I watched a small bead of water drip down the side of my plastic cup and fall to the table. I should put this on a napkin. But I didn’t. Instead, as I had been doing for the better part of the last hour, I kept staring, watching the condensation form drop by drop in the dry heat of a summer morning in Arizona. Sitting across the table from my friend and mentor, Allison, I went back and forth between tear-choked words and silence.
“He didn’t tell me much,” I recalled to Allison. “I remember coming out of anesthesia and hearing him say, ‘I’m sorry, Katie.’ My mom was there in the room, and I could see the tears in her eyes from where I was laying. And when I saw the clock across the room, it was only 10 a.m. The surgery was supposed to be four to five hours and it had not even been an hour since the nurses wheeled me in to the operating room. I think I remember the time because I was starving.” I smiled a little bit; I was always measuring those surgeries by when I could eat next.
My knee was still wrapped up in gauze and steadied with a brace, propped up on the chair next to me. Allison listened well and let the silence between my words hang without awkwardness. She asked a few questions; if I was in any pain, how long until the next operation, if my arms were sore from the crutches. But mostly, she just let me feel. Sometimes I felt with words and sometimes I felt with silence, and both were fine in her presence.
“Al,” I said with a shaky voice, “I just can’t believe it’s over.”
It had been 48 hours since I woke up from a fifth surgery on my left knee, the one when the doctor told me with finality that he couldn’t fix it. Too much damage, too little healthy bone left to work with. There I was, a twenty-year old girl having her entire college education funded by the sport I loved, facing the reality that I would never play that sport again. Soccer was not only what I did, it was who I was. For sixteen years I went to school and I played soccer, and not all that much else. I missed my junior prom. I went to bed early on Friday nights rather than going out with friends. And I loved it; every minute of it. Even the injuries, which I diligently worked to heal from and overcome and succeeded dozens of times. But now, seemingly out of the blue, I had woken up with an IV still in my arm and was told that my best chance at being able to walk without pain for the rest of my life was a different set of procedures—three to four more surgeries over the next year. The new hope was to give me a functional knee. There was no hope to restore the knee of a soccer player.
“I don’t even know what else I am supposed to do,” I said as shaky words turned in to tear-stifled ones. “This is all I know how to do.” And because looking at Allison’s eyes was too hard in the moment, I kept my eyes on the drops falling off my barely touched iced tea cup.
And Allison let me cry. She told me again and again how sorry she was, and how much she wished it was all different for me. For over an hour, she just listened, only asking a question that she knew I could handle the answer to. And finally, after she had given me ample time to grieve and be heard, that’s when she became one of the most important truth-tellers in my life.
“Katie, I know this is hard. I know it doesn’t feel fair. But here’s what we are going to do,” she looked down at her watch, then back up at me. “I am going to give you 10 more minutes to feel sorry for yourself. Just ten. For 10 more minutes you can cry, you can pound on the table, you can swear out loud right here at Starbucks and I won’t even bat an eye. For 10 more minutes, my time is only for your hurt. But then, in 10 minutes, we’re going to start talking about getting better. We’re going to start talking about what you are supposed to do next. Because Katie, you are too important to this team to throw in the towel. You are too joyful to become bitter and you are too much of a leader to quit just because you have to lead from a different place now. So, 10 more minutes, ok?”
If Allison was going to say anything to get my eyes off of my cup and on to her, she chose the right thing.
At first, I didn’t know how to receive what she had just told me. Was she flattering me or pushing me or just out of patience for me? It didn’t matter. She knew me well, and she knew I was as ready as I would ever be for her words. She took a risk by saying what she did, but Allison also knew what I didn’t know at 20; that life was not going to promise me success or opportunities or a pain-free journey, but that I had the chance to begin to learn right then that bitterness is never a friend, but hope always is. And while we don’t always get to choose what happens to us in our lives, we do always get to choose how we respond.
Allison could not have known at that table 12 years ago that she gave me one of the most important lessons I would ever learn to equip me for motherhood—that sometimes, you simply have to decide you have 10 more minutes to feel sorry for yourself, and then you have to start talking about getting better.
This work—birthing, caring for, and raising children—is full of challenges and impossible tensions. And even though it won’t always feel like it, it’s hard for everyone. More than once bitterness has tried to make me believe the lie that I got it harder than anyone else, but that is just not true. Babies do not always come when we want them to; they do not always develop the way we pray they would; they will not always make the choices we teach them are best. And from time to time, we get to be sad about that—we need to be sad about that, to grieve, to find a good therapist, to express what we truly feel. It’s ok to cry, to mourn over loss, to ask God all our questions and to yell out loud that whatever is in front of us is not what we wanted.
But then, just before our hearts feel ready—because they will rarely feel ready on their own—we need to let someone tell us not to stay there, to push us to start thinking about what is next, to remind us that we are too important to the people around us—perhaps most importantly, our children—to let the cadence of our days be marked more by bitterness than by hope.
I still miss all the things I cannot do because of my knee. Five surgeries turned into 10 and all of them have left their scars and their limits on me physically, and from time to time I let myself admit that to someone. No one really wants to live with limits. And in a similar way, I regularly have a good cry over motherhood, and the many ways that it has been unexpected and challenging and more than I can handle alone. No one really wants to admit they can’t do this work alone, either.
But then I remember when a friend’s words helped me take the very first step forward on a really hard day; when those words helped me lift my eyes up and off of myself. It’s not robotic optimism; it’s a brave choice, it’s faith. And the simplicity of it really is profound: just taking my eyes off of myself changes the whole landscape, and it reminds me that I am never alone.