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November 2, 2005
How's the back? I asked.

Better, Ed says, thank God. He gave me a steroid injection into the spine.

Oh, yeah? I had a bunch of those, I told him.

You did? Hey, did yours really, um -- hurt? Going in, I mean? Ed's no sissy. If he says something hurts, it's brutal.

Oh, man, I laughed, they go right to the spot! I guess that's how they know they got the right place.

Yeah. That was pretty bad.

But still, I said, you get worse for two or three days and then you're a lot better. It buys you a couple months of real relief.

Well, that's good to hear, Ed says, since I'm going to Florida next week. I want to play some golf.

You lie on your stomach in a paper shirt open at the back, and the doctor tells you to get ready. You're not sure exactly how to do this, but it doesn't matter: first some pressure near your spine, then some serious pain that intensifies for a few seconds, and then it's out and you're done. Take it easy for a day or two, the doctor says, and he doesn't have to tell you twice, because your pain gets worse and stays that way for several days. But then it lifts dramatically -- it's half as bad as it was before the treatment. Maybe it's not even half as bad. And it stays that way for several months at a time. Wow, you say to yourself, this is a miracle.

It is a miracle, a medical one. But it prepares the way for another, greater miracle: the actual healing of the injury itself, the gradual process of rebuilding, of rerouting, resupplying, relearning that your very cells know how to do. They know how as soon as they're born. How do they know what to do, I wonder, whenever I am healing from something. To knit together what is broken and strengthen what is weak?

While it is true that we are dying from the moment we are born, it is also true that life is continually renewing itself within us. We fall and rise, break and mend, again and again. Not a single cell of our bodies is an original: they are all descendants of our old cells, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of cells we no longer have. We are always new.

And we learn new tricks, too: new ways to walk if the old way has been taken from us, new ways to live if we can't walk, ways to communicate if we can't talk, ways to endure what we once thought would surely kill us. We learn new, more informed ways to hope, far beyond the point we used to think must surely be hopeless.

Some of us lie still, stripped of all our skills, stripped of thought itself: breathing, our hearts beating, but not much else going on -- unless you count the powerful teaching we are doing, the ways in which we instruct those who love us about what happens when an honored life is drained of most of its meaning. Mostly I think it's a tribute to who my dad was, that people still care about him so much, says a friend whose father sits in a chair or lies in bed, lost to late-stage Alzheimer's.

The whole of life is either a tribute to the past or a hope for the unknown future. Sometimes it is both at once. Another miracle.
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