Cappy, my visiting Celo friend, took me to the post office to pick up a Netfix I knew would be waiting in General Delivery. Much to my surprise the clerk handed me a package as well. In it I found a small book, called “The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating*.” It was from Brenda who enclosed a letter explaining how the book had come to her. I was immediately captivated by this tale of a woman, bedbound by a devastating chronic illness, who shares her room with a snail in a terrarium close beside her. She has written a lyrical chronicle of her yearlong observation and subsequent research about the woodland snail brought to her isolated world by a thoughtful friend. The single focus of her mind on this tiny gastropod was essentially meditative and contributed to whatever small progress she made that year in her struggle.
Equally important to me were the concluding words of the letter accompanying the book. Referring to my unfortunate fall, Brenda said, "Now you are dealing with another life-altering issue: shoulder limitations affect us down to our toes. It is easy to say, ‘Donna Jean knows how to cope’ and forget the energy you must direct away from whatever you wanted to be doing on your island retreat. We of course admire your skills, but can't believe another challenge has been heaped upon you. This one will pass with lots of physical therapy they will eventually let you do." It opened a window in my soul that I had shut and locked tight, enabling me to feel the emotions I postponed very quickly after the stranger from Connecticut got me on my feet.
I have already written two posts about my fall on January 6, which was Epiphany (the Christian celebration of the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles during the visit of the Magi). As I lay on the gurney in the corridor of the Emergency Room, I wondered if hidden in this accident there was a personal epiphany (an insight into the essential meaning of something). I asked myself, “Is this the day I got old? Will I look at life as before the fall and after the fall?” Those ruminations did not last long because I had many problems to solve and decisions to make, both large and small. I moved quickly into what I call my managerial mode and others call coping.
In the first few days after I came home with my arm in a sling, I heard from friends and relatives who had suffered the same injury. They offered condolences, tips, and stories of recovery. Only one commented that she had gotten depressed as the weeks dragged on. Now that I have been living, as another caller dubbed it, “in a cage,” I imagine that most people going through this experience would have moments or days of depression.
After I decided—with the help of my children—to stay on Tybee, I began to take action. In those early weeks I spent most of my time in gratitude for the relative ease of managing my simple routine by accepting a great deal of personal care from others. As time went on and I figured out how to do more for myself, my life got harder as did my physical and emotional struggle. It takes energy to innovate new ways to do simple tasks and more energy to walk in a boot with a heavy four-prong cane; my energy quotient has not always been sufficient.
As I write I imagine I am holding up one of the double-basket scales used in Guatemalan markets and putting all the blessings in one basket and all the challenges in the other—the blessing basket is heavier. Even so, it has required a conscious investment of time and thought to be able to live in the awareness of blessing, keeping discouragement to a minimum. I manage by concentrating on what I can do, not on what I can’t.
I quickly added to the blessing basket the little book on snails (and by implication on isolation, illness, and the amazing power of mindfulness) together with Brenda’s letter recognizing that grieving is part of the healing process. I have not yet identified an epiphany, but I have wondered if Epiphany 2013 will mark the day my life became more limited. I recognized almost immediately that in addition to bruises and abrasions, I suffered three injuries: my shoulder, my foot, and my confidence. Doubtless all three will heal, but there may be invisible scars. I did indeed divert my energy from all that I had planned for this time of retreat. Soon after the fall, I packed up the knitting yarn and patterns, most of the books, and the personal archival material I brought to use in a piece of writing. Eventually I retrieved a small kitting project that is manageable with my right hand and two fingers of my left.
Yes, one more challenge was heaped upon me and the doctor has said it will take six months to recover. Some who told me their stories say it takes a year. Discouragement casts its shadow now and then, and many days are tedious. But the sunsets are beautiful, the days are mostly balmy, and the air smells of the sea. Friends, family, and even some local women have come not only to visit but also to walk Nigel and help me do the things I cannot manage, which includes real cooking and washing dishes. The conversations have nurtured, entertained, and comforted me and the friendships have deepened. The doctor told me that muscle movements in all parts of our bodies engage the shoulders; no wonder we speak of “shouldering responsibility.” Doing without my shoulder has given me new respect for the work shoulders do and the weight they bear, just like the load the woodland snail carries.
* Elizabeth Tova Bailey, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Algonquin Books, 2010.