On September 4, 2007, I woke up in the spanking new Trauma Center on Colorado’s piece of I-25. I had been ferried there by ambulance, attached to a morphine drip, having shattered my right leg when the saddle slipped as I was dismounting my Arabian mare.
I had been so proud of myself for approaching her and overcoming my fear. She had been a little girl’s horse and has luminous dark eyes; she is a geriatric Arabian, a tad bony but still stunning. In fact, I learned when I perused her papers after I rescued her, her sire was imported from Spain by Wayne Newton. Her name is April. She loves to nuzzle and to be touched and ridden. But I was afraid because she is taller than I was used to.
It was late afternoon and I had tossed back a few glasses of cheap champagne. I threw the only saddle pad I had on her back: a thick one that came with a Morgan mare I had rescued who had tender scars on her back. On the pad I set my “wasband” Doug’s old Western saddle, and cinched it up.
I led her to some people next door to get a leg up. Before I climbed on, I checked the cinch. It was tight around her belly.
When I was a little girl I was in a body cast for a year– they say it was because I had a displaced hip, but I have had dark thoughts about it. Like a little frog, after the cast was cut off, I had to teach myself to walk again. Later on I fractured my vertebrae in a fall off a quarter horse, and still later flew off the back of a mare that had shied at an unfurling tarp. While I had always gotten back on and overcome my fears to one day ride a mare to the top of a mountain, I had old, creaking injuries and hadn’t ridden in a long time. Hence, my central phobia of feeling unsafe, vulnerable, in danger, had returned.
For this first ride, I asked a young girl to walk next to me and I rode around the arena, using my legs to communicate with April, and then went back to the house, the girl walking with us.
At the last minute, after I had said, “Hold down the stirrup on the right side,” absolutely sure that I would be, having not thought to ask her to check the cinch to see if it was still tight given the thick pad and that horses hold their breath when they’re tacked up, I said, “I’ll be all right. You can let go.”
As soon as I shifted my weight out of the saddle, the saddle began to slip and roll off April’s back. She shied and began to fall toward me. I tried to save myself from a fall by ripping my right leg out of the stirrup.
I lay on the ground looking up at the sky, thinking that I would ask the girls to pull my leg straight; it felt that the knee had dislocated.
Then came pain, like a great crow, swooping down over me. Then came my own screams, someone holding my hand, and the ambulance.
What I had done, I later learned, was to corkscrew-shatter my leg into many tiny pieces. I had a severe comminuted fracture of the tibial plateau and of the fibula. At the trauma center I lay immobilized for nearly twenty-four hours until I could be fit in to surgery. Then, the doctor on call patiently rearranged all of the pieces of bone and inserted a titanium plate and rod, and titanium screws. He irrigated the leg with betadine and antibiotics and sewed me up, bandaging it and encasing it in an immobilizer.
So it was that I woke to what seemed the sound of birds that became voices, nurses fluttering around in scrubs, coming in and out of my room like extras in an opera. I woke to Doug standing next to the bed; he sat down and took my hand.
Someone turned on the television– state of the art, plasma, on the far wall, and put the controls for the bed in my hand. Everything I needed to remain alive was right there, including my own nurse twenty-four seven. I had whispered out my desperation with which I had ridden the mare a bit drunk in the first place, to the trauma doc. She didn’t trust me.
Next to me: a morphine pump. I could push the button and the world would soften; the throbbing in the leg would go away.
In two days people from the nursing home I chose came and put me on a gurney and from the gurney into a wheelchair, and into their rickety van and down we went along I-25, everything passing us by, so that it seemed that we weren’t moving at all.
I was taken into a blue room, where there was a vase of flowers and a welcome basket. It was blue from the ceiling-to- floor drapes to give the illusion of sky and serenity. Everything was a bit worn; my heart sank– I wanted the pampering, my state of the art everything back, my stainless steel bed pan I had taught myself to stay clean and maneuver on with alacrity, the solicitude of my own nurses with their murmurings and their knitting.
The nursing home was an indelible change of world.
A walker was brought to me. I couldn’t trust it at first; it looked so unreliable and flimsy. It took me several days to get out of bed and into it and hop on my good leg a very short distance. I could only go five feet or so before I exhaustedly made my way back to my small island of safety, my hospital bed, with its thin vinyl mattress, its washed and rewashed sheets, its “soaker” pads that you could layer under you that would hold water if you sponged yourself down.
I had Doug bring my little stereo and a few of the dolls I had been crafting, and paintings, and my crucifix. Some great fear kept welling up in me when I tried to do what the physical therapists asked of me. I was phobic about reinjury. I could feel the hardware shifting around in my leg, which would send me back to my wheelchair, my heart pounding.
Still, when the therapists were out of my room, I practiced getting up, balancing myself on my left leg, telling myself I would one day walk again, tapping at the hard walls of my fear to get them to crack. The bathroom was twenty feet away. It would be weeks before I could hop that far because first, as was the case with everything to follow I had to believe I could do it.
Every day physical therapists came for me and took me to a small exercise room, imploring me to stand and pull myself up a 2″ lip of step to work on parallel bars. None of us understood my anxiety. They were impatient with my need to safely keep myself in my wheelchair. They put me under pressure I found intolerable and when they weren’t looking, at night when there were few people lurking in the hallways checking on the other residents, I would make myself expand my world, sneaking into the gym, mastering the next thing.
When I went to see the surgeon he would put films up on the screen in his office and we would look at them and I would look at the fragments of bone secured with the titanium, this image that illuminated a part of my body and even I could see that nothing was changing.
Finally one day he said that my leg wasn’t healing and that if that process didn’t start soon I would need a bone graft. I asked him if there was anything I could do. He shook his head.
I asked my medical doctor what to do. She immediately put me on 1200 mgs of calcium per diem. Meanwhile someone finally realized that I didn’t know that to put a little weight on the leg would send a message to the bones to begin to grow anew.
September gave way to winter and winter edged toward spring. My leg began to heal and I began to be able to hop for longer distances and then to lightly weight-bear in a post-op brace. I was often sad and terrified, fearing I would never see my home again. Doug brought my Golden Retriever Tess to me and she went from one sorrowing person to another; light would cross their faces when she put her soft head in their laps.
People I saw one day in the lounge were carried out the back door the following day, or in the depths of night. I began to hug and console the other residents in our wheelchair universe, to sing to them. I attended several deaths, singing lullabyes. Now you saw certain people, now you didn’t.
At Christmas, I revealed that I was a soprano and the activity director and I sang “O Holy Night” and bits from The Sound of Music together, forming a little choir of ourselves and tiny, wrinkled people with coiffed hair in diapers beneath their knit slacks, who sang along in quavery voices. I developed rituals that comforted me; a sponge bath on the soaker pads, Bach on my Walkman, my eyes closed. Then working out in the afternoon. I fell in love with an ancient woman whose mind burned on and who relived memories that could fill ten memoirs.
I came home at the end of February, having noticed that my leg seemed to be healing out of line, bending, having trouble with the post-op telescope brace I wore. Meanwhile my left leg had begun to feel the strain. I had eaten too much in the nursing home; food morphed back into being a source of comfort and four times a day we had all been placated by carts loaded with things sometimes delicious, sometimes awful that we ate anyway. I worried but I persevered.
When I came back into my old life, which was now a different life, I had to bring home a bath transfer bench, two walkers, a cane in case I got that far, my favorite bed pan, soaker pads, a bedside toilet, a raised toilet seat, one leased big and sturdy wheelchair and two smaller chairs I bought on e-bay. I imagined I would be an invalid forever.
Then the house became the prison of a recovering rider/writer who found it too hard to sing onto the page, who worried, who stood at the sink teaching the leg to bear more and more weight. I had come up our steps with the help of the physical therapists, but was afraid to go back down them.
Our Jack Russells hooked up when we were distracted, and we raised a litter of puppies–that is to say, I supervised, midwifed plump little piglets out of their sacs, making sure that they began to take in air, and Doug raised them. The cats had kittens; we both tried to save kittens that were inevitably felled early by viruses or carried off by the foxes. The mares stood in the field and looked at us, wondering why we had gone so far away and when we would be back.
I sat in my wheelchair at my PC with my legs bent under me to insure my range of motion. I had absolutely no idea what I was doing to myself except following instructions. I wrote whatever came to mind, utterly disinterested in getting out discs with poetry and essays on them I had written before I became a broken person.
In July I went to see the trauma doc on a referral from the surgeon. No one told me anything. After he looked at the films he said,
“We’re going to have to rebreak your leg. The tibial plateau has collapsed and the whole thing is deformed by 30 degrees.”
In the blinding flourescent lighting of his office I looked down at my leg. It had deformed into a question mark; it had bowed. I had noticed this to some extent, unsure of what I was seeing, perhaps in denial, and had thought that surely, if this had begun to happen, at the first sign of it they would have told me, before I ever came home.
I was told that I would have to undergo a “staged revision,” wherein the leg would be cut in half by a huge saw, repositioned, and I would hobble around on crutches for two weeks before they put in a new knee.
As I looked at the earlier films and the new films I saw that this had all started well before the nursing home and that perhaps I could have remained in my brace and kept the leg straight while it healed, rather than weight- bearing on it and bending it under me while I typed.
I was livid. For two weeks I ranted and raved at the Orthopedic Center and told my surgeon I would detonate his career. I summoned my records and a CD of the films.
Then, I had to close down against what had happened to me, and begin to live with it. I decided that my walker and I would go back out into the world and I would make my question mark work.
I hiked up and down our stairs, out into the kennel, back into the house. I made myself drive again, working out the leg with the clutch and the brake. I made myself expand the world that had become so small by going to the store or for a drive with Tess in the front seat. I took an apartment that required I park some distance from the door and hike in in my walker with my pack on my back.
Every day, the leg swells because the the femur is only partly resting on the plate and the tibia. New arthritis instantly eroded new cartilage, so that it’s a matter of bone on bone. The pills I take a few times a day blunt the pain but I can’t function at all if I take anything stronger. I encase the leg in a long neoprene brace, tightening it with Velcro straps. My question mark leg is three inches shorter than the other and it is a strong leg.
Meanwhile, my left leg has torn cartilage in the knee, and every day I must wrap it in long ace bandages to compress the swelling. Over the past month, my bad leg has effectively become my good leg.
Both legs have their times of weakness, when they don’t want to portage me out of the door across the grass to my Ford Ranger. If I sit too long typing my spine begins to throb. My eyes blur. Where a molar was finally extracted after I overcame my agoraphobia so that I chew on the right side, my jaw is wearing down and catching on itself in mid-conversation. My ears ring. My eyes weaken.
I am a mind and heart and literary sensibility dwelling in this fading body. I eat too much. I think too much. I fall into dark places and come back out; I laugh, I cry, I carry on. My leg is my teacher and my friend. In the past month, my question mark has become strong enough for me to walk by lurching across the room.
Naturally, I feel the press of time; who wouldn’t? My hair has gone white at the temples from all of this stress. I am now afraid that I have begun the long slide; any number of the little things going wrong are simply irreversible. It is with a sense that I have prematurely aged and am running out of time that I have just written the memoir of the happiest time in my life– a trip to Europe in 1973 when I was young and beautiful, and could take a train ride alone down the Italian coast to be with a southern Italian who had kissed me under the Juliet balcony beneath the quivering moon and later wrote irrestibly that he couldn’t live without me. I didn’t think any man would ever say that to me again and so I went, and lived our brief life together, and came home and forty years later it has been essential for me to tell the story, to make something out of the past to give back to the world. If I have to self-publish it so be it, but these days, given the state of publishing– disarray, a crap shoot– that’s o.k.
We have two choices. We can give up, or with a question mark leading us into the world, we can keep going until the question is answered or fades away.