Looking back, I should have seen it coming.
But I can't look back right now. I can barely even turn around.
It started this spring. We moved houses, and I carried and stacked boxes like Tetris. The new house had water issues, so I was crawling around like a coal miner, digging French drains that seemed more like moats.
All the while, my lower back began to nag, these little sighs of pain.
Hush, I whispered. Have some more Advil.
On the ledger balance of lumbar health, I was overdrawn. Soon, I'd pay up.
"The bill always came," wrote Hemingway.
It happened two weeks ago. We'd gone camping, and I arrived at the campground vertical, standing on my own two feet. I stoked the fire. Uncorked the wine. Inflated the air mattress. ("You camp lazy," my daughter said.)
The next day, I was horizontal.
"Can't walk," I moaned.
It was excruciating, this fire-rope of back-and-leg pain. For days, I was completely bed-bound, unable to walk. One MRI later, the doctor delivered the news.
"You have a protruding disc," she said.
Nestled between our vertebrae are discs, sort of like little spinal pillows. Under stress, these discs can swell outward, leaning heavily against the fiber of hypersensitive nerves in our spine. (Hence the leg and calf pain). Sometimes, the pillow breaks. The discs protrude. Bulge. Herniate.
"Like jelly out of a doughnut," the doc continued.
I would hear this analogy a lot — a bulging disc is like jelly out of a doughnut — and, my friends, it's simply not true. Jelly doughnuts are pleasant things, like rainbows and kittens. A more appropriate analogy? Lava out of a volcano. Tar out of the pits of hell.
Apparently, many of us 40-something men have jelly-doughnut back. Upon hearing of my woes, they came out of the woodwork. (Slowly, of course, while bending at the knees.)
"I dropped the soap in the shower," one friend said. "Couldn't walk for days."
"I sneezed," my best bud remembered. "Wasn't the same for a year."
I heard one story of a man who coughed. That's it. Just a cough. And he couldn't walk for three weeks.
"You have a herniated disc," the doctor said. "You may need surgery."
The word "herniated" is Greek for "getting old." I wish I had some dramatic, manly story about my injury — power lifting at the gym, fighting off wolves — but the tipping point could have happened while licking a stamp. Or lacing up my therapeutic Rockports. Who knows.
It's been excruciating. (It will soon heal, the doc promises.) The Bible says not to covet my neighbor's ass, but what about his healthy spine? I was training for a half-marathon. Now, walking to the mailbox is victory.
"Approach this with kindness," one wise friend counseled. "Let your back become your teacher."
Oh, it has.
This pain has increased my empathy for those who suffer from chronic pain. And I now understand how opioid addiction — just make the pain stop — can happen so easily, so innocently.
This pain has taught me the clear connection between immobility and depression.
This pain has reminded me that the body — our gloriously, wonderfully complex bodies — will one day wither and die. Injury is a dress rehearsal for death, teaching what I forget on my healthy days: that all things deteriorate and age.
This pain has taught me gratitude. For small things, like walking.
And big things. Like family and friends.
(Allow me some specific thank-yous: to my English Department colleagues, Dr. Stephen Dreskin and his amazing Tennessee Valley Pain Management staff, Donna Pearson, Dr. Matt Bernard, Dr. Jason Robertson, Debbie Hill, everyone at the Center for Sports Medicine and Orthopedics; most of all, the magnificent and incomparable Jean Rogers and Deeann Cain.)
And allow me a deep bow.
To those of you who are also suffering.
Because life hurts.
Look around. I see friends with cancer. Parkinson's. Going through divorce. Addiction. Loneliness. One friend's due for a spinal fusion. All of this makes herniated discs look like pancakes and syrup.
Know the only bipartisan issue in America? Pain management. We aren't the body politic. We're the body broken.
This injury has reminded me of our truest job: to love one another out of the pain.
I didn't understand that so well when I was, you know, younger and less herniated.
Looking back, I should have seen it coming.
"Dad," my son said a few months ago, looking over at me. "You have crumbs in your ear hair."
"I have what?" I asked.
"Crumbs," he repeated. "In your ear hair."
At least it wasn't jelly.
David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.