Lately I have sounded a lot like my father in his last years, when he was in his nineties. I breathe heavily when I move. Rising from a chair requires grunting with exertion. Then there’ll be a series of thuds as I grab the handles of a walker and bump my way around corners or into odd shoes and dog toys that have been left in my path. I am in pain and I do not have the energy or will to hide it, which shames me because my father did. I hear myself, this new voice of a person struggling to do the simplest thing–get a glass of water or a sweater–and I recognize the guttural exhalation (like a weight lifter, that effort) that I used to hear when Dad would reach for the salt. And now I understand.
I shattered my kneecap on the day after Christmas. My preferred explanation is that I was practicing for my debut with the New York Ballet but the truth is I was running across a ceramic tile floor that had been snow-slicked by a couple of exuberant Labs; my feet flew out from underneath me, and my knee kissed the floor with great passion as I slid into a wall. It might have been either the tile or the wall that reduced my kneecap to fragments; it happened in a sickening flash and either way, it wasn’t a good moment for my right knee.
I had to wait two days to get in to an orthopod, then three more days until he could schedule the surgery to puzzle my bone together with pins and wires. Then I waited three more weeks in a rigid thigh to ankle brace before any physical therapy was permitted; three additional weeks had to pass before any hinge would be allowed in the brace because if my knee buckled the surgery could pull apart. Now, nothing but time and work in physical therapy will give me back my mobility. It’s been eight weeks and I’m a long way from dancing. I’ve been dependent and I’ve been confined.
People have been amazing and wonderful. My friend Barb has done laundry, cleaned, washed dishes, helped me bathe and dress when my husband wasn’t here and when he just needed backup. She’s exercised our aged chocolate Lab, Hannah. Other friends and neighbors have brought in meals, driven me to therapy, let Hannah in and out, offered and come through with countless kindnesses. We’ve had supportive phone calls daily from our siblings; the mailman stuffed our mailbox with cards. My brother-in-law, an orthopedic surgeon, studied xrays emailed to him and explained what was happening, what to expect.
All this, especially being on a walker, moving as gingerly as my Dad at the end of his life, has made me revisit the time I spent as a volunteer with a much younger Hannah in the Golden View Nursing Home. It is the subject of Where The Trail Grows Faint: A Year In The Life Of A Theapy Dog Team, a creative nonfiction book I wrote that braids the personal story how my sister and I cared for our aged parents in their home, my observations of what goes on in a typical nursing home in our country, and the life cycle of the forest where Hannah and I hike with Barb and her Lab. Here’s the point: when this happened, I was physically fit, had medical insurance, a home, a supportive husband, family and friends. I am very healthy, and compared to the most residents of Golden View, I am young. My husband and I do not live in an economic margin; we have savings.
All these advantages. And in spite of them I say, honestly, this accident–which could have been so much worse!–exhausted us physically and emotionally. Especially in the beginning, many times I was in tears of frustration, fatigue, pain. I’d had no idea what it was like to be disabled, my husband no idea what it was like to be a full-time caregiver. We leaned heavily on generous help. I’d scarcely started physical therapy when my husband’s father died suddenly and there was real crisis a thousand miles away; we had to ask our daughter–the mother of a two-year-old and shortly expecting another baby–to leave her job and family to come help us out while Alan flew to claim his father’s body and the family figured out what to do. And she did, immediately.
So here’s the question: what happens to the people who are alone? What happens to the ones who don’t have these resources or a support system like mine? The emergency room has to see them because that’s the law, but what happens when they’re sent home after the xray to wait until a specialist can see them? When we left, it took three men, Alan and two friends, to get me into–and then out of–the back seat of our car. What happens to people given a nerve block and general anesthesia who are cut open, their kneecap pieced together with pins and wires and sewn back up, when they are sent home from the recovery room in two hours right after they say, “I can’t leave yet, I’m in too much pain,” but they have to leave anyway because insurance (or no insurance, or Medicare, or Medicaid) says so. What happens to them and what is it like for them when they end up somewhere, anywhere, alone?