Life Without a Colon
I was asking…pleading for a colectomy. Every year at this time, I think about this surgery, which for me, happened to be my cure from ulcerative colitis.
I am so lucky. Lucky, lucky, lucky.
Over the past 4 or 5 years, I’ve realized that now, I have lots of peers and dear friends who are far wiser than I–their struggles make this event 15 years ago look like a trip to Disneyland. That smug wisdom I had at 18 is over.
But, for a few years, that illness made me wiser than many of my peers. I learned about mortality. I knew, as only a select group of teenagers ever know, that sometimes, no matter how badly you want to live, your body won’t cooperate. You’ll keep bleeding, loosing weight, getting weaker.
No matter your positive thoughts.
No matter your prayers.
And, I learned that sometimes, for whatever arbitrary reason (because the older I get, unfortunately I realize that who stays and who goes feels terribly arbitrary), healing can happen, though it’s often not in the form I originally thought it would come in.
Instead of the miraculous healing I prayed for, the one where my symptoms disapper, and I walk out of the hospital, leaving doctors scratching their heads… I ended up with a different result, one without a colon and a few adjustments to my life, but a healing just as miraculous because of the many lessons it taught me.
If I hadn’t gotten so sick that summer, I think the life I led would have been very different. There are dear friends I would have never met.
I think it even had a profound affect on the person I chose to marry. We didn’t (don’t) seem to have much in common on the surface, but 1995 was a rough year for both of us. And the things we learned that year (though such knowledge came under very different circumstances) formed part of our immediate bond when we got reacquainted in college and still frames our lives today, carrying us through difficult times.
I wouldn’t have gone into religious studies or found hospital chaplaincy. I don’t think I would have applied to the graduate schools that I applied to and certainly wouldn’t have had the courage to go to the one I ended up going to. In fact, my mantra for five years post-surgery was, “I can do that. I’ve gone without food or water for 40 days, I’ve been in the hospital for 2 months, and I’ve lost a colon. This is nothing.”
That last flare-up taught me more about God and charity (and how God uses others to show love, do God’s work, and comfort us) than I have learned before or since. It also taught me a reliance on God that I don’t know if I could have learned any other way. I learned that when it’s 3 am, and I had to wait 2 more hours before my next doses of anti-nausea medication and/or pain medication, well, there wasn’t anyone else who was able to sit in that room and wait with me quite like Jesus did (though my mom was a close second).
The memory of that very real presence in my hospital room on more than a few hard nights in the hospital sustains me when my faith waivers even today. So much knowledge was gained in such a short time that I sometimes wonder if I’ve learned anything since that illness or am I just constantly reframing that experience, trying to glean more from such a difficult time.
A couple years ago, I had an ob/gyn give me an exam. She looked at my stomach 14 inch vertical scar and the 6 inch horizontal scar. She said (as most people do), “Oh my gosh! What happened?!”
I explained I had a colectomy. She said, “You know, they only make about a 4 inch incision now for the whole surgery.”
But, I’m happy with my scars because a 5 inch incision just wouldn’t do justice to the illness or the healing. As I’ve reflected all month on where I was 15 years ago (yes, I’m a little embarrassed that I have thought about June 1995 this much), I wish I could show that 18 year old Emily my stomach today, pregnant with Baby #3, with the faded scars and most importantly, I’d have her notice that there aren’t any new scars. She never had another flare-up that would necessitate more scarring, she even got pregnant and that trusty pseudo-colon made it unnecessary for the Cesearans the doctors promised she’d need.
That ugly stomach would show her that she did what she feared she’d never be able to do when she got out of the hospital–grow up, move out, and move on.