by Dorrie Slutsker
When I was a child, my Yiddish grandmother used to say: “You should only have your health.” I thought that was silly—what was the big deal about health?
As an adult, I joked with my doctor, whom I saw only for annual check-ups, about what a boring patient I was—always healthy year after year.
Then, when I was 53, the first shoe dropped—an anal growth that turned out to be a benign condyloma, a common wart. But the surgery to remove it was far from benign. I suffered unremitting pain, a second surgery to repair the original non-healing one, and then the indignity of sitting on a doughnut cushion for a year and a half.
But my wonderful husband Michel—the love of my life—held my hand all the way. His only sister had died without warning the month before my first surgery, but he focused on me: music to distract me from pain, a steady crutch to and from the bathroom, a sympathetic ear for my shame, fear, and discomfort. When I finally healed we thought we were home free.
At 56, the second shoe landed. I was diagnosed with anal cancer in the same spot from which the wart had been removed. Again Michel saw me through—this time the saga was radiation therapy and chemotherapy. We eventually laughed about what a “pain in the ass” it all was.
I was 58 when the third shoe descended. I developed debilitating pain in my right hip, and Michel and I traipsed from one orthopedist to another seeking answers and relief. Before we found either, Michel died suddenly and unexpectedly. My world imploded into gray ruin.
Through a friend, I found an orthopedic surgeon I trusted and had hip replacement surgery for my 60th birthday. My niece Jessica and her partner Shawn had moved in with me when Michel died. Jessica stayed in the hospital with me, and she and Shawn fed me, transported me and cheered me through rehabilitation.
At 62 I started seeing in color again, by the grace of time, family love and damned good therapy.
The fourth shoe fell at 63—my right leg swelled due to a groin lump that looked like cancer. By then my sister Alice was living with me; she and I are very close and had always dreamed of living together when we grew old, but we had not expected that dream to come true as a result of Michel’s tragic death and her husband’s abandonment of their 25-year marriage for another woman.
Alice kept me sane through the weeks of torment resulting from medical indifference and paralyzing fear by telling me every day: “one step at a time.” Finally surgery revealed that the lump was nothing but a ball of mush.
The fifth shoe alighted at 64: breast cancer. Alice accompanied me to every medical appointment and procedure, kept notes, organized my paperwork, bought me informative books and reminded me consistently that our mom and her sister had both survived the same diagnosis a half century earlier. Two surgeries and a course of radiation therapy later I was cancer-free once more.
Almost immediately afterward, my left hip started hurting but, before I could come to terms with that, the sixth shoe plummeted. My right leg suddenly swelled up again, a year after the original occurrence. Again surgery and again benign pathological results, this time described as scar tissue from the first groin surgery. The incision took two months to heal. Alice changed my bandages and my gloomy head.
The seventh shoe touched down for my 65th—the second hip replacement surgery. Alice by now was a veteran supporter and cheerleader. The New Year—2011—dawned bright.
In mid-January my family and I were at the dog park on a warm sunny day. I was feeling blissfully optimistic about my rapid recovery and my prospects for a healthy year. The eighth shoe lay in wait. Out of the blue, a speeding dog crashed into me and fractured my left knee—the same side as my brand new hip. Again surgery, debility, rehab. And, again: my sister, the heroine. Alice showered and dressed me, fed me, did my laundry, drove me to doctors, fed and walked my dogs, and managed my communications, all while living her own busy life. She lauded my progress, never complained, and tossed off gratitude with “But you’d do the same for me.” Which is absolutely true.
My grandmother was right—you should only have your health. But now I know that health includes more than physical well-being. Emotional and psychological health are the real prizes. For me they come from love and connection. I would not have survived the gauntlet alone.
And, I could be Imelda Marcos with all these shoes!
Bio: Dorrie Slutsker lives in Oakland, California with her sister, 3 dogs and 2 cats. She survived cancer twice, but found that living through the sudden death of her husband was the most difficult challenge of her life. She learned to laugh again with the love of family and friends and now helps raise her beautiful great niece.