“[I]t was good to think he had this to come back to, this place which was all his own, these things which were so glad to see him again and could always be counted upon for the same simple welcome.”
The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
Home! Dorothy was right in The Wizard of Oz. There’s nothing like being away to make you realize how important home is. I suspect I slept most of the way on the drive up the mountain, because beyond the grinding triple-digit heat of the valley, and the addict having convulsions on the bus stop bench, I don’t remember much. I know Darleen parked me in the shade while she ran into our local market to get a prescription filled for me, and then we were back at our own house, the horses in the pastures, the trees fully leafed out now, but still with the pale green of early summer.
Getting out of—or into, for that matter—the car qualified as an Olympic event (degree of difficulty: 9.8), one that made me roar and left me dripping sweat and panting in pain. Darleen had to hold my good hand to give me something to anchor to, something for leverage. I am five feet ten and normally weigh around one sixty-five. Darleen is a trifle over five feet and weighs one hundred and fifteen pounds soaking wet and carrying her schoolbooks. Using her for leverage was not something I could keep on doing. But what choice?
When we went in, the cats were waiting for us at the door, but they took one horrified look at me, at the monstrous boot, the sling, the slow, cumbersome, shuffling gait, perhaps even at my unshaven face with its jagged cut, and vanished. It would be a full week before they decided I wasn’t something malicious and dangerous. I made my way into the kitchen and got myself safely perched on a barstool with my broken leg protected between stool and counter before Darleen let the dogs out of their kennels. They danced joyfully, Pete wriggling his whole body in the way of Boxers, they sniffed my boot, the rest of me, they gave me kisses, and then Darleen put them out back. We had decided my best bet was to use one of the reclining leather chairs in the living room as my base of operations, partly because of the reclining aspect, and partly because of the large arms that gave me something to push off of—with one hand, anyway—when I needed to get up. Darleen adjusted its position slightly, and put a wrought iron standing lamp by it, not for light, but as an improvised IV stand for the bag of pain killer feeding into the shunt in my back, and I slowly got myself into the chair, yelling with pain. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I would spend two full weeks in that chair, sleeping both day and night, waking, reading, watching television, and sleeping some more. Two weeks of only getting out of there to use the bathroom and to eat, two weeks of howling with pain every time I had to stand or sit or shift position.
I spent much of those two weeks in that chair thinking about this change in my life. Severe injury or illness acts as a sort of fulcrum between two different ways of being, the balance point on a see-saw. Before, I was one thing; later, sometime in the future, I will be something else. Now, I am neither fish nor fowl nor good red meat. I am, in fact, quite helpless in a way that I have never been before. I’ve had a boxcar full of accidents and illnesses and surgeries over the years, but with the exception of getting shot—where one bullet passed two inches from my heart—I’ve never come quite as close to death before, and I certainly have never experienced anything that left me so completely helpless, so completely dependent. Three days after my most recent rotator cuff surgery, for example, we had a snow storm that left our front path impassable. I was able to go out and shovel it clear with one arm. It took forever and it was not easy nor fun nor even comfortable, but I was able to do it. Now, I could do nothing. I could not, for a different example, get out of that chair unassisted no matter what. I simply did not have the strength. If Darleen had gone out and the house had caught on fire, I would have been turned into a crispy critter right where I sat. That gradual realization of my situation called for a certain amount of reflection. No one was able or willing to tell me to what extent I could hope to recover. All the doctors had indicated I would be able to resume “a normal lifestyle,” but a “normal lifestyle” is not the same as my lifestyle. If my life consisted of gentle walks around a suburban neighborhood with my dog, bridge games and bocce games, puttering in my garden tending to my tomatoes, and weekends on the golf course, perhaps those would be things I could look forward to doing again. But the orthopedic bodybuilder and the doctor with the yogurt skin had both been curiously evasive, deflecting my questions with wait-and-see, let’s-evaluate-how-you’re-doing, it-depends, let’s-not-think-about-that-now.
But I did think about it. Lying in that leather chair, I thought about it a lot. On the one hand (to use an extremely appropriate phrase, under the circumstances) I would eventually have all my extremities, so right there I was a hell of a lot better off than all the poor devils who come back from war to face life with multiple prosthetic limbs. (There is another minor difference between me and wounded soldiers: they are heroes while I’m just a dummy who had an accident.) And, to be realistic, I don’t have to ride a horse to earn my living. So I didn’t lie there and feel sorry for myself, but I did try to come to grips with the possibility of a new way of being. We tend to define ourselves by what we do, how we earn a living, what we do for recreation, what our interests are; we tend to gravitate toward other people with similar interests, a shared love of literature with this person, a common love of art with that person, a love of horses with a third, guns and hunting with a fourth, and now one of those shared doors was closing, perhaps temporarily, perhaps permanently, and I had to figure out ways of dealing with that. I had to think of ways to adjust. And one of the first things I had to do was be patient and let my body heal to whatever extent it was going to heal.
When I was a very young child, my sister used to drive me into frenzies by chanting gleefully, “Patience is a virtue, possess it if you can/Seldom found in women, never in a man.” I would sooner be boiled in oil than admit it, but patience was not my long suit back then, and not much has changed in the intervening decades. Reconciling myself to doing nothing, to being helpless, was enough to make me pound my fist with rage, and I couldn’t even do that because it hurt too much.