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Gary Horton: Understand the limits, frailty of life

Posted: January 30, 2013 2:00 a.m.
Updated: January 30, 2013 2:00 a.m.

A while back I visited a back surgeon to take a gander at my lower back. I’d been experiencing bothersome pain in my lower back and hips and felt that it was about time to face the music. It seemed that every day was just a little more painful than the prior, and, even with all the stretching, exercise, and even hanging upside down on one of those teeter things…

The doc sent me through triage, took tons of X-rays, and had me sit in a waiting room full of other back sufferers far worse off than myself. Indeed, the room was full of canes, walkers, an electric cart or two and generally not so many smiles. Eventually, the Doc invited me into his office and reviewed my X-rays on his computer. He showed me that I had a fracture at my third vertebra that had considerably misaligned my spine and fused in the process, locking me into a future of daily hip and spinal pain.

The doctor reviewed my triage. “Gary, you can touch your toes. You walk a mile or two every day. You can sit at a desk and perform your normal workload.” “Yes, doctor, but it hurts to do any of it.” The doc points to his lobby and notes that it’s chocked full each day of dozens and hundreds of folks who have lost all feeling in their legs, who can no longer walk, or who have pain so severe it’s overwhelmed the rest of their functioning lives.

“Gary, if you’re walking and touching toes, you’re lucky with your condition.”

“Keep exercising, use physical therapy… but as long as you can reasonably function the risks of surgery far outweigh the discomfort you have now.”

Oh, “And if you need to, take an Aleve.”

So it turns out that jumping off the roof of my mom’s house when I was seven wasn’t so smart and even less healthy. Apparently, that’s when I fractured my back and now, later in life, I get to pay for my flings off the rooftop. My, when we’re young, we think life goes on forever and summer never ends.

A guy at my office has back problems and signed up for the electronic pain canceling implants developed right here in Valencia. It initially went well, but then something went amiss and spinal fluid leaked. The man has been out from work for three weeks now with no exact recovery in sight. An unexpected accident on a very routine and promising procedure. “Life,” as they say, “happens.”

A few years back my brother in law experienced intestinal pain. He was about 60 and had done requisite colonoscopies and such recommended for us mid-lifers. He had another colonoscopy performed, only this time he was diagnosed with advanced colon and liver cancer. Through incredibly good cancer care my brother-in-law is out walking dogs, golfing, and enjoying much of his old life. The problem is that he’s not cured; rather he is in a suspended state with his life forward very dependent on the continued efficacy of his treatment.

I bumped into my old Bishop from my prior Mormon life. Eight years ago he was at one of those indoor racecar places. He was racing to the limit when all of a sudden he slumped over, passed out, and looked the world for dead. Fortunately, there were experienced responders close by, and a quick quadruple bypass later, my old Bishop, who by all rights should have died, was back in business. When I saw him he was just returning from a tennis match. He’s in his late sixties now, and from appearances, he’s got a good extra 30 years to go. You never know which way the coin flips.

I have a recurring thought that life is like a finite deck of cards, where each day you get to draw a new card from the top of the deck and play it as you will. There are only so many cards in your deck, however, so each card is special. The rub is that fate, fortune, or misfortune can steal from or add to the depth of your deck of cards. While you control how the cards at the top are played, there’s not much you can’t control about what happens to the overall depth. Meanwhile, there’s that steady drip, drip reduction as we each pull and consume our daily cards.

What a feeling. It’s the feeling of a guy in his mid-50s who still remembers the joy and endless freedom of youth, but who is also old enough to understand the limitation, duration, and frailty of life.

The cliché’s are right! Life is short. And, “life is precious.” Cliché’s, yes, but also well worn truths. It turns out there’s not much time to waste as we pull from our deck of life while fate, fortune, storms, earthquakes, medical challenges or medical breakthroughs, (and in America, shootings) – unexpectedly add or subtract from the bottom.

Play your hand appreciatively, fully, and play it well.

Gary Horton is a Valencia resident. “Full Speed to Port!” runs Wednesdays in The Signal.


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