead of a romantic dinner out, I spent that evening watching Tov while David passed out on the couch.
“Oooh I feel like I’m dying! This is the worst pain I’ve ever felt!” David moaned.
“You’re always saying it’s always the worst pain you ever felt,” I said suspiciously as I made him some hot mint tea, while wincing from the tension around my neck and back. I grumbled to myself that if the male species ever had to go through childbirth labor pains, all of them would probably die off from the pain and go extinct. Or maybe they’ll survive, just so they can live another day to complain, as they seem to enjoy complaining. (But then, if the male species died off, what would the female species have to grumble about? Because I think secretly we women also like to complain about our men.)
Two nights later, as David lay in pain on the couch again, after I had finally put Tov to bed, after I had finished up washing up the dishes, I finally reached my end. My back and neck were killing me. I still had work to do, but how is it already almost 9 pm already?! I felt overwhelmed thinking that this might be my future for God knows how long. I was emotionally and physically exhausted. I just wanted to fling my braces into the garbage disposal and destroy things. All the helplessness and anger and frustration swooshed out into hot salty tears as I gingerly tried to stretch out the knots in my back, feeling like a broken, pathetic creature.
David saw my tears and sat up, alarmed. “You need help?”
Yes. Is there a magic pill to revert my body back to a 22-year-old’s? No? Then you’re useless too!
I swallowed my bitter words. “You could have helped wash the dishes.”
“Oh! Sorry, I didn’t know.”
“I shouldn’t have to ask.”
“Sorry, I thought you were done with the dishes when I was changing Tov’s diaper.”
“My back’s killing me and I don’t feel like it’s getting any better. I feel like it got worse.”
“I’m sorry. How can I help?”
“I actually dread taking care of Tov now. Just nursing him is so uncomfortable. I hate feeling this way.”
“I think you chose a good verse for this year: Be still.”
“Yeah? Be still? Well, I can’t be still when we have a baby!”
I felt this crushing, devastating longing for those childless days when I didn’t have to constantly pour out to someone. I wanted to run. I wanted to hide. I wanted my old life back.
But then I looked at our baby cam. Tov was sleeping on his belly in his crib. I always put him down on his back, but within a minute he always flips over to his stomach. I looked at the soft, fine hair on the back of his head. The tiny side profile of his face, the sliver of eyelashes. The little fists by his side. As much as I earnestly missed the old days, I can’t imagine life without him anymore.
It must be the grace of God for parents, that as exhausted and overwhelmed as we are, every time we look at our child, we get injected with a shot of happy endorphins that help us persist one more day. And that’s all I needed– one little shot of energy to survive this moment, just one more burst of strength to carry on another day, until a new morning.
Be still, and know that I am the Lord. Stop fighting, and know that I am God.
I was fighting, constantly fighting– for control, for production, for the self-rewarding sense of fulfillment of tasks completed and well done, for a lifestyle from the old days that is no longer realistic, for security and comfort. None of those are bad things to desire, but there are times when I’m grasping for too much, too fast, all at once, and I feel like I’m always rushing and huffing after something that’s dancing and skipping away from reach.
Breathe in, breathe out. It is 9:15 pm. Soon, the day will be over, never to come back. In several hours, I will greet another new day.
Breathe in. Be still. Stop fighting. And in the half-minute it takes to breathe out, meet God. That’s all it takes, just like seeing Tov sleep is all it takes to remind me of the joy of motherhood, when motherhood feels like an utter burden.
Lord, you are God. You are the God of the universe. You are my God. I see you. You see me. You made this body that I detest right now, but for all its wear and tear, it got me through this day: I woke up. I carried and nursed Tov. I did the dishes. I finished the day. And tomorrow, it’ll get me through another day. Thank you. Amen.