Saturday, September 27, 2014

Though the Moon Be Still As Bright

A year ago today I said goodbye to one of the finest equines I've had the privilege to know, one of the horses closest to my heart, a pony named Rindle. She was twenty-nine and I wasn't sure she'd survive another snowy NY winter, at least not without being cold and miserable. Her hoofs weren't even growing. I owed her the best, easiest transition I could give her. 

It was hard to call the vet, hard to call the backhoe guy. I've put down more than a few horses, helped others with the euthanasia and burials. But this was Rindle. 

Rindle was the daughter of the red road appaloosa mare I brought to upstate NY with me from Massachusetts in 1982 when I was twenty, the mare I rode bareback, sometimes with only a piece of twine around her neck.

Her sire was the cute-as-a-button pony colt I got for forty bucks at an auction, a hellion disguised as a rocking horse. This was Rindle's breeding: by Clever Opportunist out of Sanity.

Rindle was foaled in 1984 when I was an impossibly young twenty-two, about to begin work as an exercise rider, about to marry a dairy farmer, and years away from the birth of my human fillies.

She never grew past thirteen hands. It made her big enough for me to ride but too small for me to compete and possibly overwhelm with my overeager competitive nature that lasted into my thirties (riding her taller full brother.) Instead I rode Rindle on trails, in hunter paces, and led daughters or lessons from her. She taught dozens of kids to ride, sailed over Pony Club jumps, loped around 4H rings and marched down Main Street in the Spencer Picnic parade. 

She was a master of the center-of-the-ring shoulder drop, a classic staple of lesson ponies. (She pulled this on me when I was demonstrating a canter transition and I hit the ground so hard I sprained my ankle. That was only ten years ago.) In a wild and wonderful hunter pace, Rindle and I, with my nine-year-old daughter and her pony, Cupcake, rode a blistering round over the jumps to catch up with our friends on horses. Our friends cam in first; we were penalized to second place for going too fast.

Rindle's last day was mild and sunny. She spent it grazing with her best horse friend, my mare Laredo. All week, snippets of a poem had run through my head: Lord Byron, quoted by Ray Bradbury in a short story I read back in my pony girl days:

So, we'll  go no more a roving, 
   So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
   And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath,
   And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
   And love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
   And the day returns too soon,
Yet we'll go no more a roving
   By the light of the moon.

I was raised in Christian Science, where death and mortality are "unreal." I floundered through the deaths of pets, but I never had to contend with losing a relative until I was an adult, and by then well-trained to freeze my emotions. It's fair to say that Rindle's loss was the first death I faced head on as a human being. I raised her and knew her for twenty-nine years. She was a family member.

I stayed with her as she breathed the last time. I bawled like a baby. I clipped hair from her mane and tail. My friends saw to her burial while I loaded Laredo for the ride to a farm six miles away where I board her now. Where I'm riding again after a five year hiatus. I owe this to Rindle. 

I kept Rindle's photos as my desktop computer wallpaper for the whole year. I think about her every single day. I miss her, and I let myself feel this hurt. She's taught me to grieve. I'm glad her transition out of life was as smooth as the one into it, both in a meadow in clear, warm weather. I'll always remember riding her at night, July or January, with crickets or the crunch of hoofs on snow, by the full moon.

Miss you, Rindle-kid.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Voting myself off the island

OK campers, my six-month blogging sabbatical is over. Last spring was tough. My writing  was going well, but my mental health, not so much. Usually my depression is worst in the dark months, but last March I had a Funk that wouldn't quit.

Around that same time, a documentary maker who'd seen me speak in New York last year contacted me. He wanted to make a film about me & the fallout, physical & emotional, from my surviving untreated osteomyelitis as a kid in a Christian Science family.

This filmmaker has excellent credentials: director, producer & director of photography for many projects including a documentary examining prayer in school. He was enthusiastic about the benefits publicizing my story could have on public awareness of the state laws that allow parents to pray for seriously ill children. He was straight about my time commitment and the hassle of having him follow me with a camera for weeks.

I told him I had to think about it. Part of me was thrilled. Cue the music: SURVIVOR! Outwit! Outplay! Outlast!

See, I started watching the show a year ago on DVD. (I don't have a TV signal, and for this I am truly thankful.) I confess: I've been a secret fan of Hell's Kitchen for its sheer operatic, overblown qualities, so when I ran out of Netflix discs, I gave Survivor a try. Hey! what fun! People left on islands, hungry, sleep-deprived, exhausted, eating bugs & running obstacle courses, no-phone-no-lights-no-motor-car, in a race to make friends and control enemies, with the goal of voting off everyone ELSE without alienating them to the point they'll vote against you when the million bucks is at stake.

I really like the rawness of this show. People behave badly or nobly, rising to or falling short of individual potential. They come through and Do the Right Thing, or they get scared and selfish, and betray.

Self-awareness plays a big part. After my many years of therapy (especially groups) I'm very big on self-awareness. It's never safe to be sure you're in control, or assume you know exactly what's going on. I know from experience that the failure to imagine disaster does not immunize you against terrible events. (This is a real problem in politicians & talk-radio hosts but I won't go there right now.)

Survivor's entertainment is created in the editing. It needs heroes and villains. I'm sure some (many?) contestants watched the show appalled at how they seemed on camera, and probably some families and friends would agree they aren't really like that.

However, they surrendered all control to the game, the editors, and the camera.

Did I want to do that? Yeah, no. Maybe I'm a vain, selfish control freak, but one thing is certain: I'm a control freak with an emotional balance more precarious than on my bottom-of-the-line prosthetic knee. 

I told the documentary fellow thanks but no thanks. I did the right thing for myself: I took as much pressure off my limping brain as possible, hoping the funk wouldn't hang on too long. I cancelled speaking events and started riding my horse again. Over the summer I painted my parents' house and worked in my garden. I swam across Cayuga Lake as part of Women Swimmin For Hospicare. And I feel better now.

I want to do more speaking about child religious medical neglect, and I don't mind being videotaped. I want to improve my speaking as I close in on being a published author. But I know my limits. I'm a lower-case survivor, more castaway than outlast-er. I do my best work without an audience. I'm my own tribe, and I have spoken. 

Too bad that filmmaker isn't named Wilson.Wilson 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Amputee on a Ski, Part 3 of 3: the Eye-opening Stuff

These adaptive skiing posts started out being about my five days as an amputee in the Greek Peak 2014 Winter Challenge program, but it's really about my whole winter's skiing. And bruises. And self-discovery.

I expected it to be challenging, sure. I figured it would be physically difficult. But I didn't expect it to be my new form of therapy. Wasn't expecting to find so many left over emotional pockets of panic and powerlessness. I thought I'd pretty much purged my psyche with all the therapy, meds, time and self-knowledge. Wrong again. 

The most rewarding part of skiing this winter was how I learned to accept both my fear (the panic that still ambushes me) and my trust of the incredibly supportive skiers who helped me. You may not have noticed, but I have a slight (ahem) tendency to charge at life determined to conquer everything on my own. I carried this attitude into amputee-hood. It's important to be stubborn and independent. But it's just as important to value people who want to help. 

When I shut up and listened, I began to trust. I stopped feeling overwhelmed and started to progress, slowly, but surely. It took a month for my bruises and pulled muscles to settle down, but then I went back every Sunday I could the rest of this season. March 16 was the final day of the adaptive program and we celebrated with a dish-to-pass  lunch and a very moving awards ceremony. 

That was also the day I began putting some turns together with more confidence and reliability. I 'm still on Alpha, the beginner slope, but I'm gaining tools and confidence. I can imagine the day I'll venture onto another slope--with my entourage, of course. Scott, one of my instructors (who masquerades as a para in a wheelchair but is actually a maniac on a monoski) told me, "Pretty soon you'll be off to the top of the mountain! You'll see!" He also told me, during one of my mild but recurring panic attacks, it took him two years to work through the panic.

This sense of community has opened my eyes. Admitting I need help opens up opportunities. After my above-knee amputation seven years ago, I climbed back on my horse and sort of battled at riding. One-legged-ness wasn't going to slow me down! Except it had, along with being middle-aged. To ride safely, I need help. And guess what I'm not good about asking for?

But skiing has limbered up that part of my brain. My friends at the barn where my mare lives want me to ride. They are supportive. I don't have to feel limited by not being able to charge out into the woods or over the biggest jumps. I'm looking forward to getting back in the saddle. I wasn't expecting this gift from my adventures on a monoski.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Amputee on a Ski, Part 2 of 3: the Amazing Stuff

If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes almost that many to teach an amputee to ski. (Especially that raise part: two or three designated picker-uppers is standard for us beginner mono skiers.)

From the moment I drove into Greek Peak and passed the DO NOT ENTER sign as I'd been directed (which sets the wonderful tone for the whole thing) and saw the banner on the adaptive ski center (THINK THE SLOPES ARE OUT OF REACH FOR YOU? WE DON'T THINK SO!) my hopes sky-rocketed the way they had when I was a little kid on my way to riding lessons. Walking through the door was like coming home to a place I'd never been.

Of the dozens and dozens, these are only the instructors, staff and volunteers present on the Thursday of the Winter Challenge ski week program. There are plenty more who come on the regular adaptive-ski weekends all through the season.

Of the four chairs down front, only two are campers like me; the other two wheelies are instructors, including one who started in  Winter Challenge four years ago. In this mob are other former program skiers who've become devoted to the slopes, including a couple who met at last year's Challenge and plan  to get married at Greek Peak this fall. 

Every day was a roller coaster of literal highs and lows: altitude, temperatures and fears overcome. Every night we trooped off to push tables together in a different restaurant and celebrate in rowdy style. When crutches clattered to the floor, I wasn't the only one who looked to see if they were mine. 

Once, in our casual convoy of vehicles shuttling from resort to hotel, we forgot to plan ahead and found ourselves in a unique situation. Stacy couldn't transfer to her wheelchair and we'd forgotten to bring someone to help. Tracy had one arm; Andrew was blind; I have one leg. Hell, we couldn't even get Stacy's chair out of the back and put the wheels on...We stood there in the middle of wonderfully politically incorrect (DO NOT ENTER!) joke. How many adaptive skiers does it take to _____? Someone went off to find a guy from the hotel. It wasn't the only time.

One night an instructor in chair tried to recruit a guy he didn't know (also in a wheelchair) into the program. In the past this has been known to work. Robyn, who runs Winter Challenge, bragged of one amputee tri-tracker, "It took me three years, but I got him in! Now you can't keep him off skis!"  A random stranger on crutches in a restaurant was challenged to a race by One-legged John. (He declined. His loss.)

People like these take my breath away. They restore my faith in humanity that I can too easily lose just listening to the news. I count myself unbelievably lucky to live close enough to this community that is so eager to help me rediscover a sport I thought I'd lost. 

Gotta get me a sign for my door: Gone Skiing!


Next time: Amputee on a Ski Part 3 of 3 (The Fun Stuff!)

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

My Seventh Ampu-versary

Today marks seven years since I left the ranks of the "ten-toed freaks," as my gimp friends from ski-camp taught me to say. (smiley face!)

I didn't have a bonfire this year, or a Leg Party to commemorate the original spontaneous celebration with a few close friends. (No party, and I mean NONE, is as insane as carousing while burning your leg in effigy two nights before your above-knee amputation. 

The surgery in 2007 was the culmination of six months of lobbying doctors to cut off my fused, worn-out leg, ten years of increasing pain and decreasing mobility, and a grand total of thirty-one years fearing what would happen to my weird stiff knee. It was agony to tackle the decision; it was cathartic to have to tell my story over and over and over in a medical setting:
Osteomyelitis, a gruesome and excruciating bone infection at age thirteen in 1975 and 1976, untreated because my parents were Christian Scientists; an auto-fused knee I could limp on,  denial of the whole nightmare, and a mindset that made me tackle every challenge that came my way, from race horses to my own riding stable in a barn I built myself. And finally, after intensive therapy, supportive friendships, and time, the self-knowledge to make this choice. 

It was a hard sell to the specialists, but they came around. It's a decision I've never regretted.

My goal for this next year of amputee-hood is to be more active. The ski week in January was the first time I hung out with other amps and folks legally blind or in wheelchairs. We traveled in a pack of 'chairs and crutches, made terrible jokes and got raucous in restaurants.  I felt like a horse finally running with the herd. 

It made me realize that, from all those years when I was so determined not to let my stiff leg prevent me from trying ANYTHING, I sailed into amputee-world with the same attitude: Dammit, I'll do it myself!!   ...But it's limited me. It's stopped me short from some activities.

At what I continue to think of as "ski camp" last month--and at Greek Peak every weekend--adaptive skiing is a whole culture of wonderful people working together. It is assumed you (I) need help; it is offered generously and matter-of-factly, along with encouragement and praise. It turned on a light in my head; it softened me up and helped me relax. Reminded me to trust. Ask. And reach out.

I want to ski. This summer I want to try an adaptive bicycle, a recumbent hand-powered one, to see if I like it. There are programs out there, opportunities I want to try. And I'm going to start riding my horse again this spring. It's been a few years, but now Laredo's at a local barn where there are rings, pens--and friends who want me to doff my leg, climb up on the fence and hop on my mare. 

It's taken me a few years. But I'm starting to hit my one-legged stride. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Amputee on a Ski, Part 1 of 3: the Hard Stuff

I had the privilege of spending most of the last week in January learning to ski at Greek Peak in Virgil, New York in an adaptive ski program. Sunday through Thursday, all expenses paid including equipment rentals, instruction, meals & a room at the Cortland Hampton, it was called Winter Challenge, separate from the VERY REASONABLY PRICED weekend adaptive skiing which runs most of Greek Peak's season and includes many of the same volunteers.

I first heard about it around seven years ago when I was talking to prosthetists ahead of my above-knee amputation. (My ampu-versary is tomorrow.) I meant to sign up for it sooner, but with a kid at home, animals & chores (oh yeah, and a job here and there) I didn't get around. Until this year. 

It was incredible. But the funny thing about those damn challenges? You don't get to choose the part that's hard. And the hard part, whatever it is, is HARD.

I posted a lot of pictures on  facebook including the one above. It was taken on Monday afternoon at the top of the "Boardwalk" slope (named for the conveyor belt lift thingy) and not nearly as exciting as "Alpha" (which I called the bunny slope until I was reprimanded) though it IS a step up from "Magic Carpet" which looks damn near flat until you're at the top of it, strapped in a monoski, realizing that while you might have been a crazy-ass daredevil back in The Day, it's getting late for an old dog to learn new tricks...

The guy in the orange jacket is Frank, my instructor. Within ten minutes of working with him, I knew he was an outstanding teacher. Remember, I started teaching riding at age ten and I've given and received hundreds of lessons since. My standards are high. Frank is five-star solid-gold quality. Nevertheless.

What you can't tell from the photo is that I'm having a panic attack. 

Somewhere mid-afternoon, my old terror of powerlessness grabbed hold of my ageing, right-side-dominant motor skills and hijacked my enthusiasm straight off the mental deep end. Suddenly, faced with the ski-slope equivalent of a tough Shetland pony, I froze. My enthusiasm vanished. I started to cry. I said very clearly (since it wasn't my first rodeo, though it's been a while since I had a melt-down) "I'm having a panic attack--I need to sit here. I'm OK. I just need to cry." 

So I did.  I knew I was in good hands. To a wo/man, my crew was wonderful. These volunteers & instructors run Wounded Warrior ski programs. They've seen a hell of a lot of PTSD. And that's only part of my entourage in the photo. Newbie monoskiers are labor-intensive, volunteer-wise. 
Every morning Robin and One-legged John (more on them later) were assigning volunteers to each of the five of us in the program when we came down for breakfast. It never failed to remind me of when I was a riding camp instructor deciding who would ride what every morning, circa. 1981...don't put her on Corky--how about Goblin?... = Robin: "OK, for Liz we've got Frank, and I need three picker-uppers, and a couple more..."

See, a new monoskier falls a lot and needs to be righted. A new monoskier tends to fall on the downhill side, leaving her (not experienced, coordinated or strong enough to swivel around and push upright once the slope is helping) to flail around. This is called a Mousetrap. As opposed to a Yard Sale (two-legged skiers shedding equipment as they wreck) or a Scorpion (a snowboarder falling on her stomach to hit her helmet with her board, as my daughters know only too well).

On that Monday afternoon, I felt my body resist my effort to relax. My fear of falling yet again on my already-bruised shoulder went exponential.  My fear was like something solid in my way; it had a kind of substance; I could see it. And so I surrendered for the day.

I went back to the adaptive room. For the rest of the afternoon I watched out the window and  wept steadily, not hard, but for a long time. I explained to anyone who expressed concern. I had several wonderful talks comparing shades of panic and depression. It was an amazing, safe place.

But I didn't sleep much that night. Like the Grinch, I puzzled and puzzled till my puzzler was sore. I realized:

a) Frank was a terrific, skilled and experienced instructor whom I trusted. He would have a plan the next day to boost my confidence just as I would have had (& had had) for a frightened rider.

b) There was nothing I could do, other than wait until tomorrow and follow Frank's directions. 

c) If all else failed, if I truly proved I could not ski, I would not have failed.

d) Hello? This was way WAY more freakin' challenging than I'd planned!

Next morning I told Frank and my Entourage, "I trust you guys completely. Tell me what to do."

Frank strapped me into the bi-ski. It was like a monoski but with two skis underneath. It could still easily fall over, and the skis' edges could cut nicely in a sharp turn, but it had a frame: sort of like a dogsled with no dog. Frank could control the ski within reason when need be, then back off and ski behind with me on tether. I still had to follow directions, or it could "get ugly."

We hopped on the quad lift and went to the top of the mountain. Never mind it was -15 F. The wind was gone, I had a facemask and all that was exposed was the tip of my nose.

The top of the mountain was stunning: ice-blue sky and that unique whoosh of skis on snow. There was nowhere else I wanted to be.
Me with Frank Martinez, Adaptive Ski Instructor

We skied down a slope called Karyotis Way for two days. I started looking for my turns, reaching with an outrigger pole, lowering a hip while keeping my shoulder up.  When Frank told me I was on-tether I remembered of all the kids I taught to canter on a pony named Cupcake as I rode beside. Frank called directions and cheered whenever I found an edge. When I put several turns together I shouted "YEAH! YEAH!" as everyone whooped.

Thursday--the last day--I was back on a monoski, back on Alpha, nervous, sore and tired. It wasn't perfect--it wasn't easy--but I made several decent runs with a minimum of falls. 

At lunch I was exhausted, too tired to eat. I told Frank I thought I was done for the day. He said, "I'd rather see you ski for the rest of your life than this afternoon."

Damn you, Winter Challenge. You got to my hard old survivor's heart in a way I never expected.


Stay tuned. Tomorrow: One-leg Liz's 7th Ampuversary

And very soon: Amputee on a ski Part 2: of 3 The Amazing Stuff

Friday, January 10, 2014

Mid-winter gallop

OK, everyone off the couch. Catch that virtual winter hoss & find a bridle. I don't care if that pony's face is buried in the hay pile. Buckle your helmet & hop on. Yes, you can mount from the fence if you have to. Even if you have two legs.

In honor of our surviving the damn Polar Vortex this week, we're going for a ride on  the horses of our individual imaginations. Bareback, of course. Climb aboard & fire up the music link below.

This comes to you courtesy of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra, my best find of 2013 just under the wire a few weeks ago. 

To me this is a piano narrative of a January thaw excursion on a shaggy, barefoot critter with lots of mane to hang on to. You intend to just take a little sane cruise around the field, but the horse wants to trot, and then run, and what the heck. The snow is soft if any sudden gusts of gravity kick up. 

And it feels great to gallop.

Have at it.

"Harry Piers" Penguin Cafe Orchestra