Monday, July 23, 2012

AK-Ampu-Knee Replacement: The Saga Begins

I don't like reality shows (OK, I've been known to watch DVDs of Hell's Kitchen for the pure, operatic drama) and I did not begin this blog intending to star in my own. But when I was a fledgling, beginner amputee five years ago I scoured the inter-web for What Life Could Be Like with less than four limbs. More recently I went looking for what I could expect from a surgery that would affect me differently than it would a bi-ped.

In that spirit I'll share with you some of my upcoming experiences (sigh) as an above-knee amputee going through knee replacement and PT. Tomorrow at 9:30 am the Journey Begins. They call it "Joint Camp." (No, not that kind of joint.) I hope I get a T-shirt.

Another reason to share this detoured summer--I was supposed to ride my horse, remember--is that it's a way to spit in Christian Science's eye. Secrecy is a defining characteristic of that church. You never tell anyone other than your nearest & dearest when you face a challenge; to speak of an error is to give it power over you. (The belief of power, whatever that means. The belief of pain still feels like pain.)

Secrecy is also supposed to be critical to protect your experience and growth from the potentially damaging judgments and opinions of non-Christian Scientists. Although it only hurts you by causing you to fear, turning your own beliefs against yourself. Even an all-powerful CS god can't protect you from your own whacked-out thoughts. (Or something. It's late, tonight.)

When I was bedridden for a year at fourteen, suffering with a messy and undiagnosed infection in my left leg, my Christian Science practitioner (or rather one of a series) was my aunt who lived across town. And though her grown daughter--my cousin--was a close friend of my mother, and though she visited me often that summer, and was herself a Christian Scientist, and was close to her own mother (my aunt), the wall of silence about what had happened to me was impermeable. Twenty years later my cousin was shocked to hear I'd had a bone disease. She'd thought I'd been kicked by a horse.

And in my late twenties, I spent most of my first pregnancy (still a Christian Scientist) in a sweat of pure terror after a nurse-midwife commented my leg looked as though I'd had tuberculosis, and maybe the doctor would call for a chest x-ray. It was possible, she said, that my baby could be born sick. I refused the test; I suffered through the pregnancy shaking with fears I was not allowed to share, fears my practitioner refused to listen to, fears I didn't believe would be defused by medical tests. I didn't think I'd had tuberculosis...but I had no way of being sure. So I prayed, and cried, and prayed some more.

My daughter was born perfect after a straightforward labor and delivery. Besides amazed and deliriously happy, I was relieved. And exhausted. I didn't think my prayers had caused the healing of or protection from dormant tuberculosis...but I had a feeling Christian Science might claim it had. 

After I left the religion I had another daughter after an exciting pregnancy (a horse fell on my leg) but this time I wasn't afraid. I was excited and happy to be a human surrounded by human love and human skills. 

And here I go into the unknown to help blaze a trail for amputees--and why not, bi-peds are welcome too--through the wilderness of Total Knee Replacement. (It's not the knee on the side of disease: that was taken care of the afore-mentioned amputation.)

I'm glad and honored to have you reading this blog. I have a lot on my mind besides joints and prosthetics, so bear with me. I'll be gone for a bit this week and then, hopefully, back on the keyboard by next week.

Crutches, walker & cane are at the ready; my bed is raised up enough that I can slip on my prosthesis when I have to get up, knee-less for all purposes for a while. But hell, it's just a flesh wound. And like the camel up the road, I've got the right to spit. Christian Science had better put on its shades. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Day Johnny West Found (and Lost) Religion

Religion was the foundation of my childhood. As Christian Scientists, we  worked hard to lift our thoughts into spirituality so that input from the physical senses, both tempting and traumatic, wouldn't distract us.

We went to church (Sunday school for me) every week and often to Wednesday evening testimony meetings. We prayed silently, discreetly, sincerely. We prayed for misunderstandings to clear up; for insight; and for physical healing. I understood that my main goal was supposed to be manifesting God's spiritual perfection

One of my church's tools was the weekly bible lesson. As a kid I read at least part of the lesson before school. My parents read the whole thing every morning without fail. We each had a set of lesson books (bible and Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy) and the week's citations organized with chalk and markers. Our lesson books were parked by our favorite reading chairs. Whatever else I read, the lesson came first.

But then I dove into horse books. The Black Stallion series of course, and everything by Patsey Gray. But also Glenn Balch's westerns. The Golden Stallion Adventures. And everything in between. When I wasn't reading, I worked on the Montana cattle ranch in my family's basement.

We lived in Massachusetts. It was years before I discovered I didn't even know how to say "Kalispell." No matter: I was too busy with roping and roundups. Riding fence, herding cattle, capturing mustangs and practicing for the rodeo. I had a Johnny West doll  and of course he wanted a homestead. I headed not west, but south: downstairs to our unfinished basement. It was part wood shop, part laundry room, with rough concrete underfoot and dark corners. But a window let in the sunlight, a door led straight outside to the the High Country and there was enough room for dozens and dozens of plastic horses and ranch buildings.

First it was just Johnny and his ex-military buddy Captain Maddox on neighboring cardboard Circle-X Ranches. Then the additions began: boxes for extra rooms, sheds, and a bunk house, building-block corrals, Tonka trucks and a small elegant wooden stable from the model horse store one birthday. My dad built the crowning touch: a big, beautiful wooden barn. We snatched it from his workbench before it was completely finished, loaded the mow with dried lawn clippings, the tack room with plastic saddles, sprinkled sawdust on the floor and crammed in all the horses that would fit. My sister and various friends were involved during the hey-day of the ranch, and it expanded accordingly.

I guess this is why they call a big western farm a spread.

Meanwhile, the families grew. We had Living Skippers, bust-less Barbie siblings who could out ride the boys on saddle broncs or race rogue stallions straight to the winners circle; more Johnny West Marx-brand alumni in Jay and Jamie West and Geronimo; a lone GI Joe named Ted recovering from Vietnam by working as a hired hand; and Stuart and Gordon, Marx knights outfitted with suits of plastic armor who'd dropped inexplicably into semi-current-day Montana. They knew better than to ask how.

We didn't have old-west shoot-outs or rob stagecoaches; ranch life was about horses.

And life was good on the Circle-X. Our pedigreed horses were trained and conditioned, groomed and bathed. The ranch houses were furnished and stocked with toy food. The gang wore tiny bluejeans my mother sewed, and developed tanned  complexions from their outdoor lives that I refused to believe was only grime. We competed in Calgary Stampedes, Cow Palace cutting horse championships, rounded up cattle all over the backyard, and found secret valleys hiding wild horses we trained for the Grand National. Reality was no barrier. Say it with me: All things were possible through the ranch. 

I never asked myself why the Wests were free to load the cardboard horse trailer and head for a show on Sunday when I had to get special permission from my parents to skip Sunday school. It was taboo to think about. It made me uncomfortable. For one thing, if Johnny and kin were religious, they'd have to go to the First Church of Christ, Scientist. In Ka-LISP-ell.

But being religious didn't only mean attending Sunday services. Johnny would have to read the lesson before chores every morning, not to mention praying over every colicky saddle horse...and maybe giving pretend testimonies about it on Wednesday nights... And pretending to pray and have healings was completely sacrilegious; I knew that was how my parents would regard it if they witnessed it.

Worst of all, it would destroy the unfettered freedom  that was the point of playing On the Ranch. I would not allow the strict parameters of my church in my imagination.

(So...was my church a reasonable way for people to live on real ranches?) I shrugged that thought away like a mustang twitching off a fly. Until one fateful day.
I was friends with a girl a year older who lived down the road. She was boisterous, energetic and loved the ranch game. She could also be raucous, which made me nervous. One day she said, "Let's have them go to church!"

"No," I said weakly. She didn't understand that, at my house, religion was as taboo in games as it was mandatory and powerful in my life. She and I had been to each other's Sunday schools. I think hers was Methodist; she knew mine was Christian Science. But she didn't seem to understand that religion in my family was solemn. 

"It'll be fun!" She made the ranch hands put on their best clothes. We gathered armfuls of dolls and set them in rows on block benches. Then she began to preach. I couldn't help laughing, and she warmed to the subject.

"God made the mountains, God made the lakes,
God made TED--but everyone makes mistakes!" 

It was too funny. Ted was the hapless GI Joe, powerless now that he'd been decommissioned and stripped of weapons and uniforms, awkward with his too-flexible body, utterly ridiculous on horseback. I protested--I liked Ted--but my friend raised her arms to lead us in prayer.

"Everyone repeat: God made the mountains, God made the lakes--"

We were both shrieking with laughter when my mother blasted in from the other room, quoting the bible at the top of her lungs.

"Thou shalt have no other gods before me! Thou shalt have no other gods before me!" 

We froze. I could have died. It would have been preferable.

My mother was red-faced and so passionate she almost seemed to sob. It was as if she was that incarnation of the all-powerful spirit, unleashing well-deserved wrath on me. "Thou shalt not take the name of the lord they god in vain! Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven images! Thou shalt not bow down thyself to serve them for I the lord god am a jealous god!"

I'd done it. It was unforgivable.

My friend looked completely impressed. We were silent for a very long time after my mother stumbled out of the room.

"Wow," my friend said. We gathered up the West family and friends and took them back to the non-theist ranch where they belonged.

That day, I vowed to never make that mistake again.  As all-powerful author of the lives of the cowboys, Johnny West, Jay, Jamie, Geronimo, Ted et all, (including the hand-less, unidentified toy soldier my sister found in the salt marsh behind my grandmother's cottage in Maine) I created an amended week. I applied it not only on the ranch but to another drama with tiny plastic horses and English moors that took place in my bedroom, and to all of what I think would now be called RPGs, my "role playing games."

I banished the concept of Sunday. My week had six days.

A couple years later I relented. I allowed my imaginary characters to return to a normal week. No one ever was tempted to sneak off to church. Nothing more serious  than a horse show or race ever happened on Sundays.

I'd never heard the word"secular." I would have had no idea what it meant. I know my mother never meant to shame me so thoroughly, but that day was imprinted on me. Religion was the dog-whistle I was powerless to resist. I guess it's obvious how clearly I remember.  And how I longed for a world without it.

Johnny West & crew were lucky to get off so easy. While that was their first and last day of dogma, I weathered a myriad of horrors both physical and emotional for another twenty years before I found the strength to leave Christian Science. I was in my early thirties when I started to question the circular logic. The fear. The shame. 

When I finally quit beating a dead horse.

(Serendipitous photos found online. No toys were harmed in the making of this post.)

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Dances with squirrels

That squeal this morning? Yeah. It was me feeding the chickens. The usual squirrel was bouncing around when I opened the door into the little foyer (my coop has a lobby) where I keep enticing bins of cracked corn and layer mash.

A squirrel contained is a furry super ball in a trash can. I've been flirting with wildlife for too many years to shriek, but I still gasped. And jumped. And yeah, made girl noises. 

We have red and gray squirrels, and maybe flying squirrels as well, but Squirrelicus Coopus looks like a hybrid: muscular and bushy like a gray but with a definite brownish tone. Uber-squirrel. S/he gets in by flattening into a shape that can slide between gaps in the mesh wire on the open eaves. It's got to be a maneuver Houdini would be proud of, a hairy pancake-varmint oozing through. But there's not always time for a leisurely escape.

I stick my head through the door. A blur scrambles futilely into the eaves. Behind the nest boxes. Sometimes I pursue the perp: duck into the chickens' side, pound threateningly on the wall. Even poke at a tip of fluffy tail or tiny paws.

All I can really do is brace myself. And not be in the doorway when the critter exits at close to the speed of sound.

There are variations on the squirrel dance. Sometimes the Doubles team is on so that I'm not sure which side to leap to (and remember that my leaper's pretty much broken right now.) Once I neatly ducked away from Squirrel Descending Wall only to reach into the grain bin so a mouse could run up my arm. Apparently these productions are choreographed around, but not including, me. It's easy to imagine them plotting. And discouraging to think I'm the silly human straight-man in this cartoon. 

It is our human lot in life. One night a dozen years ago I drove into my driveway in time for my headlights to catch my husband doing an impressive jitterbug (though he claimed he couldn't dance) after reaching into a dark feed bin and scooping up a small possum.

Then there was the time my daughter heard a rustling in a bag of sunflower seeds outside the basement door. She reached in to shoo out the cat and found herself petting a skunk. That time it was the human who retreated faster than the eye could follow.

I know those rodents are always close by but they still get the jump on me. If you hear an out-of-character, blood-curdling scream from my hilltop some morning, you'll know the squirrels have branched out (so to speak) in their breeding. And begun to fly.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Parenting advice

Today my vet vaccinated my horses
my daughter's old 4H goats
and the single cat who stayed today
(hiding in the duct work)
in the presence of my daughter's St. Bernard.

My vet chatted about horse people...
dairy farming, animal neglect
and raising kids in the inflexible
life-and-death world of animals.
She said,

"Everyone who wants to raise kids
should first have to be certified
as having raised a Brown Swiss calf.
Those calves will test your patience!

I told my husband, They will not drink from a bucket
so you might as well give it up.
Let them have the nipple on the bottle!

He didn't want to listen.
I said, Oh no. I'm right about this one."

Brown Swiss. 

...maybe this is about marriage, not parenting.
Maybe I should have met my vet
and her advice
when I was younger.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Super Stump!: In which my 'bad" leg gets its chance

My right leg's always been the good leg. The normal one. The limb I count on. The...goody-one shoe.

For thirty-five years I've marveled at how it bends, straightens, stretches and flexes the way a leg and knee are supposed to. But after a couple years of gradually worsening pain and crunching noises it's quit--in the sense of saying "Aren't all these years and months enough notice? See ya." Made like a shepherd. Got the flock outta here.

To me, things have always had emotions and relationships. Setting the table for supper as a kid, I knew I'd much rather be the knife. Be safe and cozy between spoon and plate. Definitely not the fork, over there on its own, in the outback.

My knees: organic and mechanical, separated from natural function in their youth. One traded five years ago for titanium, or whatever my prosthetic knee is. Now my other is about to be swapped for...stainless steel and plastic? (I need to read up on my Joint Camp paperwork.) But my knees have always worked together gamely.

So it's been hard not to feel affection or disappointment with my paired limbs, the twin siblings of a normal body. Especially when most of my normal got away a long time ago. (Hand clasped dramatically to forehead:) My left knee, indisputably struck down in its prime by disease, untreated, left scarred, deformed and rigid. But bravely it held up, and (as the last x-rays before the amputation showed) even diligently laid tiny channels of bone through the non-joint to reinforce it. My left leg never stopped me working, walking, riding as far and hard and long as I wanted.

Well. Almost as long as I wanted. A little more would have been nice. OK, a lot. But nursing homes are full of folks with the same opinion. Life's such a bitch...and why doesn't it last longer?

Ah, but we can rebuild it. We have the technology.

As an above-knee amputee, this puts me in an interesting position. Sometimes it puts me on the floor. I don't have a knee that will still support me bending as I stand up or sit down. Straight, my prosthetic joint is solid; shift the weight and it bends as I walk, or fall, if I misjudge.

I've been told "Your prosthetic leg can't be your good leg. It just doesn't work that way."

Ah, but my stump has been waiting breathlessly for this chance. It's eager to assume the role of dependable.  Dressed in its tie-dyed socket, it's..Good Leg!  

It's true. I'm fluent in crutches. I'm excellent with the prosthesis. No, I can't hold my leg in the air and get around like that, but I don't have to. Won't have to. Knee replacement surgery is about getting right up and teaching that new joint to bend. Seems like I should have a head start breaking in a new mechanical knee, since I've already got one to show it the ropes.

Here goes: more less-traveled roads. My life as a fork, shepherded by a super stump.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

My oldest daughter is a pony


          Jasper (sire)           Singer (dam)

                                                                 July 1,1984