Monday, May 5, 2014
A Romantic Homecoming
Today is May 5th, my birthday. Coincidentally, I’m about to tell you the story of one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever received in my lifetime. It wasn’t a birthday present or a holiday gift and it didn’t come wrapped in a bow. This gift didn’t wilt or require me to take out an insurance policy in case of loss or theft. You might want to have a box of tissues around. Seriously. I’m crying already, just thinking about it. I’ve been crying about it for twenty-six months.
I received the gift the day I left the hospital, which was a particularly difficult day for me. As I wrote in the most recent post, I was reeling from a cosmic shift in the way I saw my life. I could no longer count on my old frame of reference, the one in which I was sure that my talent, my hard work, and my luck would bring me what I wanted.
The operative word in that sentence was “MY.” Please keep that in mind for later.
So, my ex-husband, John, and Arleen, my best friend, took me home. If you’ve read the blog entry entitled “You Can’t Go Home Again,” then you know about the disastrous dry run homecoming the day before and how anxious and scared it left me. My discharge from the hospital came much sooner than anyone expected, and I didn’t know how I was going to get in the house or how I would function once I got in there. Nothing was ready.
But on the drive home, Arleen mentioned that some of my romance writer friends were waiting for me at the house and they’d been getting things ready for my return. I figured a few fellow members of the local Romance Writers of America chapter had stopped by, maybe bringing some snacks and a potted plant or two. And as sweet as that sounded, I just didn’t know if I was up to visiting with anyone. I wasn’t thrilled that these women, my professional comrades and ladies who knew me only in the context of meetings, workshops, lunches, and convention cocktail parties, would be seeing me at my all-time low, the most pitiful state I’ve ever been in outside a hospital.
Looking back, I have to laugh at myself. It’s ridiculous that despite everything I’d been through, I was still trying to “manage” how others saw me. I speak only for myself when I say that the ego is a relentless beast. Please keep that in mind for later, too.
We pulled to the curb. I noticed a lot of extra cars on my street, but my mind was focused on the immediate challenge ahead of me. Based on the previous day’s disaster trying to get me in the side door, we decided I would enter the house via the front steps. No, there was no lift chair. There was no wheelchair ramp. There weren't even handrails on both sides of the steps. The only way I would get into my house was to crab walk backwards toward the front door, up four concrete steps, across a concrete landing, and up an additional four steps to the porch.
With a lot of help, I got from the car to my wheelchair and out of the chair and into position on the bottom step. While shoving off with my one foot, my arms pushed me up and back. I don’t know how much time it took to get to the second step. Every movement required complete focus and all my available physical strength. My arms began to ache immediately. John and Arleen were right there, assisting me, encouraging me, but I had to block them out. I didn’t want them to touch any part of my body because I hurt all over. This was about me and the stairs, and I needed to focus. Though my skull was like one of those restaurant bread bowls and my brains were nothing but a narcotic soup (do you want a baguette with that?) I knew it had to do its job if I were going to make it to the porch.
Neighbors stuck their heads out their doors to watch.
Another step. Another. I tried not to cry.
I heard voices behind me, coming from inside my house. My friends were in there, and here I was, scooting along the cold concrete landing on my ass like the cripple I had become.
I made it across. Five feet felt like five miles. By the time I got to the first porch step, I was choking on a kind of shame I didn’t know existed.
I was a circus freak. I was Lieutenant Dan from Forrest Gump. This was permanent. I was powerless. Permanent . . . powerless. I would never be Susan again. I had become someone – something – else.
By the time I made it up the porch steps, my face was wet with tears, my arms trembled from exertion, and my palms were scraped raw from the concrete. But I still had to get up into the wheelchair. I surrendered, and let Arleen and John pull me up and get me seated. Next, the chair had to be lifted over the threshold, with me in it. My writer friend Mary greeted us at the door and took charge of the operation. Because Mary’s daughter has been disabled since birth, she was an expert at this sort of thing.
I sat facing outward with Mary bent down by my ear behind me. “You are going to be all right, sweetie,” she whispered. “I won’t let you fall.”
The wheelchair rose up and tilted backward. I think I gripped the armrests and screamed in terror. If I fell, I didn't have the strength to defend myself from injury. I had no control. I had no power.
The wheels made contact with the foyer floor. I was home.
I was wheeled into my living room, and my shame evaporated in the warmth of kindness. The fireplace was roaring and light reflected on the clean wood floors. A fuzzy blanket was wrapped around me and a cup of hot herbal tea placed in my shaking hands. I was welcomed home with hugs and kisses and reassurances. That's when I realized what was going on.
This wasn’t a few ladies with casseroles. This was an army of mercy.
More than twenty women from Washington Romance Writers had invaded my home. God knows how long they’d been there, because the place was spotless, completely rearranged, and full of flowers, cards, and chocolate. A luncheon display was arranged on the dining room table. Apparently, they learned of my early discharge and, with Arleen’s help, descended en masse upon my house to get it ready for me.
Several friends helped me get into my big overstuffed chair by the fire, where I sat with my blanket and tea. It was the first upholstered chair I’d felt in three months. I was worried about my leg, but several women buzzed around me, helping me prop it into a position that kept the pain tolerable.
Slowly, I began to comprehend the situation. My writer friends had scrubbed my house top-to-bottom and set up a cozy bedroom area for me in the downstairs dining room, with a twin bed, side table, and lamp. There were new, freshly laundered sheets, and fuzzy blankets. Two new robes lay across the bed, one ultra soft and cushy and the other a floral silk. They had rearranged all my kitchen cabinets so that I could reach dishes and pantry items. They purchased a small counter top microwave I could use without standing up and reaching for the built-in appliance over my stove. They bought me a new electric tea kettle. It would take weeks to discover just how much food my friends had provided. Massive quantities of homemade sauces, stews, soups, entrees, and desserts were stacked in my freezer (which was now cleaner than the day I bought the appliance.) The cupboards were packed with staples like organic soups, whole grain pilafs, juices, tuna, pasta, coffees, teas, condiments, and canned goods. A stack of autographed novels had been placed on my bedside stand, including an advance reading copy of Nora Roberts’ latest.
I will never forget the moment I saw my friend Gail appear from the basement doorway wearing a pair of elbow-length vinyl gloves. She had been scrubbing my basement. My basement?! Due to the fact my son’s room was down there, the location had a nickname – The Pit O’ Despair. Gail deserved hazardous duty compensation, or the Congressional Medal of Honor.
And then I learned this little tidbit: two friends had brought along their husbands, and these poor souls had been enlisted to rip out the old, leaky downstairs shower and install a handicapped-accessible unit – in a single day. They’d already been at work for many hours. I looked out into my back yard to see old fixtures, plumbing, and shower doors thrown on the grass.
I was dumbstruck by this display of generosity. It was the most shockingly loving thing that had ever happened to me. Of course I cried. I was too weak to fight it. But here’s what needs to be said – I had spent time with most of these women over the years at events, but others I had barely spoken to. Some of them were practically strangers to me. But they were there anyway.
As the evening approached, people started to head back to their Washington DC-area homes, where they would probably repeat the cooking and cleaning routine for their own families. I hugged everyone. I thanked everyone, though my squeaky little “thank yous” couldn’t begin to convey how much their kindness meant to me.
(Let’s fast forward two years – some of these barely-known women and their families are now among my dearest friends, and I will never be able to repay them for their ongoing generosity.)
It took the handyman husbands until eleven P.M. to finish the shower project. I had long ago put on my jammies and collapsed into my dining room sickbed, feeling cared for, spoiled, and more exhausted than I’d ever been in my life.
That’s when one of my friends pulled out a big envelope and showed me that she’d brought along donations from members who couldn’t be there that day. Checks. Money to put toward medical bills. I didn’t even know what to say. The next day I would find a get-well card stuffed with cash just sitting on my bedside table.
I couldn’t even process how much love there was in these women. The next time you hear someone dismiss romance novels as bodice rippers written by hacks, tell them this story. (After you've told them to eff themselves. Or instead of. Your choice.) The point is, these talented women walk the talk. They believe in love and they aren’t afraid to show it. The do more than write about heroines. They ARE heroines.
It would take a long time before I understood the shift that occurred in my life that day. I had been forced to let go of my old formula for living and tentatively accept a new one. Literally, I’d had to leave my self-centered formula behind (MY talent, MY determination, MY luck) – and be open to something else.
It was my first shaky attempt at gratefully and gracefully accepting help from others, letting them do for me what I could not do for myself. It was tough, since I’d lived the first fifty years of my life proud that, though I loved other people, I didn’t need them to survive.
The rules had changed.
That first night home, it was a struggle to fall asleep. I may have been exhausted, but I couldn’t get comfortable in my little dining room bed. My teenagers watched over me, telling me they loved me. I was so glad they were there.
But it was all so strange. There I was, surrounded by a variety of one-legged necessities – a bedside commode, wheelchair, cell phone, glass of water, pain medicine, pillows to prop up my throbbing leg, extra bandages, extra blankets, ice packs and heating pads, tissues, and skin lotion, etc. – in a room that had hosted raucous dinner parties, Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations, and romantic candlelit escapes.
Weird. Odd. Surreal. Confusing. All of it.
The pain meds eventually did their job, and I fell asleep with my daughter, Kathleen, holding my hand. I slid down into that dark and drugged-up place where I could ignore the little voice that was whispering in my ear.