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21 Years Later: Reflections on Scoliosis Surgery, Death, & Joy

Updated: Nov 29, 2023

Twenty-one years ago today, I went under anesthesia and wondered if I would ever wake up.

I remember sitting in a wheelchair, in a scratchy gown and hospital socks, watching the doctors stick me with a needle and ask me to count backwards from 100. I remember getting to 97 before everything went black.

6 hours later, the surgery was over.

24 hours later, I woke up, briefly. They told me the surgery was a success, and I fell promptly back asleep for another 24 hours.

For the next two weeks, I recovered in the hospital room at Beth Israel North. Twice a day, I was instructed to walk around for a few minutes, to keep my body from seizing up, and to speed the healing process. I obliged, even though walking was the last thing I wanted to do. Everything hurt, and everything smelled like rubbing alcohol and dried blood.

My mom, sister, brother-in-law and grandma took turns staying with me, entertaining me in their own ways. They sat with me, read to me, told me stories, rubbed my feet… I don’t remember much of what we said, but I remember feeling so deeply loved, and so deeply grateful to be alive.

Just six months earlier, my dad had died suddenly of a brain tumor.

Six months earlier, I had been sitting in his hospital room, holding his hand, reading to him, and rubbing his feet.

Six months earlier, all I could think about was how badly I wanted him to live.

And now, here I was, so thankful to be alive, painfully aware that he wasn’t.

For decades, I did not realize how much grief my body held. For decades, I tried to focus on what I was grateful for, rather than the things that had broken my heart. I knew that my life was, in so many ways, wonderful, and so I thought that if I simply focused on the wonderful things, my grief would dissolve.

But grief doesn’t work that way.

I am indeed incredibly grateful.

And, at times, I am also incredibly sad.

And while it was and is helpful to notice the things I’m grateful for, there was a point when I realized that I could not simply trade in my grief for some other, more desirable emotion. I had to make space to feel it all.

In the 21 years since my surgery and my dad’s death, I have learned so much about grief, loss, anger, and sadness. I have also learned so much about happiness, connection, joy, and healing.

I have learned that nothing is linear, and nothing is permanent. Everything moves in cycles, sometimes when you least expect it.

I have learned that when I allow myself to feel totally and utterly sad, it opens up the space for me to also feel totally and utterly blissful.

I have learned that without my full range of emotions, I do not feel connected - I have to feel it all, and to let it take its time.

And I have learned that I will always keep learning. Especially when I think I really understand something, I will learn something else that will soon make me question everything. I think this is how it has to be.

My hope for you, dear friends and humans, is that you can notice the people and beings around you, and also take time to feel your internal landscape. My hope is that you can make space in your heart for the sadness and grief, as well as the joy and connection.

No matter the state of your body, or the state of your heart, I hope you know how friggin’ strong you are.

Keep feeling, keep learning, keep loving,


& a couple of old rods

x-rays of scoliosis surgery showing a snake-like spine held up with two steel rods and 22 screws

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