Friday, August 31, 2012

Into the woods on one crutch

I headed back into the woods in the summer of 1977 when I was fifteen.

"Back" meant I'd outlasted a baffling, excruciating year and a half of a bone disease that went untreated by my Christian Science parents. I'd spent a year in bed, six months in a wheelchair. Then my knee was useless and fused, but I was strong enough to walk with crutches. I could lead my irritable Appaloosa up to a big rock--my mounting block--so I could share her wonderful, powerful legs and ride a little. This was far more important (I told myself) than missing most of two years of junior high. Much more critical than my misery and alienation at school. I wasn't sure who I'd turned into. Couldn't walk. Couldn't (ever) run again. But I could stump around on the crutches.

The padding of crutches is not kind. My hands blistered and then grew calloused as my skill on the wooden sticks developed. Gradually I chose stairs over the tiresome privilege of the school elevator, and learned to carry my own books.

And when school let out for the summer, I set out into the woods that stretched behind my house in Lexington, Massachusetts, the forest that butted up to the power lines and Route 128/95 for a mile before it jagged back towards Hanscom Field Air Force Base. The barn on the corner of the road was where my horse lived, where my hope waited for my legs to be set free. (Healed was the Christian Science term. The plan was perfection. But that's as irrelevant right now as it was impossible at the time.)

The wood were crisscrossed with tumbling stone walls of green boulders that had pastured cows in the 1600's. Pines, beeches, and junipers lined the paths. Wild grasses and tall blueberry bushes swayed in the breeze at the power lines mixed with the pungent sweet fern.

Not too many years before, behind my house, a crystal clear spring had run out of an ancient pipe slimy with algae near a ruined foundation. Crystal clear, the stream had wound into the swamp by the highway until it was captured and forced into a culvert so that a housing development could be built. The best that could be said about that was that it happened long after my friends and I raced Pooh-sticks, dammed up the stream with rocks and mud, and built tiny lean-to's and model horse corrals.

The smells never change when you step into the woods. Whether you're there hunting wild model horses, riding a live, stubborn Shetland pony bareback, or clumping along on a crutch, the fiddle head ferns, skunk cabbage and jewel weed shimmer their varying shades of green. The mud squelches underfoot, or pine needles make you silent. Mosquitoes and deer flies drone. The sun shifts behind the taller pines and reminds you time is passing.

When I was fifteen I felt the woods pull at me. The woods wanted me. I felt them call to me. I couldn't explain it, only obey. I thought I wanted to map out a new trail across part of the hillside above the barn, maybe build a few new jumps I'd coax my mare to hop over someday.

My father loaned me a bow saw, a set of pruners and a round point shovel. I figured out how to carry one or more tools as I crutched my way between the trees, over stones and between stumps. All summer, afternoons and sometimes evenings found me swatting bugs as I dug holes and set flimsy posts I cut by hand. I piled rocks, chopped at stubborn roots, and hacked back branches. It was sweaty. dirty, soothing work. I loved the solitude. I loved the sense that I was both caring for this little patch of wilderness and also making it more useful, at least in my mind. I could no more have stopped tending to the woods that summer than I could have stopped trying to ride my difficult horse. I would finally let go of both projects--the trails until the next summer, my horse forever--but not yet. Not in the middle of that muggy summer as I grew back some strength.

Fast forward thirty-five years and a day. To yesterday.

Five weeks and  change since surgery to replace the only long-suffering, worn-out remaining knee of my fifty-year-old-amputee body. Surgery had become vital more suddenly than I'd expected. It had deftly derailed my summer plans: cutting fire wood, building a better pasture fence for my horse and ponies, working on endless carpentry projects. I've got fifteen woodsy acres on a hidden hilltop in upstate New York, south of Ithaca. In thirty-five years since I wore out a bow saw making trails and jumps in Lexington I've found that my instincts were correct. About needing horses, of course, but also about the homesteading. After my informal but thorough career, I could wax eloquent on the building and maintenance of half a dozen types of fences (not to mention butcher any kind of poultry at all with my eyes closed.) I can't imagine a life without a four-wheel-drive truck and a chainsaw. Yeah, I'm a homesteader. Born and bred, apparently.

But I've been feeling increasingly at arm's length from myself since my above-knee amputation five years ago. This summer's surgery has underlined the gradual physical decline I've been fighting for years, one I know I can't win, only accept with grace.

Five weeks with my new knee: physically I felt good. Almost sound, fatigued in a positive way, but gaining strength every day. But mentally I was floundering. Couldn't get centered. Not sure who I was.

So I went for a walk.

I grabbed the single crutch I'm using now--an aluminum crutch; I haven't seen wooden ones in years--and marched myself out between the big spruces that hide my place from the main road. Now that my knee doesn't hurt, walking is a lot better, except that I'm out of practice. My muscles aren't up to snuff, and my prosthetic leg is really only as strong and coordinated as my organic leg. My fake foot can catch on a clump of weeds or a stick; if I'm not paying attention, I fall on my nose.

But hey...Walking-in-the-woods and I go back a hell of a lot further than a fake knee (or two.) I scrambled through the sticks and dead fall to a Cotton-Hanlon right-of-way on my north boundary and walked it by my corral fence. Then I cut back into my property.

I walked a bit and stopped to consider the clump of small trees I cut down last year. Crutched on until I had to stop and squint to imagine the angle of a future fence line. And think for a while. 

This is new for me: thinking. Introspective stuff. Ever since I ditched my last crutch in high school and found that, while I couldn't run, I could out-walk, out-ride and out-work everyone I knew, I'd been a blur.  But becoming an above-knee amputee five years ago slowed me down. Shifted me into a new low, slow gear that I pretended wasn't happening.

But you know what? Though it's better to run than walk, it's better to walk than sit in a wheelchair  (or use a walker like I did for a week. Another first; another growing experience.) And it's better to walk on crutches (or one, or a cane) than not walk at all.

This is called Having Grace. Maybe I'll stop feeling so grudging toward it some day.

Anyway, the woods don't care. The sound of the wind high up in the top of the pines is the  same song pines sang in Lexington. I don't have any big beeches. But I have hemlocks, and spruces that tower into the sky. I have maples and oaks in a hundred-year-old hedge-row. Slippery elm and poplars. Sweet fern doesn't grow here, but we've got honeysuckle  blooms in two shades of spring: white and pink. It's been dry all summer and the ground was hard at the spots that should have been running with springs and lush with ferns.

And the land knew me. Recognized me. Said, Liz, how the hell you been, girl? like the town truck drivers at the bar would.

I don't own my land. It owns me. And it made me feel strong. I'll keep on keeping-on and walking out to the woods. It's who I am. Owned by the land.

Which makes the school tax bill I just got seem more ridiculous--and the outdated dog license renewal (for a dog long since moved out) seem more pertinent.

"But Your Honor, I don't own the land...It owns a dog."

Wonder if the town justice would go for that one. Oh well.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

My green-broke novel

It isn't quite green broke yet: my brand-new piece of fiction. More just started under...saddle...or something. It's a project suggested by a writer I met at a workshop a year ago, a woman who is one of three writers teaching another workshop this October. Last spring I made up my mind. Signed on. And a month ago, halter and rope in hand, I trudged out to the field to catch the idea so we could begin.

Man, this is a sharp-looking idea for a young adult novel! Sound and strong, with a bold edginess.  It has all the elements I could want, if I can just do it justice.

It's hard to start a story or a colt, to work day after day, then try to observe what's really there, not just what you assume or hope. Pretending doesn't help. Both equine and literary rejection feels like a sudden jolt of reality, even when actual gravity isn't involved. (And I am grateful that physical injury is unlikely, in this case.)

I try to keep my story's feet moving and work to gauge its next move. I don't want it to get bored, or rather boring. Progress is important. I need to know where I am. 

Yesterday I swung open the gate for a brief ride onto the Internet. Heart in my throat, I rode into cyber -space to show Someone Else the first page of my new project.  She liked it. I was pretty sure she would (I know enough to hedge my bets at this tentative stage) but it still feels great to be validated.

So today I headed back to the safe confines of my Word program, the corral where my story and I work together and prepare for our future adventures overcoming literary obstacles. This story feels like it might jump pretty high. And in the meantime, it's got a wonderful stride.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Operation Override: Successful

Not quite 4 weeks since I went "Under the Knife." (The reader is encouraged to sing along to the tune of "Under the Sea" while making up lyrics in poor taste.) I guess it's fair to say I aced my knee replacement surgery, especially as someone with only one knee.

I was glad to have the heads-up advice from an AK amp & will pass it along accordingly: be prepared to have to put on your prosthesis every single time you get out of bed for at least several weeks, including every trip to the bathroom. I'd also studied the best way to use my prosthesis so I could depend on it more than I usually it. A fake leg is no stand-in for an organic one, but I found the best positions to use it to my advantage getting up and down. 

And yes those days in the hospital were a bitch. The more I think about the PT sessions, the more I recognize that being told to perform an exercise when 1) I produce no visible movement whatsoever  2) it hurts like hell and 3) I'm told neither of those first things matter, sends me over the edge into my personal abyss. Everyone's got his or her own limits. It was very hard for me to ignore the alarms, buzzers, flashing lights and smoke boiling out of the beat-up old machine that is my psyche just because I'd chosen to accept this particular mission: override.

Post-op fragility is a drag. I hate having the sense of being a puzzle with every separate piece clearly defined and not yet connected, only set in place. There's a crackling to the swollen skin, an outrage to the muscles, a clunk in the new knee. And the override command says, Do it anyway. Get up. You can't hurt your leg even though your leg says it hurts.

This is a stark contrast to Christian Science. It demands that you not only do it, you can't feel any pain because your body doesn't exist in the spiritual realm of perfection.

No. It hurts because this body is where I live. But I have the hope that it won't hurt as much later, as I push the muscles a little more, as the swelling comes down, as I sleep better every night, as I find myself stepping up or down a stair without wincing. As I turn around in the kitchen saying, Damn--where did I leave that crutch?

I'm down to a single crutch now. Last night I walked on crutches without my prosthesis. I understand this is not typical. Ah, the triumph of override. In PT I'd cried. There was no improvement, no result, no progress and there never would be, only pain and despair.

But there are times to trust my body, and other times to tell it to shut the hell up so I can work. Apply override with caution and commitment. Your results may vary. But it's worth it in the end.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Note to self: next time, stay down longer during the count

Sigh. What was that thing about X weeks of recovery from total knee replacement surgery?
Yeah, 4 days in the hospital weeping through exercises and snarling about the mean old therapist. Check. 

Working through my extra-credit dilemma: having one organic leg go off-duty, leaving me to don my prosthetic left leg every time I had to get out of bed (including at night to go to the bathroom). Figuring out how to balance on the fake leg to spare the reconstructed one. Check, check.

Then last week home with various daughters, relatives and visitors bearing meals. It was a beautiful, sunny week: mornings on the shady side of the house, afternoons napping or watching a DVD, then back out to the deck in the cool of the evening. My horses graze outside my window, purple loostrife blooms at the edge of the pond, crickets singing day and night. Sunday I swapped walker for crutches and maneuvered down the couple steps so I could go riding in a car-car.

Yesterday I went to work for a couple hours...

Wait, what?

Today: same thing. Worked. Did errands later. Not driving myself yet, but that's not too  far away. My crutch-walking is excellent. My range of motion goes from full-extension (which I couldn't do  before the surgery) to better than ninety-degrees bent, and counting. Just need to put in the steps. It's two weeks today that I went under the knife.

I see the doctor on Friday. Think I better ask him. Shouldn't I just hang out on the deck another week or two? I'll take long walks in between my...naps and reading and movies. I promise.  Check?

I may have really screwed up this summer surgery thing.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Say hi to my (new) knee

Back in black, and blue. Or more of a purple, fading into brown and yellow now. Such artistic bruises all over my leg. So here I am, unafraid ex-Christian Scientist and above-knee amputee, reporting from ring-side after having my only knee replaced. Send your gimp to Joint Camp this summer! No, it wasn't what I'd planned either.
Doctors are very reluctant to replace the only knee of an amputee. I'd talked to another AK amp who's been through the deal. His main advice was to be prepared to put my prosthetic leg on every single time I got out of bed for the foreseeable future: no legless crutching around the house.

Conveniently, by the day of my surgery, my knee hurt too much to walk with crutches anyway. The pain had taught me that my bed and the toilet would need to be raised. I'd need to step down onto my artificial leg and keep it straight so it didn't buckle. I'd have to give the nurses clear directions about how I needed to raise the hospital bed or set my feet a certain way, even when it looked counter-intuitive: my fake leg jutting out, awkward but solid, like a horse talking a bow. I'm top rate at advocating for myself in a medical setting. It comes from having spent months lobbying to have my leg amputated.

Of course, then there would be PT.

My friends said, Oh, you'll ace it! Piece of cake! You'll fly through!

That was the plan. It did not go accordingly.

At Joint Camp last week we were all chased out of our rooms twice a day and sent on a forced march down the endless hall to physical therapy. We crept along on our walkers, each accompanied by a nurse, an aide or family member pushing our wheeled recliners behind us in a little parade. We arranged ourselves in a row on the linoleum of the big room. We each had a tuft of gauze Saran-wrapped onto a swollen leg. I noticed right off that I was the age of the middle-aged daughters, the "coaches" who coaxed their mom or dad for one more rep, one more minuscule, seemingly impossible lift of a leg.

Well, no matter. I arranged my prosthetic leg in the recliner and gasped through the exercises. Being the odd case was familiar: I've spent too many horsemanship clinics, as both student or instructor, working with the complicated horse at one end of the line.  I was prepared in theory to tough it out. I'm the hard-ass former child-soldier who can Take It. No problem.

I cried straight through most of the physical therapy classes.

Cried silently, so steadily that the wad of tissues in my fist were as vital as the Styrofoam cup of water I gulped. This was nothing like learning to walk on my prosthesis five years ago. This just plain hurt.

The stiffness was a punch to my most vulnerable spot. I spent my teen years praying, aching, striving to see my fused left knee move. When it didn't, I believed I'd failed to be healed. Now I was in the belly of the medical beast, trying to go through motions to let me walk, still fending off a flickery flashback of knee weakness. Knee malfunction. Knee futility.

And I let myself cry. Lately I only seem to cry when I feel safe. I couldn't quite reconcile safety with my current pain and fear of permanent incapacitation. But I've worked hard on not being hard-ass and emotionally calloused. I know I need to let myself feel.

What I felt was pain. I hated it and it made me cry. But I also had that right. My last day of PT my tears rolled down my cheeks the instant the physical therapist walked through the door. Pavlov's patient. (I felt just a little bit bad for the guy.) But when I groaned into my leg lifts, woila: I raised my leg. I lifted it maybe a quarter inch.

It's a process. I've been home a week tonight. Moving this brand new joint into usefulness. It bears me no ill will: it doesn't hurt to stand on it. Just the outrage of the disrupted muscles and tendons. We move, and we hurt. Part of being human. Film at eleven.