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After surgery, a retrospective of recklessness


“If I could do it again/I’d make more mistakes/I’d not be so scared of falling/If I could do it again/I’d climb more trees/I’d pick and I’d eat more wild/Blackberries”

— Bloc Party, “Waiting for the 7:18”

When I was a senior in high school, I climbed into a corrugated drain pipe and had three friends roll it down a hill through a bonfire on a friend’s farm.

Miraculously, I survived the incident, and though I bumped my head after exiting the pipe before it crashed into a tree, I emerged relatively unscathed.

I was 17 at the time and that was years before I ever gave any consideration to my body’s physical limitations and, fortunately, it would be years before I would need to think about such things.

Then, on a Wednesday some seven weeks ago, my good fortune came up against its first solid obstacle.

After losing sensation in my legs after trying to relieve a bout of back pain by swimming, I had to have emergency surgery to remove some material that had extruded from a disc between two vertebrae in my lower back.

The material, 6-cubic centimeters of it, was compressing a bundle of nerves called the cauda equina that runs into the legs and pelvic saddle.

Cauda equina is Latin for “horse’s tail” and apparently describes the appearance of the bundle of nerves. The name for the condition from which I suffered is Cauda Equina Syndrome — a rare disorder that is considered a surgical emergency because of the permanent damage it can cause if left untreated.

It is pretty clear to me what triggered the actual injury — slipping on some ice while jogging and attempting to resolve the issue by taking an ill-advised dip.

What is less clear to me is what the root cause, or causes, for it may have been. What were the factors that contributed to me having major back surgery at 28?

That’s a harder question to answer.

In my youth, I wasn’t exactly a daredevil. Though I did sneak into a municipal pool and ride a Razor scooter off the high dive, I didn’t careen down the pool’s waterslide on an automotive creeper or ride a Radio Flyer red wagon down a concrete creek embankment into nearly flood-stage waters — those exploits I left to my more fearless compatriots.

But I did take my good health for granted — I made the mistake of thinking it would never go away.

Doubtless the five years I spend on active duty in the Marine Corps, some of it hauling heavy loads with the help of my back, took its toll. But, truth be told, I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. There are some experiences, I suppose, for which sacrificing the body is a worthy exchange.

There aren’t too many experiences I regret. Sure, there are some things I wish I hadn’t done.

Like, I wish I hadn’t succumbed to a dare to jump over another bonfire after completing a grueling training exercise (why do all my exploits seem to involve fire?). I wish I hadn’t stuck the landing on a pine-cone and I wish I hadn’t twisted my ankle.

Other than that, nothing really jumps to mind. At least nothing physical.

But the six weeks I spent recovering from the surgery did give me time to think about the other aspects of my life in which I’ve been reckless: friends, relationships, time.

There are some things I regret about the way I’ve treated others in the past. Times when I wish I could have been kinder, wiser, more compassionate, more considerate.

Those mistakes have left their scars as well.

I guess the larger question, and the harder question to answer, is not, “how did I get to this point?” but “where do I go from here?”

Obviously, when it comes to the physical realm, there is an established protocol: I go to physical therapy two or three times per week to try to repair some residual nerve damage and I try to have patience while the sensation hopefully works its way back. I look forward to running again, though probably not on ice.

As for the other side of things, I suppose I can only hope that I have learned from my mistakes and I can rest assured that though I will continue to make mistakes in the future, I can learn from those too.

So, let’s get reckless.

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