The view from shoe level

When those nice little old ladies fall on T.V., they always show the devoted daughters plugging in the handy dandy tracking device that calls the ever-vigilant bright-eyed neatly-dressed attendant at some distant calling center who promptly promises to send help “right away” when dear old mom next tumbles to the ground, sending prunes or grape nuts scattering in all directions.

What they don’t show you are the hours of physical therapy the nice little old ladies need before they are allowed back in those accident-prone, handicapped-inaccessible kitchens, the ones with overhead cupboards, ancient faucets, outdated appliances, and lack of walking space.

Let me tell you, falling and not being able to get up is the least of the problem. It’s likely to be that last bit of rest you’re going to get for a long time.

Sooner or later, a neighbor or friend or partner or wife or husband or child will wander by and you will have to admit that you are not looking at the interesting mid-20th century variegated pattern in the handsome wall-to-wall carpeting of your hallway, that in fact they might as well haul you to your feet, that—ouch—your right arm isn’t quite what it should be and perhaps we’d better call the doctor.

And so begins the usual round of Dr. This and Dr. That and x-ray this and x-ray that. It all takes a couple of weeks and a bunch of hemming and hawing and gulping down horse pills and sleeping with heat patches glued to your arm and tossing and turning all night long and nearly dropping the half-gallon of milk because you forget that you are one-armed these days.

And of course I can’t drive because I use hand controls and that takes two to tango. And oh, have I mentioned that CF broke her OTHER hand and is in a cast for three weeks? We shan’t discuss the sad circumstances under which it happened except to say that I will describe my stupidest fall and then tell you that hers was even more stupid:

I was doing yard work a few years ago, walking down our driveway, pushing our 65-gallon plastic garden waste cart ahead of me. It looks just like a garbage cart, the kind the town gives you for your garbage. Fortunately it was empty, and the top was open. I was tired, always my excuse. I lost my footing and stumbled forward, and ended up flat on my stomach, with my head and shoulders inside the garden waste cart. As far as I know, no one saw me. It happened on my birthday. At least hers wasn’t on her birthday. But it was close!

My most recent fall did not happen out of sight of friends and neighbors; it happened in plain sight of CF and just out of sight of NF, who had, let’s say, “neglected” to hold the door open for me, causing me to stumble up the short flight of stairs tween garage and laundry room, crashing to the ground and somewhat crushing the semi-antique aluminum cake carrier I was no longer holding but instead flinging to the ground, although I did try to brace myself by pushing off the wall dead ahead of me which simply caused me to double-bounce on top of said carrier and ricochet off the pile of newspapers waiting to be recycled. There was a slight cushioning effect, the one and only time, I am sure, that Mitt Romney will ever be of benefit to me.

The x-rays showed damage that will require physical therapy, which did not surprise me. I have done this before, because I fall a lot, and I always damage the right shoulder, which amuses me. I am left-handed, and for many, many years, I was a fast-pitch softball catcher. I imagined that at the least I would have new knees by now, or a ruined left shoulder. But no, those joints are fine. It is the much less used right shoulder that is turning arthritic, has bone spurs, and is continually being crushed and mangled by my falls.

The doctors can’t tell without an MRI if I’ve actually “torn something” in the rotator cuff or not, but they shot it full of cortisone and now it’s off to P.T. twice a week, where, should I fall, I will be immediately whipped back to my feet by two or more extraordinarily athletic young people. I need to warn them that I get dizzy if I stand up too fast. These are the same people who coaxed CF’s first broken paw back into shape, therapy that involved, among other magic treatments, dipping her hand in hot wax, a treatment that sounds so spa-like that I purr with envy. I suspect the closest I will come to hot wax will be bumping into the air freshener candle in the bathroom.

However many times I may stumble in P.T., I am sadly certain that I will fall again in real life, that I will again damage this shoulder. What I think I really need is to go to Falling School. I need to learn to fall properly. They must teach that somewhere. There must be professional fallers. Someone to teach you to not stick out your arms so you wreck your shoulders, but to tuck in your arms and roll with the flow. Someone to teach you to do a floor routine, like those gymnasts in the Olympics. After all, when I was in grade school, they taught us to survive a nuclear bomb. Certainly they can teach me to survive a three foot drop to the floor now.

I’m not too old. I can still learn. And I’m pretty sure there’s enough newspaper in the garage to use for cushioning.


Shifting gears

And in one swell foop, the foot is on the other shoe. I mean what comes around goes around. I mean you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone. I mean tomorrow’s always better than yesterday.

I mean that CF broke her arm.

This is not good. It is her right arm, which is the wrong arm for her to break, not that there is a right arm to break, but this is definitely the wrong arm, because she is right-handed. Thus she is immediately hampered in everything she does, including but not limited to everything she does.

For example, when we went to go to the hospital on Sunday, the day that she broke her arm, my car keys could not be found, because someone who shall remain nameless (but amazingly has the same initials as I do, not to mention the same name) did not put them back in the one and only place where I keep them and CF was in such pain that we had to take her car with her steering it and me shifting. That worked out fine, because her car has power steering and she could steer one-handed.

But coming home she was completely bonkered on painkillers so strong it took two nurses to wrestle them down her throat, which meant that I had to drive, which presented a problem, because, unlike my car, her car does not have hand controls, which I use to drive. Oh, I probably haven’t mentioned that before. I use hand controls to drive. That way, my feet are useless appendages in the car. My hands do all the appendaging.

The last time I used my feet to drive was, coincidentally I swear, the time someone ran into me head-on at an intersection (the other driver was at fault I swear—she got a ticket, I was at a dead stop waiting to turn left and she came straight through a yellow light in a left-turn only lane) and it wasn’t until we were halfway home from the hospital that I realized I was driving the very same car that that accident happened in. I should point out that I did use my hands on the steering wheel and used my feet only on the pedals, as I am sure most of you do. It is only in my car that my hands are used exclusively. Nowhere are my feet used exclusively. But my hands and feet did get us home, seven appendages unscathed, one scathed but splinted.

Speaking of being hampered in everything she does, I had to secretly wipe my brow and thank all of my lucky stars that she broke her arm right after she finished cleaning nearly every room in the house. Phew. I would not have looked forward to doing that. Now I need to clean only our bedroom and bath. She had even picked up all of the dog poop in the back yard.

The truth is, CF does more than her fair share of everything in our household, because I had this Thing happen last August, which is why I keep wondering Who Stole My Brain to begin with. I can, when pressed, zap a dinner for myself and can even cook a frozen pizza for our son, as long as CF writes down the directions every time, but beyond that I am of little use in the kitchen. I did drive through Crap-in-the-Box for him for lunch the day he surprised me with a trip to his teacher’s office, which showed more motherly skills in one day than I had for many months.

But the whole cleaning thing tends to make me nauseated, all that up-and-down motion, not to mention back-and-forth, not to mention to-and-fro. (Is “fro” short for something? Seems like it should be, because it’s sort of short. But no, just fro.) I used to love to vacuum, but now just the sound of it makes me ill, just like the smell of watermelon makes me ill. Not to mention cantaloupe. I am not good around melon salad. Or sucking sounds.

It is largely propitious that I started to drive before CF chose to dance on her wrist bone, don’t you think, so that I did not have to start driving in the heat of the moment? I spent most of Monday driving one or another member of my family to one or another doctor, and for the first time in many months none of the appointments were mine. I had to take a two-hour nap when we finally got home at 4:30.

And really I have no idea how I am going to muster the energy and skills needed to keep our household in livable, sanitary enough condition to support the three of us. We will at least have milk, because that is home-delivered. And, if given enough sitting-down time, I think I can haul our never-ending supply of daily newspapers to the recycling bin, and I think I can nag our son into hurling the trash to the curb and dragging our dog around the block. And even though I failed this part of the test at Brain Retraining School, I’m pretty sure it’s dishes into the dishwasher and clothes into the washing machine, right?

But is it the dog or the boy who gets the big rawhide treat?

Victory laps

Forgive me if this seems rushed. I had another blog entry all ready to go, but then two things happened that I decided were more important to write about, so I rushed to write this. That’s a bit of a joke, since me rushing to write anything these days means it takes me four days instead of seven.

But as you can see, my mind tends to wander a bit now, so my writing wanders too, and I really should try to get to the point a bit earlier, because I do actually have two this time, both victories of a small nature.

The thing with a brain trauma is there is no triumphant re-entry to the real world. There is no gigantic cast that comes off to reveal a healed leg, or realigned elbow, or un-discombobulated innards (is the opposite of discombobulated innards combobulated outtards?). All there is with a brain trauma is a bunch of little tiny steps back towards maybe normal, maybe not. Maybe yourself, maybe not. Maybe your old self, maybe your new self. You never know.

These two victories I think are one of each: one of maybe my new self, one of maybe my old self.

My new self graduated from physical therapy. I still walk with a cane, but that’s mostly for my own sanity. It reminds me to be careful. I think it makes other people give me wider berth. And it comes in handy when I am about to take a header, which is what it’s for, after all, and I do come close to falling way too often. So I guess I still need it. @$#%%@. And it gives me cred when I use a disabled parking spot. You should see the glares otherwise. Just ’cause you can’t see it doesn’t mean it ain’t there, folks!

But the big deal here is that I can step over boxes and stand on one leg and toss a ball and catch it and stand up/sit down repeatedly all so well that my physical therapist says I don’t have to see him anymore. Either that or we finally just ran out of stuff to talk about.

These therapy sessions take place in a big room, and everybody is talking and stepping and shuffling and bouncing at once, one big happy trying-to-become-better group. Some of the folks are from the rehab center next door, the one from which I fled, and others are outpatients like me. Occasionally I spot a client younger than I am, but usually I am the spryest in the room. My therapist is thrilled that I can throw a ball, and we got quite involved in kicking a soccer ball around, and then graduated to throwing it against a wall, which necessitated moving to a different room, which, I think, is what rang the death knell on my therapy. I was too good.

To which I say, good riddance.

So I hobbled a victory lap on that one.

And then there’s the old me victory. This one involves the two women who came to visit me when I was unconscious in the ICU, Julia and Teri.

I’ve known Julia and Teri literally since the first week I moved to Olywa. Our sons were all in first grade together, and I met them on the first day of class. Julia’s family and my family were new in town, and Teri and some other mothers fledged us as neo-Northwesterners. Julia has been caring for my conure (a kind of parrot) since August, and Teri has driven me to and from physical therapy once or twice a week. They have been wonderful friends, and they have wanted to take me to lunch for months.

And finally I felt ready. Finishing therapy had something to do with it. The new me was set free to let the old me emerge.

Going out for lunch with friends might not seem like a big deal, but it is a huge undertaking to someone who cannot multitask. It involves a great deal of planning and timing, and I got almost all of it right.

I had to start to prepare the night before, because I needed to set an alarm so I would wake up in time (my seizure medication can zone me out midmorning); I had to remember to give myself my insulin shot because my partner had left at 4:30 that morning and wasn’t there to do it; I had to remember to get my son situated because my partner wasn’t there to do it; I had to make sure four cats and a dog weren’t fighting like, well, cats and dogs; and I had to remember to get my little thank-you gift for Teri together and that’s what I forgot.

We had a very nice lunch and I had to trick Teri into coming back into the house with me so I could scramble around and get her gift together to give to her to thank her for schlepping me to and from P.T. all of those times so the slightly gimpy new me could emerge, able to step over 8-inch tall boxes and toss a soccer ball against any wall quite ably, and the old me could go to lunch with Julia and Teri and carry on a conversation, all the while downing a rather tasty lunch of Thai Ginger with Tofu.

It’s nice when the old me gets along with the new me.


Smile nicely and say goodbye

Nearly fourteen years ago, my partner’s parents were traveling in Ireland when her mother suffered a stroke. They were traveling with a tour group, and MaryAlice had purchased the optional tour insurance that had been offered; this insurance eventually covered nearly all of her medical expenses and the other extra expenses. But that’s not my point, although it is a good one.

And this isn’t my point either: she ended up in a hospital room in with a dozen other women, all of whom will be there for extended periods of time, most of them warehoused because they have had strokes. That’s what happens in Ireland to stroke victims. Weeks, months, years in a hospital room, no hope, no change, no chance of a future.

I’m still not at my point, but I’m getting there. To get through the situation, two of the five daughters in this family ended up going to Ireland to help out: Sarah, who was conveniently close by, bicycling in France, and my partner, CF, who had no children (at the time). A third, Nancy, would help out from the States.

The story is long and involved and involves lots of wobbly driving on the wrong side of the road and Waterford crystal and candy stripers delivering tea at tea time and sheep getting in the way and things that might have been charming if the Irish health care system hadn’t been so alarmingly backward that MaryAlice was trapped in an iron bed whose only feature was a huge iron crank that could be ratcheted to raise her head since extra pillows did not exist, nor, it seemed, did a single aspirin, not one, not a single aspirin. Sarah took charge of Dad; CF took on the doctors.

While CF was cornering doctors all over the hospital in Waterford, Nancy was calling everyone she could find at the various embassies in Washington, demanding that her mother be released from the no-hope ward.

And finally, here is my point: if you stand in one place and scream loud enough and long enough, if you stare into the eyes of the person who thinks they know better than you do, who thinks they know the patient better than you do, sometimes that smart-ass person, that doctor, says, “Hey, it’s your dime.”

That’s why CF’s mom was flown by medevac out of the hospital in Waterford to London with a doctor straight to Heathrow. From there she flew first class direct to Vancouver, B.C., and then rode in an ambulance, siren and lights, to Anacortes, Wash., where she was living at the time. That’s where she got physical therapy, speech therapy, and an aspirin.

Which really brings me to my point. When I wanted out of that rehab unit, I needed my partner like I never had before. I needed her to advocate for me in ways I am only now starting to understand. All I knew at the time was that I could not bear to be there anymore.

Fox News All The Time is what broke me, but having an alarm pinned to me didn’t help; wearing a diaper ten times too big was insulting; having to strip naked in front of strangers to prove that I could shower by myself was mortifying; realizing that someone else was rearranging my bathroom supplies was disgusting; and sitting at a table with complete strangers wearing pajamas to eat lunch was humiliating. Especially when they drooled and told you they were going home today and you knew they couldn’t even find their way back to their own rooms.

But back to my point. I had my advocate, my partner, who asked me, “Are you sure you want to go home?” and when I told her yes, she turned on her heel and made it happen.

I needed therapy but I didn’t need hospitalization. I didn’t need nursing care. I had a nice comfortable bed at home, and a partner who had already arranged to take family leave and so could be home with me.

She made it happen. I smiled nicely at the doctors, but she made it happen.



All. The. Time.

Here’s the thing about being in the hospital: either you’re on the verge of dying, or you’re on the verge of dying.


I mean, either you have so many tubes sticking in and out of you, and doctors and nurses poking and prodding and assessing and prognosticating and muttering that you’re about to croak, OR everything has been patched up so neatly and so well that there’s nothing left to do except wait for the doctor to finish talking on the phone so he can tell the head nurse so she can tell the nursing assistant so she can tell the orderly so he can get a wheelchair so he can wheel you out the door to physical therapy before you keel over from boredom.

The best part about going to P.T.—the best best part—is that it gets me away from the television. You’d think I’d appreciate the change in scenery, the chance to stretch my legs, someone with an intact brain to talk to perhaps, but all I care about it getting away from the television.

That roommate of mine? The 75-year-old living in sin with her boyfriend? Lipitor, Lipitor, Lipitor? She keeps the television on all the time. To Fox News.

All. The. Time.

The television is attached to the wall opposite our beds, near the ceiling. There’s a speaker built in to each bed. For some reason, mine won’t shut off. She is hard of hearing and keeps cranking the volume. Every time she leaves her bed, I turn off the television. She never takes the hint. I ask her to turn it off. She leaves it off for five minutes.

Fox News. All. The. Time.

P.T. for me consists of trying to walk with a walker. Yes, it has tennis balls cupped over the feet. No, I am not wearing two hospital gowns. I am wearing my own clothing. Well, sweat pants and tee shirt. And a gait belt.

A gait belt is a long strip of cotton webbing that gets buckled around your waist so the therapist can grab hold of you should you start to fall. Like the diapers, they’re built for two, so there’s a lashing and whipping of the extra stuff every time one goes on.

And they come in different colors. I don’t know if the color is significant, like a karate belt. Some people had fluorescent orange ones. I was sure I would get one of those, since I was still a FALL RISK. But no, I got an ordinary white one. Maybe the P.T. department didn’t prejudge.

Walking with a walker was hard. I found that I could not talk and walk at the same time. Being brain injured made that impossible. As near as I can reproduce it, this is how my brain felt when my therapist asked a question while I was trying to move my left foot:


which, loosely translated, means, “Can you lift that foot higher?”

But at least I couldn’t hear Fox News. All. The. Time.

My walk ended in the rehab unit’s cafeteria. This room has five big round tables flanked by sinks and refrigerators and a television. There are some magazines to read, mostly old copies of Arthritis Today and the hospital’s in-house monthly. We’re supposed to hang out here and chat. My therapist sat me down and got me a cup of ice water. At the table with me were two younger men, the only other residents who were younger than I am. We were the only people in the room.

I had just a split second to decide, before the therapist disappeared: did I stay with these two guys who were sitting two feet from a 36-inch T.V. watching some program featuring men with long bushy beards, lots of beer cans, and alligators, or did I go back to Fox News (which, for a split second of that split second, became one in my damaged brain, one huge bushy-haired beer-swilling no-new-taxes reptilian newscaster spewing about flecks of Obamacare), a decision so critical to my future that I was driven to my feet with all the urgency I could muster (took three rocks back and forth, as I recall, and a push off with both hands, and I had to grab the table).

“WAY!” I screamed. It was a strangled, warbled, garbled, indistinct, plaintive scream, but a scream nevertheless.

“Yes?” said the therapist as she turned back towards me.

“I want to go home,” I whispered.


Nurses are grand, wonderful people, devoted to making the lives of the sick and miserable less sick and miserable. I really do mean that. Most of them really are, even the ones who attach bed alarms to your bed. But they all have a little button on their right hip that they press whenever you complain about being tired, and when they press it, out chirps the same bright little voice, pre-recorded in some quaint garden in Nottinghamshire:

“Try to get some rest, dear.”

And then with a great silent whirl on inch-thick rubber soles, he/she is gone through the swirl of pastel curtains and you are left to wonder how, in the clatter of metal-on-metal surgical tools, china-on-china luncheon ware, and nurse-on-nurse shouting you are supposed to get some rest, dear.

It’s not exactly Mary Poppins.

It’s not even Mary Grantham, under whose care I am sure I would thrive, in any room in the mansion.

After impressing no one on the neurological unit with my charm, or steadiness of feet, I was moved to the rehab unit. The nurses and doctors give this a big buildup, because this is The Final Step! before going home! Here I will learn How To Take Care Of Myself! before going home!

Mostly I just want to sleep.

I don’t want to do physical therapy, I don’t want to do speech therapy, I don’t want to eat meals in a cafeteria with everyone else, I don’t want to watch T.V. and play games with everyone else.

Mostly I just want to sleep.

I am at least 15 years younger than everyone else in the unit, except for the guy who fell off the tire swing crossing over a river and the guy who crashed his motorcycle. My roommate, I notice, is the youngest woman, besides me, and she is a good 15 years older than I am.

She’s also a bit out of it, because she’s had a stroke, and she’s using that to mislead the nurses, I think, to hide her embarrassment. They want the name of someone close, in case of emergency, and she keeps giving them the name of her son, who is in Sri Lanka, or Indonesia, or someplace like that (that is, oceans away), pretending to misunderstand “close” (“There’s no one closer?”).

This is a Catholic hospital, you see, crucifix on the wall, saint in the name, and my theory, brain damaged though I am, is that she, brain damaged though she is, senior citizen that she is, doesn’t want to admit that she is living in sin with her boyfriend (for lack of a more modern word), that doing so will somehow put a big angry mark on her permanent record.

I want to yell at her that the box for LIVING IN WANTON LUSTFUL SIN is right above the box for LEZZBIAN but mostly I just want to sleep.

The nurses finally get over this closeness thing when the sinful boyfriend walks into the room and, clever Catholics that they are, they get his phone number for their charts. Unfortunately, they are not clever enough to get a list of my roommate’s medications from him before he leaves.

No, that list is extruded from her by a Greek chorus of nurses sometime after midnight, backlit on the curtain separating our beds like some bizarre shadow play:

“What medications do you take?” they intone.


“What? What medications do you take?”



“Mmfr! Mmfr!”

“Oh, Lipitor,” says the head of the chorus.

“Ah, Lipitor, Lipitor, Lipitor,” echo the rest, their arms fluttering as butterflies in the breeze.

I let the word float through my mind (Lipitor, Lipitor, Lipitor) and picture the little waves of the beach that day we were picking blackberries, the waves nipping on the worn salted stones (Lipitor, Lipitor, Lipitor) and I feel myself starting to not feel anything, that feeling of not feeling you get when you’re going to sleep.

“What other medications do you take?” Greek chorus.

And now I have to pee. Fortunately, the diaper is properly nestled from shoulder to knee.