What Happens To Them?

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?

7 Responses to What Happens To Them?

  1. I am so sorry to learn of your horrendous injury. Wet tile floors, combined with rambunctious dogs, always scare me (as do stairs, of which we have many in our home). You pose critical questions regarding healthcare options at any age, because without it, and the help of willing friends and neighbors, we may suddenly find our lives turned inside out. All the best for a full recovery to your very active life.

  2. It has been a long trying haul, but with your determination this thing as my mom always said “in time will pass”, and you will be back on our wildflower laden trails. What great timing to be able to walk without brace and beam just in time to get filled with the beauty of spring…our favorite time.

  3. I’m awfully glad to catch up with Hannah, who administered dog therapy to the residents of Golden View. I read your book Where the Trail Grows Faint only last month and have wondered if Hannah was still alive. So she’s thirteen now and still swims! (So do I — am I at 76 roughly her age? No she’s older, I think.)
    Here’s how I ran up on your book. I have low vision and have read books on tape from the Library for the Blind for many years. I received a catalog from the Library recently which listed your book. I was setting off for a long stay in New Mexico and wanted something light-hearted and comforting to take with me, hoping for some comic relief and some warm pet stories, or pet relief.
    I took two books about cats (one was pretty good) and yours about dog therapy — that’s the one I loved, and I’ve read it now twice. Lightness of heart, yes, and terribly funny; but heaviness of heart, too, when I wanted it to be, which I often did. I feel it’s a profoundly valuable work. Buttons, Dodi, Liz, Clare, Mary, Sam — I often think about them and the cruel, undemocratic economy of ours that keeps them refugees in one half of one room at Golden View. Certainly I will remember Edwina for a long time, her cookies hidden under the covers from Hannah, who didn’t know how to extend her paw, and your confusion and distress, which wasn’t funny to you at the time, but was when you were home and writing about it in a masterful way!
    I have a black lab who’s fifteen years old. She’s had episodes of a certain illness, but right now she’s fine; she can go for healthy walks except in very hot weather. When I got home to Cincinnati this week, I found her hair all over the house, and the next morning I called BowWow Boutique. My husband took her to be shaved, as cold as it is, but she’s good and goes outside still wearing BowWow’s bright yellow flea scarf. In the evenings, I sit on my brocade sofa in the living room with my tape player beside me, or I pull up a chair to the t. v. to watch something interesting — if I can find it — and suddenly I realize George the yellow cat is on my chest, gazing into my face, and Lucy, the black lab, is snoring comfortably at my feet.
    I would like to understand better your injury. I wonder if there is any KIND of exercise you can manage and also when your cast can be removed.
    George is sitting on my mouse pad. It’s a tiny hint he doesn’t want me to write any more. He’s not a very literary cat, so I try to be patient with his feelings about me and my computer.
    I don’t know if I can post this or not. I have to enlarge everything, and that seems to be part of the problem. But at least there will be a copy of this on a computer file.

  4. One night in Manhattan, back in the early Sixties, Noel Coward and Marlene Dietrich were walking to attend a play’s opening performance when suddenly La Dietrich stumbled and fell flat on her face. Said her friend Coward: “Marlene, I’ve told you time and again — that’s not funny.”

    Lynn, had you consulted with me ahead of time, I would have told you exactly the same thing. But no, you couldn’t wait to hear my wise counsel, you impulsively went ahead anyway. Oh well, it’s too late now, the damage has been done. And Kell Do-modge, as we say in La Bell France. Poor dear, I’m appalled and horrified to hear about your mishap. As soon as I read your opening sentences, I thought, ‘What gives? I had to get knocked down by a bus to get myself in need of a walker. What on earth could Lynn have done to herself to be put in that position?’ Of course, now I know. And my heart goes out to you. I wish I lived nearby so I could bring over some chicken kreplach soup.
    PLEASE keep doing whatever you can to recuperate and recover! And please keep us all posted.

    PS: Am I to infer that there’s an audiobook of WHERE THE TRAIL GOES FAINT? If so, please tell me that you recorded it yourself. I’ve told you before what a wonderful speaking voice you have; it would be a shame if anybody but you committed your book to audio. In any case, I also told you what an important book that is, so I’m happy to read the post above by one of your friends who clearly shares that view.

  5. Well, Lynne, your account certainly brought back memories of my own knee problems! And, as a person with only twelve remote cousins as remaining family, I can appreciate your friends and how they supported you. Although I hope I will never be in the position of having had surgery and having to go home to an empty house, your speculations about what that would be like brought shivers down my spine.

  6. Such eloquent, effortless writing. I know the kindness and generosity of which you speak. I do not know your physical pain, but pain of a different kind, and I know how much the help and generosity of others has been for me both welcome and unwanted, always appreciated but occasionally feels undeserved. May the love of so many that are helping you through bring you strength in your weakest moments, light in the darkest. Know I am sending much love and positive energy your way. You’ve done so much for me, and I’m sure hundreds of others; my God speed your recovery and lesson your pain. Much love to you.

  7. I’ve been thinking about these subjects, too, Lynne, occasioned by visits to and from my disabled 83-year-old aunt. The frightening part for me is that she is the family member who is most like me in stature–tall and long-legged. She was the baby of my mother’s family, the fourth child, and always the funny, happy one. Now–wow. All that has changed. I never dreamed I’d see her like this.

    But I’m not addressing your question of what happens to people who have no one to help. I’m thinking of Gloria Naylor’s THE WOMEN OF BREWSTER PLACE. It’s about a shabby apartment building, low income, on a block hidden behind a wall, because the rest of the city no longer wants to be aware of these people and how they live. The women who live there are alone, mostly, though they may have family members who dart in and out of their lives–a son in prison, say, or relatives out of town. But they are a community within themselves and function as such, looking out for each other. It’s a bit like the tent cities that are springing up around the country–filled with people who are unemployed via the recession. There’s strength and safety in community.

    Is this a good answer? I don’t know. It’s what I see. In some ways, perhaps these people are capturing a way of life that is bygone, now that many of us live behind locked doors in our suburban communities, waving to neighbors whose names we may not know. But there’s nothing to romanticize here. I would bet each family in these tent cities would prefer to go back to their former, employed-and-housed lives, separate and in front of their TV sets at night–then checking Facebook to talk to their friends. (??? Is this better???)

    And think what happened after 9/11. The country came together. Red vs Blue didn’t exist for a space. We were a community of Americans, suffering loss.

    Why does it take a crisis for us to come together?

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