A Wineskin in the Smoke by Bob Ritzema
I had surgery a week ago. I had only undergone surgery under general anesthetic once before, an outpatient surgery about fifteen years ago. This time, I had a cancerous body part removed, meaning I was unconscious for longer than during the previous go-round and had to stay in the hospital overnight.
On the day of the surgery, I had to report to the hospital at 5:30 a.m. I got up at 3:30 and took a shower, read a devotional, and practiced yoga by the time I left for the hospital. I was ready to get it done with! It took over an hour to get prepped for surgery, with the activities that took place during that process not being enough to distract me from the apprehension that loitered around the edges of consciousness. I wasn’t exactly fearful, but the thought of spending three hours supine and senseless while someone was cutting on my flesh was discomforting.
During the prep time, the dramatis personae of the operating room (nurse, surgeon, anesthetist) all made brief appearances. They went over what they and I already knew, then gave me time for questions. These interactions were oddly reassuring. Calm, competent professionalism was exactly what the situation called for, and they provided it!
The anesthetist’s assistant started a drip and I was wheeled out in the hallway, heading for the operating room. I remember only the first ten seconds of that journey. My next memory was of the lights in the recovery room, with my first thoughts being that I would like to sleep a little longer and that parts of my body were hurting that hadn’t been hurting before. The doctor had apparently come to my bed before I had come to. He told Paula, the friend who had stayed in the waiting room for the duration of the surgery, that he didn’t see any evidence that the cancer had spread beyond my prostate. He will know more when the pathology report comes back. For now, though, the news is good.
I remember the next gurney ride, to the room where I stayed until discharge the next day. Recovery during that 20 or so hours and in the six days since then has been a series of small steps. For example, I went from sipping water to having tea and gelatin, then watery oatmeal, then tomato soup, and gradually on towards my regular diet, having to backtrack when I went too fast. I moved little the first few hours, but by late afternoon was sitting up and during the evening shuffled down the hallway, clinging to the IV pole for support.. Now I can walk slowly up and down the street in front of where I live.
I still have a moderate amount of pain, especially at the sites in my abdomen where the incisions were made. The incisions aren’t large, but their effect on me is. I move delicately, hunching a bit when I walk so my abdominal muscles won’t be stretched and using my arms as much as possible to position myself without pulling on the stitches. If I’m not careful enough, pain quickly calls me to heel (and hopefully to heal as well). I’m not driving yet; I’ve met the criteria to do so, but my focus now is more on recovery than on going anywhere.
Surgery and its effects on my body remind me of my fragility. Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, when we are reminded that we come from and will return to dust. Even during the interim between dust and dust–when the life force flares within us–we are not as hearty as we imagine ourselves to be. I thought of this recently when for the first time I noticed a particular verse in Psalm 119:
“Though I am like a wineskin in the smoke
I do not forget your decrees.” (v. 83)
The note in my TNIV Study Bible (Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 2006) explained: “As a wineskin hanging in the smoke and heat above a fire becomes smudged and shriveled, so the psalmist bears the marks of his affliction.” Lately I’ve been feeling smudged and shriveled by the heat. It’s nice to know this sense of myself fits with a long spiritual tradition!
The second part of the verse, about remembering God’s commandments or decrees, seems to indicate that the psalmist remembers what is important even in times of hardship. I wonder whether there’s a bit more to it than that, though. In the Hebrew scripture, the law is not just a list of commandments or rules to follow but is God’s comprehensive response to the tragedy of Eden. It is aimed at restoration, at nothing less than a new creation. When life seems flimsy and transient, the thought that God is at work making all things new is a comfort. I may be a wineskin withered by the fire, but I will eventually be restored. For now, I’m at rest.
By Bob Ritzema