The Journey series
Last week I recounted the ebb and flow of the pain that ruled my contracting career. This week I recount my years of completely debilitating pain. Seeing the size and angry colour of my leg, people would know I was in pain yet, unless one experiences such pain, it is impossible to understand fully.
My leg was so swollen that fluids seeped through the skin, forming beads on the surface. Bits of skin would just pop off. The open wound would invite infection, sometimes requiring hospitalization. During one of my early hospital stays I had visions of Jesus in which He promised I’d be healed ‘when the time was right.’ I trusted His word and after that my constant prayer was, “You know, Jesus; I don’t understand your plan for me. You know, Jesus, I don’t really like your plan for me. But, Jesus, I accept your plan for me.”
The top doctors in the field tried what they could to no avail. They concluded this severe pain would remain with me the rest of my life. At each weekly appointment my pain doctor's first question was, “Have you had any thoughts of suicide this past week?” With today’s euthanasia laws, I imagine I might now hear, “Can I help you end this unnecessary suffering?”
For a long while I resisted opioids because of the horrendous stories of addiction I’d heard but, eventually, worn down from fighting my pain, I conceded to my doctor’s recommendation. I wound up taking more than 170 pills daily just to keep my pain in check. Six times a day, I would take a fistful of pills. Occasionally I’d get a spasm that felt like a rope was threaded from the bottom of my heel through to the base of my skull and then a giant grabbed both ends and gave it a good tug. All benefit of my medications would instantly evaporate and I’d be in torment until successive doses of medication at the prescribed times gradually brought my pain back under control.
I latched on to whatever joy I could. The sun is still shining; I’m okay. The flowers are still blooming; I’m okay. The birds are still singing; I’m okay. I knew my family still loved me but, knowing the burden I was to them, I found no comfort there. Many of my friends abandoned me. I was in such a stupefied state with all my medication that I couldn’t hold a proper conversation with the few who still visited.
At times of deep despair I would remind myself that this pain is what brought Jesus in the special way it did. I also imagined my leg didn’t hurt as much as being nailed to the cross. My third consolation was remembering my friend who died from pancreatic cancer. Knowing his low pain tolerance, my prayer for him was, “Dear Lord, please spare Glenn but, if You must take him now, please let me bear his pain.” This might well be the pain I had asked for; rejecting it would void my prayers for Glenn.
Next week: Promise kept.
This week I recount a time that reminds me greatly of the time of the prophets.
The years I spent in the less physical endeavours of studying and programming computers allowed my body to recover sufficiently enough that I believed I could resume general contracting. Encouraged by a looming strike where I worked and the unsolicited offer of a renovation contract, both scheduled to begin the same day, I tendered my resignation. I reclaimed my tools from all those I had loaned them to and traded my two-door coupe for a pickup truck.
My construction reputation barely survived my three-year absence. All my suppliers were happy to see my return, but referrals were slow and many estimates did not win contracts. I made many sales calls to previous customers as time allowed, but servicing my clients and training my new crew took precedence. Just at the time my business was built up to a comfortable level, my injured joints became worn down to where the pain was no longer tolerable. I conceded defeat, wrapped up my final contract, and found an office job.
This cycle repeated several times. My sedentary job allowed my body to recover, I revived my construction company, my joints wore down, and I mothballed my company and found office work. After the final cycle, my pain was so severe that I could not return to any work.
Looking back, I see my pain as a prophet. I was not doing anything exceptional with my life; I was going with the flow. Society, however, was drifting away from God. Just as most Israelites did not actively seek sin; they were, nevertheless, drawn to it. Then a prophet would point out their errors and they would correct their course.
I always tried to be a good contractor, but I was caught in the flow of a society that is drifting away from God. My pain caused me to get out of the stream. Once my pain subsided, just as the Israelites did once their prophet was gone, I jumped right back in.
It’s not enough to be good within the context of our society. God wants more. He wants us to swim upstream. The natural tendency for all of nature is to move from order to chaos. That is what will happen to us if we do not swim against the cultural current.
Next week: Chronic pain.
This week I begin recounting what I call my second life. My two-storey plummet onto pavement should have been my end. Fortunately, I struck a two by four with my chest on the way down. It slowed my upper body allowing my feet to swing down. I was spared the normal head-first impact. I joke that I wasn’t hurt at all in my fall — then I landed. My ankle was shattered and all three bones in my elbow were broken, but I live.
A close brush with death causes one to think differently of life. Two and a half weeks in in hospital with casts on my right leg and arm allowed ample time for reflection. I realized I had only been drifting through life. I did what I did simply because time must be filled with something. Each day led to nowhere but the next day. I had no goal.
I recalled my time at college. With no guidance but my youthful rebellion, I refused to hop on the educational assembly line. I did things my way. I studied just to know. I wouldn’t be pressed into any mold. I spent more than the specified time without quite completing all the courses for any program, so I wound up accepting a General Education Diploma.
That was back then. Now I was a contractor — was a contractor! Could I still be a contractor with my broken elbow and leg? Would I still be able to swing a hammer? What would I do? My panic settled a bit and I remembered I was only a contractor because someone asked me to be, and because my General Education Diploma hadn’t prepared me to be anything else. Maybe it was time I chose what to be. My surgeon came in and seconded my doubts of recovering enough to return to carpentry. It was time to find a different career.
As much as I resisted other people directing my life, I considered perhaps my college counselor was right. Maybe computer programming was my future; I did well in the courses he selected for me.
Confined temporarily to a wheelchair, I still wasted no time. Two days after my release from hospital I wheeled myself five miles to college and signed up for the Computer Information Systems Co-op Program. Now I had a goal. I applied myself and graduated with honours. I realized, ironically, that I had jumped through most of these same hoops during my previous stint at college, but in a flighty order that didn’t quite land anywhere.
My Co-op employer hired me immediately. I always completed my assignments effectively and efficiently. I got on well with my coworkers. Yet each day, when I got up from under the fluorescent lights of my seven foot by seven foot cubicle to stretch my legs, I’d go over to the windows and stare out longingly. One day I stood looking out at the pouring rain thinking how nice it would be to be outside. That’s when I realized I was not meant to be in an office. For the first time in a very long while I thought about God; “He didn’t create me to be here.”
Next week: Back to my old ways.
As promised, this week I confess the trap I fell into after college.
At college, I longed to know. Once I graduated, I knew. I stopped seeking. It was time to apply my new-found wisdom. Where?
Helping my grandfather in his basement shop piqued my interest in carpentry. I honed my skills with high school shop classes and a year labouring for a house raising company. Hearing of this, a friend of a friend offered me a contract to rebuild her front porch and stairs. I had many bills to pay and empty pockets, so, with all the bravado of a freshly-graduated, barely-post-teen male, I accepted. It turned out raising houses off their foundation was a good foundation for a career in construction. I was away to the races as a general contractor.
My growing business, penchant for new tools, and large appetite kept my bank balance a bit below comfortable. My pledge to do what I could, when I could, for whoever I could succumbed to practicality — it didn’t pay bills. I set a fair price that was not negotiable.
My quotes were never the lowest. My first few years were very lean and I sometimes hired out to other contractors. I noticed some of their questionable practices. As I gave new estimates, I warned which shortcuts other contractors may take. I still didn’t get many contracts, but soon people began to see that my warnings were justified. They fired their original contractor when things went awry and hired me to finish the project. I got referrals. My new customers were happy to pay my rates, confident the job would be done properly.
Keeping abreast the latest trends in construction was a high priority. I’m still proud of adopting green construction technology in its early stages and of hiring one of BC’s first female apprentices. My work earned a solid reputation, a substantial client base, and a serious backlog of projects. I built my business on honesty, quality, and reliability.
Everything outside my work life, however, came to an end. I was always first on site and last on site. After that came shower; dinner; estimates; bookkeeping; and, eyelids allowing, trade periodicals. There was no time for faith or philosophy. I only saw the inside of a church at weddings and funerals. All the philosophical and religious books I devoured as a student sat on the shelf, as did most of what I learned from them. My relationships were, very much, one dimensional.
Then it happened. At work on a cold November morning I fell, shattering my ankle and elbow. The business I built over the last several years came crashing down with me. Some things we don’t include in our calculations remain in the equation. We are not as much in control as we like to think.
Next week: Waking up after my operation.
Peter T Elliott