Saturday, January 18, 2014

Thanks, That Was Fun




It was another case of hurry up and wait.
The skin graft seemed to be holding. My pain was being managed better, though I couldn’t bear anything making contact with either of my legs – not even the brush of a bed sheet. To put it mildly, I was antsy. And grumpy. And impatient. I wanted to get back to my hometown, finish rehab, and go home. But I couldn’t be discharged until a bed became available on my local hospital’s rehabilitation unit.
During these insufferably long days, I became a fan of TV cooking shows  – it was somehow soothing to watch people chop and sauté stuff in butter.  I still couldn’t read, because my hands shook too much and all the drugs had left me with the attention span of a fruit fly. I enjoyed brief phone conversations with friends, until I became too exhausted to talk. Occasionally, I had visitors. I continued with physical therapy. I listened to my iPod until it gave me a headache. But mostly I just stared, visualizing how my surgical and graft sites were healing one cell at a time. I’d check the clock and dream of the day I could pet my dogs, open the windows for fresh air, and maybe even enjoy a glass of Pinot noir.
Oh, and I cried a lot.
Then one day, a nurse came in and asked if I’d like to be visited by a fellow amputee, a woman who had been through a similar crisis and was now doing fine. The woman was volunteering on the trauma unit that day, representing a nationwide support group for people with limb loss.
I hesitated. My initial reaction was that I didn’t want to be part of any kind of group that had the word “amputee” in it, thank you very much. Despite the fact that anyone could see I was missing most of my left leg, I hated that word. I didn’t want to be thought of as an amputee.
On the other hand, I knew I was facing a great unknown. I was exhausted and worried. I was sick of crying. Maybe it would be good for me to hear some encouraging words from someone who had hopped a mile in my shoe, so to speak.
So I agreed to the visit “Sure. Why not? What could it hurt?”
A little while later, a woman poked her head through the doorway. She was tall and lanky and for some reason she reminded me of Martina Navratilova. (It was probably the pain meds.)
“Hello,” she said.
From my hospital bed I returned the greeting and gestured for her to come on in. As this chick glided into the room I examined her from hair to shoes. I was puzzled. From what I could tell, she wasn’t missing anything. She had both arms, both legs, both hands, and all her fingers. It even looked like she had all her teeth.
She took a seat in a visitor’s chair against the wall and crossed her legs. She looked at me blankly. Then she rummaged around inside a canvas carryall and pulled out some brochures. “So, you’re an AKA?”
Huh? The only kind of “AKA” I was familiar with was the police scanner abbreviation for “also known as.”  Was Ms. Navratilova asking me if I had committed any felonies under an alias? Or was she curious whether I wrote under a penname? The confusion must have been all over my face.
“AKA means above-the-knee-amputee,” she explained.
“Oh.” Jeesh, human beings abbreviate everything. “Yes, I guess so.”
She nodded.
OK, this visit was more than a little awkward. This lady was a stranger and not a very gregarious one, at that. She got up and handed me brochures for the support group. I couldn’t help but stare at her when she moved, still completely baffled about her amputee status.
She sat down again and sighed. “I was in a car accident a year ago and lost the big toe and the two adjacent toes on my left foot. I’m waiting for my prosthesis, but in the meantime I stuff the end of my shoe with a sweat sock.”
Silence. I had no idea what to do with that information. I almost exploded with laughter. I almost screamed at her and called her names and told her that she needed to get her seven-toed self the hell out of my hospital room. In my mind, an ugly, mean-spirited temper tantrum raged: “Fucking toes? You lost three fucking toes and you’re in here telling me what it’s like to go through life as an amputee? Toes? Seriously? What I wouldn’t give to only have lost a few fucking toes! Try a fucking leg! Now that’s a real amputation, bitch!”
(I truly apologize for my brain. It has been known to resort to lowbrow vulgarity in times of extreme stress.)
I sat in stunned silence with my eyeballs bugging out, which was probably impolite of me. My visitor felt compelled to defend herself.
“People think it’s no big deal to lose three toes, but they’re wrong. I got fired from my job because I was expected to be on my feet for hours at a time. I lost my health insurance. I lost my car, went on food stamps and Medicaid, and declared bankruptcy.  My boyfriend and I went to the beach for a week and when we got home, he dumped me. He said he couldn’t handle everything that went with dating me. My house was foreclosed on and I had to move in with my parents, who are supporting me.”
A rumbling began deep in my soul. It was fury. It was pure, stark fear. I started choking on a cosmic-sized serving of horror and dread. And all I could think was, if all that happened to her because of a few toes, what kind of hell awaited me?
 “I think you need to leave,” I whispered. Really, I just wanted her gone. I knew I was about to have a big-assed meltdown/breakdown/smackdown, whatever you want to call it, and I needed privacy.
My hands shook. My thoughts began to race. My mind composed the litany of loss that surely awaited me in my new life.
My house? But I loved my house! I’d just remodeled my kitchen and both bathrooms!
My car? I needed my car! What would I do without a car? How would I get anywhere with no leg and no car? Rickshaw?
Insurance? Oh, God, my self-employed health insurance was so expensive! What if I couldn’t continue to pay for it? How would I get the continued medical care I would need?
My job? What kind of work could I do if I could no longer write? Would I become a Walmart greeter?
Food stamps? Medicaid? Who would take me in? My father was gone and my mother was in a nursing home! Where would I go? What about my kids? My dogs? My hydrangeas?
“I didn’t mean to upset you,” said my friend the motivational speaker. “I guess you weren’t ready to hear my truth.”
I started yelling for the nurse.
Once my visitor was escorted out, I started sobbing so intensely I feared I’d never be able to stop. Great gulping spasms slammed into me. I couldn’t catch my breath. Tears were flying. I tried to explain to the nurses what had me so upset but the words came out a garbled and gurgling mess.
Maybe I’m not strong enough. Maybe I can’t do this.
It was the first time that thought entered my mind. It was the first time I said it out loud.
           Martina’s visit left such a bad taste in my mouth that I didn’t want to be involved with that support group. But in the fall of 2013, things had gotten so difficult that I reached out to them. I filled out one of their email forms, leaving my contact information and a short description of my situation. I explained that I needed a mentor, someone who had an AKA and had gone on to lead an active and full life. I requested someone who had managed to stay optimistic and determined over the long haul. I even admitted that my most recent wave of setbacks had worn me down so much that I was losing faith.
          I didn't mention the ill-fated hospital visit. I had come to understand that Ms. Navratilova had the best of intentions, but I was simply too fragile to hear what she had to say. I also didn’t mention the fact that my life now bore a striking resemblance to the horror story she’d shared with me. Hey, maybe one day I’d trust my future mentor enough to reveal that bitter irony.
          I never heard back from the support group. No call. No email. No mentor. No joke.



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