Being moved into my own room at the rehabilitation hospital gave me space to breathe and think. I could start thinking beyond today. It’s easy to lose track of which day it is when they all start looking the same. I realised it was Friday and knowing that Sunday was a rest day from programmed rehab work, I wondered if I could get day leave to attend church on that Sunday morning. There was the other practical matter too of how I would manage to get from rehab to church. If there was anything that was holding me back from going, it was the thought that I would have to travel in a car. The memory of the previous Wednesday transferring from one hospital to the other was still too fresh. I remembered the discomfort and the pain, but also the joy of being outside and seeing the world continue. When the doctor was doing his rounds later that Friday afternoon, I asked whether it was possible to be given leave for that Sunday. He seemed hesitant at first, thinking it too soon. He finally came round to the idea with the condition that my physio makes sure that I would be safe getting in and out of a car with all my movement restrictions. With permission granted, I remembered that my community group leaders had mentioned the beginnings of a driving roster and so I emailed them to ask whether they thought anyone would be available to take me to church that Sunday. For someone who takes (too much) pride in being independent, it was a hard email to send, having to ask to be driven to church, such a basic task. In a very unexpected response, my community group leaders volunteered to drive me. I was all set to get to church that Sunday morning.
It was lovely waking that Sunday morning knowing that I was up and getting ready with a purpose. The purpose was to meet with my church family and to be amongst them. The fear of people judging my inability to walk properly had not returned. I was choosing to go knowing that people would know why I had a walking stick and a Ankle Foot Orthotic. The Pastor had already related my situation to the church; unfortunately, I was one of quite a few hospitalisations over the past couple of weeks. I knew that returning to church as my first point of re-entering life was wise; I would be with people who would not stare, nor be judgmental, but people who genuinely care for me as part of the church family. So it was not with anxiety that I got into the car that morning. However, getting out of the car and walking towards the people gathering on the verandah, there was certainly a look of surprise on some of their faces. This is to be expected. People are used to seeing me active, able to be mobile, but what they saw was someone who was struggling to walk with a stick and who had odd shoes on with one supporting a chunky, plastic, brace around the lower right leg. The sight was out of the ordinary. It’s no wonder people looked initially. And that is okay. Once I had made it up the couple of steps and started talking to those drinking coffee and eating crumpets, people were relaxed; there was no awkwardness, no questions that lingered unspoken.
We were running slightly late so it was a quick transition from catching up with people on the verandah to entering the RSL hall where our formal gatherings are held. The person who gave me a lift to church had organised a couple of seats at the back so that I could sit and stand without causing a distraction. For me, this was the real test and an unknown. How long could I sit? How long could I stand? It was going to be a test of perseverance. Knowing it would be tough, I had made sure that I had taken the maximum pain killers that I was allowed before I left the hospital, not normally something I would do. I surprised myself though. Between sitting and standing, I lasted the entire gathering. The only thing that was really troubling me was again another practical problem. What do you do with the walking stick so that it doesn’t fall down with a crash and doesn’t get into people’s way? I’ve never had to negotiate the pragmatics of having a walking stick. I have to say, this initial outing in public with a walking stick was not too successful. It crashed to the floor more than once, someone nearly tripped up, and even at one point I managed to nearly trip myself up. But I survived. I learnt that the issues I would now face having a disability, like what to do with a walking stick when not using it but needing it at hand, is a matter of problem-solving. The next challenge was another mundane task, one that I have taken for granted. Making a cup of tea. I managed to pour water into the cup with a tea bag without too much hassle. But then how does one take out the tea bag and put it into the bin without dripping tea everywhere when all you have available is one hand? The solution didn’t come to mind that day. The Occupational Therapist actually gave me the answer the next day. Put the used tea bag into another cup and take the cup to the bin. Such a simple solution. But here was I with a hot cup of tea trying to work out how to do this rather simple task. Then children came rushing up behind me and the tea went everywhere. Thankfully, two friends were right by me and rescued not only me, but my cup of tea as well. The crisis was averted for the time being.
Returning to the rehab hospital, there was a sense of the bittersweet. It was sweet having been among God’s people and being enabled to be there by my church family. There was a taste of bitterness as well knowing that I would be returning to a room with restricted freedom, while others would be continuing their lives, with their families; their freedom unhindered. Writing this a couple of weeks on from this first outing to church, I wish I could say that this sense of bittersweetness had diminished, but it didn’t. In fact it has grown each Sunday as the time I have spent in hospital lengthens. The bitterness though does change; it changes to emptiness. Hearing people’s full lives with children, work, and holidays, leaves an emptiness in me as I walk through the hospital doors and know that what I return to is a room where I keep myself occupied but it’s a life waiting; waiting for the next appointment, waiting for the next visitor, waiting for the next episode of Masterchef. It’s energising and refreshing to experience normal life even if it is for a moment, but it’s flattening going back to a building where life seems to be on hold. But that moment of refreshment means the ability to endure a couple more days in the hospital having tasted and seen the life that continues to go on outside.