A Thanksgiving Essay - My New 4-Legged Friends
by Michele Fry, December 2008
A few weeks ago I tripped and fell over a dog mat at an Obedience Match, and twisted my left knee pretty badly. It was in a cold gym so my hands were jammed in my jacket pockets as I walked across the ring to set a bar, and I couldn't catch myself at all. Kerplunk, I went down hard, and it took 3 ladies to haul me out of the ring. They iced me down, I took a pain pill, my knee swole up, and I barely drove myself home and had to crawl across the driveway and up the steps into my house. I jokingly refer to this as my first "sports injury", but in truth I didn't even have a dog at the match. I was just helping out.
Now, I have found myself to be entirely house bound for what seems like eons. I can't drive, can't even get down the 3 stairs off of any of our porches to reach ground level. And I am barely hobbling about the house with help of a little aluminum walker which was stored in my attic from when my Mom closed down her Mandeville house. I took it "in case anyone needed it", never dreaming it would be me!
After a rather depressing first week of "coping" with life as an invalid, popping pain killers and anti-inflammatories, using ice packs (rice bags) every hour, and stewing in my own juices for nearly 7 days, badly in need of a bath, I finally dared to enter the slippery slope of our tile shower late one night, with my trusty walker as my only assistant.
It was a giant leap of faith. If I fell, I knew I wouldn't be able to get up again, and the pain! How I hate pain! During my shower, very cautious, nervous, and at full attention, I spontaneously began conversing with my walker ("Okay walker, I'm depending on you to hold me up nice and steady!" That's a good little walker. I see you don't mind getting wet, eh? That's great! You see, we can do this! You know what, you are my best friend!"), Later, after drying off, and feeling squeaky clean after that draught of hydrotherapy, I felt an overwhelming desire to sing my walker's praises and found I had christened it with a personality and a name - "WALKER". When I got out I grabbed pen and paper and began writing this story in tribute.
It had taken Walker and me a full week of hobbling timidly together from the coffee pot to the refrigerator to the bathroom to my bed or chair -- a week for us to bond, for me to trust putting us both into a slippery situation. But Walker is so well designed, and more importantly, he held my vulnerable self up so steadily without the slightest groan or complaint or need to rush the job. It amazed me how it takes 4 aluminum poles, spread wide apart and angled outwards, bearing up two padded hand holds that allow me to support my whole weight on my (now very tired and sore) arms with each left step I take --all that to do the work of one knobby little knee. I certainly never appreciated my knees enough!
Yes, absent one knee, Walker has done more to enable me to self-sufficiency than all my neighbors, friends, or family could do: the essentials of getting to the toilet (several times a day), fetching a cup of coffee, heating soup or making a sandwich (several times a day), letting the dogs out the door (several times a day), and now -- TAKING A DAILY SHOWER. What friend has time to help with all of that? Without Walker, my dear husband John could not even be going to work unless we hired someone strong and healthy to stay with me, lift me up and down, fetch things for me, feed me, etc.
Deprived of my usual mobility, I've had ample opportunity for reflection. One bum knee, and I can't train my dog. I can't go down the 3 steps to leave my house, visit my fall garden, hop in my car, go to the store. I can't decorate the house for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Couldn't cook the Thanksgiving turkey, the pecan pies, the cornbread dressing, the Spinach Madeleine, the whole wheat bread I have never failed to make this time of year. Even with Walker by my side, I live in fear that if some visitor leaves the door ajar or gate open and my dogs escape down the driveway, I could never catch them. That would be horrible! The simplest things, I cannot do.
About all I can do is make it to the pottie chair (oh, I had one of those in the attic as well, with 4 more sturdy legs, a higher than normal seat and arms to let myself down onto and push myself up from the throne, and that is the other 4-Legged Friend I couldn't do without right now). I never realized before how low to the ground toilets are. Why in the hell don't they build them a few inches higher? Hardly anyone is that short! So grateful am I for my pottie chair, that in the same grateful spirit I gave her a nickname too -- "POTCHAIR".
While I'm in grateful mode for my new friends, Walker and Potchair, I must also sing praises for bathrobes with POCKETS! I stuff those pockets with doggie treats, cell and house phones, eyeglasses, chapstick, whatever small things I need to carry. I also rigged up a little TOTE BAG which hangs from Walker's right side, in which I carry a small vial of medicines (pain killers, muscle relaxers, anti-inflamatories), my ice packs, TV controllers, snacks, a note pad and pen, a few paper towels, a book, a plastic grocery bag in which I can place whatever dirty dish I may need to hobble with back into the kitchen, a small ziplock in which I keep a damp washcloth in case I need to wipe my hands, a pair of tongs for picking up things I drop on the floor or which my dogs invariably drag from the laundry basket or trash can to chew on. With these few tools right handy, I'm making it through each day quite self-sufficiently and with hardly any undue trips.
I'm surprised at the string of curse words that were leaving my lips those first few days before I got the hang of being incapacitated, when I would painfully get settled into my living room armchair and realize I'd left my eyeglasses in the bedroom! Now that the effort of movement is so costly, I've become quite expert at projecting what I might need later and taking inventory of tote bag and pockets before I move from one place to the next. It's actually become a source of pride to think ahead, in a "We Shall Overcome" sort of way!
Now all I need to do is wait patiently to heal, not have another accident, and be of good cheer. That last is the hardest part. In just two weeks of mostly sitting (and wincing with pain from time to time), it is easy to see how those hurting and/or disabled can sink into despair. I try to dispel dour thoughts by watching sit coms and movies, by knitting my dog Willow a sweater, chair training my dogs to do little tricks, and writing this. But dark clouds do gather while sitting alone all day, day after day, not doing all the things I so yearn to do. For while your family and friends may love you, and may be available to run to the store to fill your prescriptions or bring you a lunch, and call you every few days after that, they can't dote on you for long. Everyone has their own full life, with very little time to spare on non-essentials. Most everyone is stretched to the limit with desires, plans and commitments, and even their free time is budgeted for "catching their breath" and far too precious to give away. No one is prepared to put their life on hold to sit with and care for a moaning, grumpy, dull, sometimes incoherent and certainly less than charming invalid. One could dwell upon how " non-essential" one is to others, and get depressed.
It's crummy and dangerous to have an accident, or get ill, or get old. Life has little tolerance for needy people. All except my dogs. They have gone from active to sleeping most of the day at my feet without complaint. How do the sick and disabled muddle through? My thoughts turn to how we arrange our lives these days, with everybody working, nobody home managing the household or available to tend the sick or handle emergencies gracefully. I think we really should, as a culture, rethink this. Of course it can't be mandated, but it could be decided, one individual at a time, to keep some time free. Like Walker and Potchair, resting up in my attic, just laying around, waiting for the call to serve, never doubting their usefulness even when not in use. Perhaps people should consciously set aside some UNCOMMITTED time, like a savings account of spare time, like spare money, kept available for a "rainy day". Time not requiring "two weeks' notice" to requisition. We could occupy this time with things like knitting, or polishing the silver, writing essays that don't have a deadline (like this one), teaching our dogs "parlor tricks", cruising the internet, reading for pleasure, hanging out -- interesting things, but not so vital that if not done our lives would come crashing down. Idle time would be more interesting if infused with the distinct purpose of "being available when needed". Isn't there a saying "He also serves who stands and waits."? Unfortunately, I know, that doesn't put meat on the table or gas in the SUV.
I had committed, upon my retirement from the rat race some years ago, to avoid the "full calendar" syndrome I had previously lived, to commit to keeping some Uncommitted Time for gracious living, i.e., to help my community, neighbors and loved ones should the need arise. Being so useless recently, I can't wait to get all healed up so I can stand around and wait again to be useful. I had no idea that meant so much to me.
Hoping you and yours are well, and that you had a wonderful and meaningful Thanksgiving. Despite my bum knee, I actually think I did. I needed to connect with my blessings and not take so much for granted.
P.S. To all my many friends who have suffered through far worse calamities -- from hip, knee or shoulder replacements, to broken ankles, to amputations or wheelchair confinement for life, or being in a cast for 2 years or more, please note I do not in any way compare my little experience to yours and I hereby apologize for my prior insensitivity to your predicament. It's just that with my world smushed down to a few little rooms for now, unable to perform my usual holiday rituals, rather than give in to boredom and depression, I've chosen another way to express gratitude by singing the praises of my new 4-legged friends, and giving a little commemoration of Thanksgiving to well-functioning body parts, especially knees, joints and ligaments. And let me not forget to thank the designers, manufacturers and entrepreneurs who brought Walker and Potchair into being, to whom I am also most grateful. It's comforting to know that there are people out there, engineers and entrepreneurs and manufacturers I don't even know and who don't know me, who are always trying to resolve problems and improve the human condition. Thank you one and all.
P.P.S. Addendum, July, 2010. 18 months later, my knee is all healed up and I'm walking fine. It took about 6 months, though, for me to begin walking without a knee brace, and 8 months before I felt I could run and do dog agility again. We missed out on a lot of training time. My little Maxie is several months behind where he should be. That has brought frequent tears to my eyes. I've started working my treadmill, taking larger steps, picking up my feet, warming up before class, and I never, NEVER walk with my hands in my pockets. I hold on to the guard rails when going up and down stairs. AND, I attribute some of my healing to a salve I made from Comfrey, called Boneset, and applied 3 times a day for several months, which speeds up the healing of bones and ligaments. I was told that my knee may never fully heal, might keep popping forever, but it doesn't. It feels strong.