Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Shaking a Fist at Mortality

I broke the law once. I picked a wildflower. It was too tempting not to, plus I was a child and didn't know any better until my grandmother, with her wildflower book clutched in hand, scolded me.

It was purple and magnificent. Why it was illegal to pluck such beauty, to smell and touch and inspect and give it away to maternal figures for a flicker of enjoyment...I didn't understand.

I swirled the flower in my hand, the green straw bending beneath the weight of my gentle and dirty fingers. With the violet pedals tickling my nose, I looked at the patch of ground from whence the flower came, and marveled at the army of flowers remaining unscathed in the earth. As the grime from my hands wilted the flower, my grandmother's wisdom became clear. I knew then and there why you don't pick wildflowers. Once they are born from the ground and clutched by life's hands, their vibrance and sweetness begin to perish.

Today I feel like a freshly plucked flower.

My attempts at sounding poetic and analogous are over.
Here is the real story.

I went to a doctor yesterday to get one final check-up on my left knee. About four months ago, a different doctor operated on it and took out a chunk of the precious cushion that helps me get along well in my livelihood as a teacher and coach and as a die-hard mountain biker. In some regards, the surgery was a "success." I have recovered well enough to hammer up and down and over the mountains of Colorado. But my knee aches. Standing all day or walking for long periods of time wears me down mentally as I feel unstable on my inflamed joint and wonder if I should seek sponsorship with Aleve.

I was hoping yesterday, as the physician performed the final test for worker's comp, that he would give me good news and say, "your knee is going to ache some, but it should still get better, just give it time" and "keep doing whatever it is you are doing" (meaning hammering it out on the mountain bike). I was hoping to get some fresh news that would perk me back up like rain on a dusty and parched wildflower. I was hoping for the news that the best days of riding hard and living crazy adventures on two wheels are ahead of me, so I could once again throw my shoulders back with pride and stand tall in the sun.

But that didn't happen. Instead I was told "rules change with every decade of life" and "if you keep riding the way you are riding, you are headed for a knee replacement." Apparently, even though cycling is one of the best things you can do for bad knees, cycling still wears out the knees. Especially my kind of "cycling." When I decide I am training for something, in my present case enduro racing, I place a high demand on my body.

I have always been wired this way. Would I eliminate basketball from the annals of my life if it meant my present-day knees were surgery free and strong? Nope. The part of me that aims to live my life to the fullest and live each day like it could be my last says it was worth it.

Will I jump in a scrimmage again if the opportunity presents itself? Nope. The part of me that desires to live a good life for as long as possible now says it isn't worth it anymore. It only took four knee surgeries to get me to that point. It is with this level of stubbornness that I tried to digest the evil epiphany that cycling might be damaging my knees, not preserving them.

The 56-year-old in scrubs attempted to lead my thoughts by personal stories of graceful change. He used to run marathons, but in his twenties he quit running. After his thirties, he gave up cycling. Not tracking with him in the least, I finally asked him, "So what do you do for exercise?" His reply: "Walk."

That's when my emotions began to short-circuit. I looked him square in the eye and said, "I would rather have a double knee replacement than not be able to ride my bike." His response included something about hobbling around for the rest of my life.

Before you hate on him like I did, I genuinely believe he was trying to guide me to a path of growing old gracefully. I did not respond with "well, I have friends who have had knee replacements and still ride" or an alternative rude and defensive response like my emotions were dictating. Rather, I awkwardly stared at him and mentally shut him off from speaking any further advice into my life.

That was that. He was done testing everything on my knee (which is 100% according to the strength, motion, and bending it all around tests) and let me know he had another patient to see. The tears that had welled up began to leak as he exited the room and I fumbled my way out the front door.

By the time I turned out of the parking lot onto the access road, I was wailing loudly. The words "stop riding your bike" echoed in my soul. I'm 38 freaking years old and I was just advised to take up walking. I haven't bawled that much since my dog died two years ago.

When the dry heaves stopped and my puffy eyes dried, I tried to process everything. I fought to mitigate the statement "you are wearing out your joints" with reason and common sense and perhaps some rationalizing. My other doctor told me riding was good, but I'm sure he was imaging a stationary bike or a mild cruise down a smooth path. This doctor seemed familiar with my very different definition of "riding" with the addition of the words "competing" and "mountain."

I tried to lay emotion aside and hear the message. "Slow down. Make some changes. Accept the fact that your body is aging." Getting angry at the truth is not productive. But I am a creature full of strong emotion, which is why I ride in the first place. The root of my anger is ultimately fear. What is my greatest fear in life? It is to lose my physical ability. Why? Because I have believed for so long my mental well-being is directly tied to my ability to push myself physically. (That's a whole other story. If you're a glutton for punishment, you can read about that too in "my own story of life and bike" at the top of this blog.)

It took me the entire day to process the simple doctor's visit. After falling on my face before the Lord, crying more tears, and holding conversations with those I trust, this morning when I awoke, an overwhelming peace about my mortality began to rise up within me. Yet again in life, God's gentle grace is carrying me. In the times of greatest anguish, my savior and friend stands by my side and holds me. As I have said many times, I cannot explain faith as clear as I wish I could, but I will say with all of me that God's love for us is real. His wisdom trumps all others. Because he knows suffering better than any, He draws near every time my heart is broken and offers healing.

He reminds me, most importantly, as I age incredibly ungracefully, that this world is not my home. This body is indeed perishing. This flower has been plucked and, even if I stick my aching legs in a cold vase and preserve myself a little longer, I will still fade away.

But don't worry, my hope is eternal and my joy is getting stronger even as my body is getting weaker. To my friends who say Christian ideals are merely tranquilizers meant to make us feel better, let me say a word. You're exactly right. The truth of God does make me feel better. What is truly depressing is to think the best days are forever behind me. With God, my best days, even if it means hobbling around on some fake knees because I didn't listen to the doctor's advice and rode my bike anyway, are still ahead. Not to mention that as I have moved through the different seasons of life, God has always provided some wildly fun adventures. God wants to give us life to the fullest even in this temporary one that is decaying, and I will trust He still has good things in store for as many days as I'm here.

This whole thing really isn't even about bikes, it's about the reality of mortality. I'm going to assume you, at some point, have stared a doctor in the face (or stared at an aging face in the mirror) and felt the same punch in the gut I did yesterday. I'm also going to assume you fought back, or are fighting back like I am, with whatever resources remain and are shaking a fist at mortality.

We are all clutching onto life and remaining brave survivors for as long as we can. We are all trying to bloom bright and beautiful for as long as possible. But avoiding the truth is not productive. So before we wither for good, as we undeniably will, my prayer is we find the eternal hope that is found in Christ alone.

Wanna know what my soul ate for breakfast this morning? I happened to turn to I Corinthians 15.

"So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown in a natural body, it is raised in a spiritual body." 

"Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed - in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: Death has been swallowed up in victory. 'Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death is your sting?'"

I think I'll go ride my bike now.


Margit Parks said...

Awesome, spiritual, human, real and some of the best writing I've been privileged to read in a long, long time. Thanks for sharing, Brenda and may your knees hold up to the rigors of your kind of "riding" for as long as you dare mount that bike.

God bless you! Your testimonial proves He already has and no doubt will continue.


Unknown said...

Sobering. Love you. Let's ride soon.

Unknown said...

Kourtney Fontenault

Rexanne Thomas said...

As my 88-year old father often says, "Getting old is not for sissies!" Two weeks ago, he fell off his bike and broke three ribs. It's never easy facing the limitations of an aging body, but it is especially difficult for one as active and young as you. Your initial response - anger - is perfectly human and understandable. I've had that same response to necessary changes more than once in my life, too.I am so very glad that you are seeing God's healing, love, and support in your life.

Enjoy each day to the fullest extent possible...even if it's just walking! You can still cover a lot of ground...it just takes a little longer.

Sending love and prayers your way,

Brenda Andress said...

Thank you each for your encouraging words. (I can't figure out how to reply to each comment...) Marge, writing is something I love doing and my have to do more of these days ha! so thank you for the affirmation.

Kourtney, yes, let's do go ride soon!

Mrs. Thomas - I love that your dad is still riding his bike! It is true that growing old is not for sissies:) But we will keep on keeping on until the end, enjoying what we can.

Anonymous said...

I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. Read that some where.....
Aging? Talk to me in 20 years when you are my age now! Can I still do what I did when I was your age? Nope. Keeping me off my bike as "ONE" doctor advised? Nope. Finished a 100K in Paris last Saturday! Are the joys of aging always 'fair'? Well I may not be as fast and strong as I once was, but when I look into my two and a half year old grandson's eyes as he begs to ride his with "Paw", I find I have the time to slow down and see all the pretty wild flowers on the side of the road that I missed at 30 miles an hour in years past. And remember, Doctors use a term called "diagnosis" that's really an euphomism for "a guess". Hugs my friend - Rick Johnson

Brenda Andress said...

Than you Rick! I love that verse and even more as I have understood the context better. With the help of God, we can learn to be content no matter the circumstances. A lesson I am constantly learning, but hopefully growing toward. I'm glad you are out hitting the road and can do so with your grandson! See ya up at the shop.