Time is not the great healer. Time is an ocean in which all that is becoming becomes more of what it is. That which is growing grows; that which is fading fades; that which is blooming blooms; that which is dying dies. Time changes no course. It only brings each course to its natural end. A body in motion will stay in motion, and that motion has a trajectory. Time is not the body, it is not the force that acts on the body, nor is it the trajectory. It is merely the graph on which the body and its trajectory may be made visible.
The bone that is broken stays broken if cells do not divide and reconnect. The virus in the blood keeps multiplying if not checked by an immune system. With time, and without an active healing process, wounds fester and rot, cancer spreads, and arteries harden.
The cut that severed the nerves in my neck took moments. Disentangling the cancerous piece of me from the healthy rest took hours. Almost three months later, my body is still closing the gaps and reconnecting the pieces. I am still learning to feel, still learning to move. Every day has brought change, but such subtle change. Only in the accumulation of change have I been able to recognize the victories; and in the accumulation of victories I begin to understand the nature of healing.
In that first two weeks after surgery, when I was still bandaged and the lymphatic drainage tube (Mr. Drippy) was still buried deep in my neck, the milestones were readily observable. The walks through my apartment complex, which started as something of a wobbly drift, gradually changed to a slow amble, and then an intentional saunter. Sleep was broken in the beginning. I slept in snatches propped up on a mountain of pillows, almost vertical due to the pressure and pain in my neck. At first I could only sleep for two then three then four hours at a time. It was about a month before I was able to sleep through the night, and almost two before I was properly horizontal. Bathing also gradually became less complicated. Being able to wash my own hair felt like a huge accomplishment, and the day I was strong enough (barely) to stand in the shower made the world seem the right way up again. Then there was the day my dad took my car into town for a tune up, and I made my own lunch and washed my dishes. Victory! As the days kept passing and my body kept fighting, little by oh so little I could move and do a few of those things which had once been so normal.
The subtlest changes, however, have been the kind that no one can see and only I can feel: the sensations in my neck. I say ‘sensations’ for lack of a single more descriptive word. Perhaps I should say, the dog-gnawing-muscle-cramping-tingly-numb-to-the-touch-stabbing-explosion-of-feeling from my chin to my right shoulder. Dog-gnawing: for several months after surgery, it felt as though there was a puppy playfully gnawing on my neck from the inside out – a pulsing, vibrating, crackling sort of feeling every time I moved or even breathed. If a chew toy could feel, I’m sure it would empathize. There came a day, and then a stretch of days when I no longer noticed it. It’s still there, but the puppy seems to be losing interest. Muscle-cramping: weeks after surgery, the muscles in my neck and shoulder had gotten so tight that I felt they had turned to lead and stone. Any movement might snap a tendon – like a too-taught guitar string. I started kneading what I could reach with a small rubber massage ball. It helped release the pressure, though was breathtakingly painful. Thankfully, the last five weeks of physiotherapy have brought limber life back to leaden muscles. I can look both ways again and even tilt my head side to side! Tingly-numb-to-the-touch: a paradox? How can one feel both tingly and numb? Doesn’t one eliminate the other? Oh, no. The body has layers. The most bizarre version of this came in the form of an itch. I would feel an urgently itchy itch in a specific spot on my neck and reach for it, only to find that I could not feel my finger on my skin. Though I was touching the spot, I couldn’t reach the itch! Push on a spot, and I felt pressure. Touch the spot and I felt nothing – not hot or cold, scratch or brush. That was weird. The edges of the numb area also pulsed with tingles. At first my whole outer ear was numb while the inside tingled. Then I could feel the inner ridges but not the outer ear. Eventually I could feel the top of the ear but not the lobe. Now I can feel the whole thing, but it’s not happy about being touched. As the skin gradually comes to life, a simple touch does not feel simple. Mostly it feels like pain, which is gradually fading to irritation. Just last week as I was driving, I felt for the first time the brush of my sweatshirt along the right side of my neck. I almost swerved thinking it was a bug and then realized I was finally feeling the skin below my scar. And that brings me to the stabbing-explosion-of-feeling. If nerves are like a power grid, the internal electricians that are busy reconnecting all the lines in my neck seem to get the wires crossed every so often. I’ll be sitting quietly – like now, working at my computer – and pow! A shot of pain explodes through a random spot. It’s not predictable or consistent. It’s just my body waking up. And what a crazy way to wake up.
When I am surprised or annoyed by how long it is taking for the incision area to heal, I sometimes reflect on the cancer itself. How long was it there, wrapping itself around my throat? Insinuating itself behind my laryngeal nerves? Creeping into my lymph nodes? How long was I sick and blind to it? Left alone in time, how long before it would have killed me? Time moves each course toward its natural end until some force acts to alter the course. Surgery and radiation have changed the course. Now, to what end?
I think too of my soul. What killers have hidden there? There are so many thoughts and emotions that steal life. Bitterness is a poison, pride a cancer, and anger a flame. Left alone in our hearts, they kill, steal, and destroy. Whether visible or invisible, that which takes root will grow until it is checked. Hope, truth, grace, love – these have power to heal our souls. In time, they change the course of that which is dying and bring it to a new end which is life.
Healing takes time. Time is not a healer, but healing takes time.