Apr 7, 2013

But it's okay


On the wall of the bathroom stall at the Wal-Mart where I worked stocking shelves my last year of college, someone had scratched the start of a game of tic-tac-toe. X in the center. O in the upper corner. (The start of a stalemate, a cat's game).

On the wall of a corridor in the hospital in Tübingen where I've been this last week, there are framed portraits of famous people who had diseases. FDR had polio, and look what he did with his life. Gauguin had syphilis, but didn't let it hold him back.

The lesson of the first wall is one I am only slowly unlearning.

The man who put the tic-tac-toe game on the wall probably didn't have health insurance. I certainly didn't have health insurance working at Wal-Mart. My hours were kept below the minimum for full-time employment, the point at which certain labor laws would have kicked in and required benefits. I made 50 cents an hour more than minimum wage, if memory serves. Part of training was a video on what to say if approached by union organizers. One of the benefits that did come with the job, after a few weeks of a paperwork and a probationary period where you could be fired without cause, was an employee discount on groceries. With the money I saved from that I got a tattoo -- a cheap tattoo -- when I quit the job, and graduated college, and moved south to where I met my wife.

I tell people the tattoo is from a book that was really important to me, when they ask. I tell people, sometimes, that it's what the aliens say in this book whenever someone dies. I could also say it's an answer to the set-up for a cat's game, a phrase that's important to me for how it acknowledges and accepts the world as it is, but makes a decision against despair. This was one of the first conversations I had with my wife, though at the time of course she wasn't that yet, and I couldn't yet know how amazing she would be if you fell off your bike in a field and were in excruciating pain and had to go to a German hospital.

She reminded me of this conversation this week as I recovered from surgery to fix my broken shoulder with a metal plate and eight screws. "Thank you," she said, "for not despairing."

When I broke my shoulder, I was in the middle of a field, on a path with an unfortunate rut in it where my bike slipped and I flipped onto my shoulder. I had to walk to a nearby landmark where a taxi would pick me up. It took about a hour, because of the pain. Every step jostled the three fractures where my arm no longer lined up with my shoulder. I kept walking, though, and got there, and the taxi came, and we went to the hospital. This would not have always been the case. When I signed into the hospital left-handed, and did the necessary bureaucratic form-filling, I wasn't overwhelmed by it. Even though I am basically always overwhelmed by even the most benign bureaucracies. Just the thought of bureaucracy is normally enough to fill me with shaky dread, a frantic certainty that such institutions loom with secrets and rules to hurt me.  I didn't think about the cat's game, though, the lesson of the X and the O already where they are. I signed wrong-handed, shaky and uneven, and then signed the next thing, and focused only on what was next.

I walked around the hospital a little, waiting for the surgery, on pain meds and with my arm safe in a sling. That's how I found the wall of pictures of people who had had bad stuff happen to them but were okay anyway. The person who put that on the wall probably had health insurance. Which I do too now. It's a very different kind of a lesson, on this wall. One that's hard for me. That may be why the message was so unsubtle: stuff goes wrong sometimes, but it's okay.

The writer Kurt Vonnegut once wrote of someone in one of his books, "she never thought of her awful luck as being anything but accidents in a very busy place. Good for her."

As I replace the bandages over my sutures, that sew up the two surgical incisions now perpendicular to my tattoo, I know how that feels. It feels pretty good.

Like things are going to be okay.