“Wives are young men’s mistresses, companions for middle age, and old men’s nurses.”
Of Marriage and Single Life, Francis Bacon
One of the corollaries of being completely helpless is the ridiculous and totally unjustified pride I take in being able to do anything for myself. I’m talking about preposterously little things, things so ordinary and insignificant that it is almost embarrassing now to catalogue them. Being able to stand or sit without screaming. I don’t mean doing it by myself—I couldn’t at that point; Darleen had to help me, using her insignificant weight as an anchor—I mean forcing myself to accept the pain and muscle through it silently. (Well, “silently” might be a bit of an exaggeration; let’s just say with gradually less screaming and cursing.) And Darleen helped me there too, patiently reminding me again and again that only by bulling through would I be able to overcome the pain and eventually cause it to diminish. I imagine pain as something between an enemy and a sparring partner, with me reconciling myself to taking some licks just so I can get my own shots in someday. Brushing my teeth with my left hand. This is something I have had some practice with already, but now the degree of difficulty was increased, adding extra hurdles such as getting the top off the toothpaste with one hand. I can’t bend or even lean forward, so I add to the brushing an awkward process of learning how to use a cup to spit out the toothpaste without it running down my chin. Applying deodorant unassisted. This one caught me by surprise. I honestly hadn’t grasped that I didn’t have any practical way of getting the stuff under either arm, and it took some experimenting to come up with a solution, and when I did, I felt sort of the way Thomas Edison must have felt when he finally stumbled onto the right filament for his light bulb. It probably took both of us about the same amount of time. Figuring out ways to draw things I need or have dropped up to my good hand with my feet and figuring out ways to get those things into my hand without bending; thank God for prehensile toes.
This pride helped compensate for otherwise absolute helplessness. Peeing and cleaning my own bottom without aid were also points of pride, but not sources of pride; they were merely the avoidance of even greater and more humiliating feelings of helplessness and dependence. But taking a shower involved as much preparation and tactical forethought as climbing Mount Everest, and like a Himalayan expedition, it couldn’t be done alone. Each step of undressing had to be considered and then carefully, delicately executed. Some things I could do myself, but most I could never possibly do without Darleen. Without her, the intricate Velcro straps of my orthopedic boot could never be fastened or unfastened by me. I couldn’t reach them, and I hadn’t strength enough to pull them open even if I could. The special sock that covered the bandaging on my foot was as distant and unreachable to me as the mountains of the moon. When, finally naked—and painfully aware of the difference between this aging, broken, scarred, limited body and the youthful body that had once moved so effortlessly and could do so much—Darleen had to cover the entry incision of the shunt in my back with saran wrap and then tape that to my body. The bandaging on my foot had to be pulled off—bloody, pus-soaked, ugly with the juices of the body—and discarded. Darleen had to stand and hold the little bag of pain killer at the right height (it was a gravity feed, after all) and ensure the tube did not become kinked in the shower door, or that the door drifted open. The washing process was slow and of necessity rudimentary, and when I was done, I could only dry my face and chest and arms. Darleen had to dry my back and legs, and then we had to reverse the whole process we just completed, taking off the saran wrap covering and re-bandaging the missing chunk on my heel. Getting back into my pajamas, the easiest thing to wear that I own or can even imagine owning, required Darleen’s help. I couldn’t pull up the bottoms alone. I couldn’t get my arms in the shirt alone. I couldn’t button the buttons. Shaving, something I have always been scrupulous about, was a luxury I had to abandon even contemplating. In the spirit of making lemonade out of lemons, I tried to cultivate a mental image of myself with a beard, looking both distinguished and dashing, rather like the man in the Dos Equis commercials, “the most interesting man in the world,” with a bevy of drop-dead-gorgeous young things hanging on my arm and my every word. Not exactly. The best I achieved was a sort of mildly respectable moth-eaten panhandler look, an amiable out-of-work-and-down-on-his-luck college professor holding a sign saying, “will write for food.” And while I am married to a drop-dead-gorgeous girl, it is well known that no wife since Eve has ever hung on her husband’s words or even regarded them as anything more than, “…a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Besides, most of them are words she has already heard.