In Good Company

Last Wednesday I had surgery to remove a cyst on my vocal cord. Surgery went well, but afterwards I discovered my tongue wasn’t working properly. The doctor believes I have a “stunned nerve”. No one knows how long it will last, and he says my body will simply fix itself when (if?) it’s good and ready–that meantime there’s nothing to be done about it.

The day after surgery I needed to work off some agitation and energy with a good, hard swim. I was really frustrated at what a chore it was (and still is) to chew, to swallow, to speak. Funny how a thing like that can affect my whole attitude, my peace, patience, self-control… All the fruits of the Spirit go rotten overnight. I’m such a baby! Could this be the worst malady I’ve ever had to deal with? It’s no fun, for sure. I’m biting my tongue daily, and when I talk my words are slurred and have to be very deliberate. As I labor to articulate, I self-consciously wonder if people think I’m just mentally “slow”.

As I started my swim, I also discovered that it’s quite tough to sweep water from my mouth, especially in a flip-turn. But as I stayed the course and concentrated, I choked less and less on the water and was able to have an almost-normal swim.

So, even though it added fodder to the frustration I was trying to burn off, it was good to swim. But on this summer Saturday the city pool was quite full, and I had to share the only lap lane with a young woman. She had a toned physique, wearing a one-piece swimmer’s suit, but she was surprisingly slow. When I’d pass her, as I learned to harness my errant tongue and quit choking, I began to notice that her breaststroke was maybe the worst I’d ever seen. There were no propulsive sweeping arms and frog kicks. Rather a goofy curling up, almost into a face-down fetal position, then stretching out. She was really lousy, though she had an athlete’s physique. Maybe she’s a runner or aspiring triathlete who doesn’t know the first thing about swimming, I thought.

Yet she kept swimming next to me for a good half hour. I took off my training gloves near the end of my swim, and she was standing at the wall also, so I turned to communicate… but I wasn’t supposed to be talking yet and was dealing with this tongue issue. So instead, I lifted one hand, spread my fingers and quietly mouthed, “Fah moe!” and pointed down the lap lane to signal my final five laps. As I swam, I thought about whether I could find a nonverbal way to give her just one or two tips on swimming when I was done, but when I stopped she’d already crossed under the lane line and was on the other side of the pool.

As I stood against the wall, packing my gear, a woman in a lounge chair smiled lingeringly at me. At first I wanted to be flattered; I’d fought my way through a tough post-surgery swim, I was feeling good about it, maybe I was looking good too! Then I wondered if maybe she’d heard my neighborly but pathetic attempt to speak to my lane partner.

Just then, a bouncy female voice said, “Thanks for swimming with me!”, and my wannabee swim partner walks past, big smile on her face, ambling on something like her toes, arms flailing limp below the elbows and knees all akimbo, teetering toward the restroom.

After a quick elbow-jab to myself “You idiot!”, another set of lights in my head went on: I was being branded. Both the swimmer and the spectator saw me as disabled too. The lounge chair smile had that friendly yet condescending pat-on-the-head kind of quality to it. I’ve employed that smile many times. And it left me frankly feeling demeaned to be smiled at from above like that… to be on the other side of that transaction for a change and remember my feelings from her side of it. She wasn’t purposely demeaning me, but neither was I her equal.

My swimmer friend on the other hand seemed genuinely appreciative of me, a fellow-struggler, doing our best together, getting good physical activity and not judging one another. OK, maybe I judged her a bit, but only as a coach judges a student. We formed a fellowship of the uphill strugglers. She heard my stammerings and awarded me immediate membership in a society I didn’t ever want to be in–but was also somehow proud to be in.

She and I saw each other one more time as we walked out of the gates a few feet behind one another. I was tempted to strike up a conversation but quickly remembered I couldn’t talk. And I thought better of it anyway… I had a sense God was showing me something here I didn’t want to miss, a first-hand experience of the condescended-upon. And also this alternate universe where less than “perfect” people draw strength from one another. And I had a sense that the timing of the experience was exquisite, that God wasn’t frustrated about my tongue problem or panicked by it. Rather that maybe this was the next chapter in my story, like it or not: the Author decides that, not me. And in that moment, something began to shift for me, a releasing of anxiety, something that said this isn’t an out-of-control crisis but a journey, a path downward from the Rim of the World Highway of my privilege, power, position and relative “perfection”. A path of unknowing, of frustration, of humility… and humiliation. A path that will require trust, and maybe some courage, to turn the page.


Aug 5, 2009

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