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Bodies are so unruly. We like to think we have control over them: that we can schedule meltdowns and malfunctions, or that we can eat to beat disease and ingest enough teas and tinctures for our bodies to remain docile and adherent to our commands.
But I’ve learned that’s not how it works.
I sat on the toilet one morning recently and noticed the sticky note on the wall looking back at me. “Pee in container!” I had written on it. “Darn,” I thought, “I really do need reminders more than I want to admit.” I ran upstairs and grabbed the large orange collection container I had picked up at the lab the day before. I shut the toilet lid and put the container on top for next time.
Just over a year ago, I had a kidney stone removed surgically. The procedure went fine but afterward, I developed sepsis – the body’s extreme response to a severe infection – and endured a frightening and painful week in hospital. When I was better, I committed to doing everything I could to avoid that experience again. And so began the referrals and tests to figure out why I am apparently very prone to kidney stones.
Collecting your urine in a giant orange container for 24 hours is one of the tests used to understand kidney stone formation, and I have completed it only somewhat successfully four times now. You’d think with each passing urine collection that I would get smarter, more practical, a urine specimen whiz. But every time the test comes due, I find myself dumbfounded as to how one goes about collecting urine in a three-litre jug while carrying out the rest of their day.
This lack of insight doesn’t surprise me, though. I’m a registered nurse who has taken care of a lot of people, and I can’t tell you the number of times I have asked patients to fit an unrealistic medical something-or-other into their day, always crossing my fingers they’ll succeed. “Please take this pill, on this day, at this time, with this food but not that food, and not if you are going to be in the sun, and don’t forget to drink lots of water.”
The urine collection container is handed to you in a large brown paper bag that looks like it might contain enough burgers and fries to feed a family. However, the lack of grease on the bag makes it obvious you’re trying to hide something other than emotional eating. When I take the bag from the lab receptionist and it crinkles loudly in my hand, I always find myself looking left and right as if I might find an even bigger sack to quickly hide the obvious quirkiness of how I will be spending my next 24 hours.
The paper bag masking the unsightly container reminds me of what we do with our bodies all the time. We think we can hide what we don’t want others to see by creating elaborate versions of ourselves using clothing and makeup and showcasing our favourable traits. Underneath the costumes, though, and despite all the supplements, lives a human body with its own calendar of mishaps and its own agenda.
Really, the body we inhabit is an entity unto itself. It doesn’t always align with the human energy that lives inside, which can be due to anything from rapid aging or unforeseen illness. And at some point in all of our lives, we are destined to come face to face with what is happening within our bodies. To step back and realize we are only human. To ask for help from our friends, neighbours and families. To be humbled when they show up for us, change our sheets and bring us soups. To seek counsel from experts. And hopefully, in the process, to learn how to say, “Thank you for caring about my unruly body.”
The 24-hour urine collection container instructions ask that you keep the container and its contents refrigerated. This is a conundrum because my fridge has no obvious spot for a massive jug of pee. Large jars and yogurts on the top shelf. A 12-pack of something fizzy, butter and bowls of cut-up fruit and veg on the middle shelf. And on the bottom shelf goes all the rest. The jug won’t fit in a crisper drawer – I’ve tried. An entire fridge reorganization is required in order to house the specimen, and I never remember to do this the night before. At 6 a.m. on collection day, there I am perched in front of the fridge laying off expired Worcestershire sauce and furloughing items that will last at room temperature for a day or so. All this in hopes of creating a welcoming spot for a container of urine but not welcoming enough that the jug could be said to be enjoying a cozy experience with the milk and O.J. It is pee, after all.
Through enduring painful experiences – whether it be sepsis or other physical or mental-health challenges – you gain a new perspective. You realize that you can, in fact, be stopped in your tracks. That you don’t have a say in everything. And with the treatment and tapering of excruciating pain comes the realization that idleness and existing in a state of neutral calm can be a beautiful thing. We don’t need to always be numbing the in-between moments with distractions.
Enduring pain and coming out the other side teaches you to let go a little, to take yourself a little less seriously, to stop putting on the costumes day after day. You learn that life at its best is a constellation of millions of small moments: moments that can be hard, moments that can be awful, moments that are always fleeting. You strive to make the most of your moments. To make them worthwhile. To make them joyful. To make them lasting. To make them as warm as the pee that runs down your leg when you miss the orange jug.
Glenna Fraumeni lives in Toronto.