Health and blessings

My right knee hurts. It’s a twinge-y pain that hits at a particular point in my stride, when the left leg’s up and the right one’s needed for both motion and stability. Torn meniscus? ACL injury? No idea.

It’s been hurting for a month, which is highly confusing because we’ve all been home for six weeks due to the global pandemic. Also, as a hiker, I racked up eighty miles in January and February with no trouble. Everything was fine until I stopped hiking.  Whoever heard of hurting your knees by not hiking? That’s not a thing. 

I shouldn’t complain. I mean, a person doesn’t usually mention such a little thing, even though it weighs. It’s always there, hurting a teeny bit, keeping me from my normal stuff. Like wallpaper, the pain is just sort of … there and mildly annoying. 

On those occasional mornings when I wake up and walk to the kitchen pain-free, it hits me like oxygen that this is health. The absence of pain. The weightlessness of that state of being, to walk without hurting. To walk without even thinking. It’s a blessing, I think. Of course, then my knee starts up again, and I spend the day wondering if the problem’s down to arthritis, or some dietary funk, or some sub-clinical coronavirus infection—not believing any of that.

Really, it’s a trivial thing. Real health issues are worse than a twinge-y knee. 

For example. I have a friend who’s been battling leukemia for a few years. Last November, after his second or third (depending how you count) treatment regimen, we hoped he was out of the woods. Sadly, in January we learned otherwise. The doctors needed to be more aggressive, quickly, so he’s begun what he calls ‘killer chemo.’ 

Leukemia’s a blood cancer, like lymphoma, so the bone marrow’s involved. This killer chemo will destroy his marrow. Once upon a time this meant total body irradiation and a ‘bubble’ while donor marrow (stem cells) graft into the patient’s system. That’s old school treatment—the options are broader now; a person’s own harvested stem cells are transplanted in, to get around host-vs-graft disease. 

But still, each stage of this treatment’s a big deal. The first stage knocks down the cancer without harming the marrow (much). Fifty-fifty chance that he’ll clear this hurdle. Then, his stem cells are harvested. (Think apheresis/plasma donation.) He needs to hit a certain number of cells. Third is the marrow-destroying ‘killer chemo,’ after which his harvested stem cells go back in. The fourth stage is waiting for successful engraftment. Hopefully the marrow recovers, and then it’s months of slow recovery, which means months of him living with a hugely weakened immune system. 

Each stage may or may not go as hoped. Each is a hurdle to clear.

He’s cleared the first hurdle and is in the process of clearing the second as I type. And it’s strange as he clears them, because the tension shifts. The tension’s always there, but the feel of it changes. There’s that moment of oxygen, of blessing, as the hurdle he faces moves to the rear-view mirror. There’s a flash of gratitude. Weightlessness.

Then the next hurdle comes, fast. 

Health is such a blessing. It’s easier to appreciate it, to feel the oxygen of it, when it’s not a guarantee. 

Health is on everyone’s mind with the global pandemic. This state of things—a new and deadly virus running rampant and the health system stretched so thin—this isn’t what I would have chosen during my friend’s cancer treatment. He didn’t choose to have cancer at all. And cancer—it’s serious, but it’s also personal. My friend’s situation never would have crossed your radar had I not mentioned it.

Which, in a roundabout way, brings us to the pandemic. COVID-19 weighs on all of our minds like paste, formless. We try to focus it into something we can control and predict. We make masks or seek out toilet paper or learn about sourdough or the best time to go to the grocery store. We check in on family members who face the greatest risk.

I shelter in place in California, but my focus goes to my friend, who is intentionally obliterating his immune system right now, in his battle with cancer. Other people worry for their parents, their grandparents. A diagnosed sibling. A coworker. 

We all wait, suspended. We wait for the blessing of normalcy. 

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