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At War with the Way Things Are

Mask from Bali, on our kitchen wall; a gift from our daughter Caitlin

Monday morning, alone in the house. With Patrick and Caitlin off to work, could I manage? Hadn’t heard back from the medical office over the weekend. Where was that physical therapist to teach me to navigate this damn wheelchair? Battling. With each foray in the wheelchair, I kept banging into whatever obstructed my path. Transitions were the worst. A clumsy gyration landed me in the armchair, the couch or the bed. Once, unaccountably, when I spun towards the threshold, the wheelchair heaved over into the bathroom. But how to make it do that again? Last resort, disobey the podiatrist’s orders, and once again crawl along the floor. Everything feels hard. At moments, I caught the bitterness. Incensed this happened to me. Yet here I am, whole and not in pain. So lucky. I knew that. I widened my mind to the human comedy. I called my friend Wendy. She understood how hard it was, but also the vast perspective. We laughed together.

She told me a story from her youth. On a ski lift she rode next to a man with a prosthetic leg. He smiled at her and commented, “What a lovely young TAB you are.” “TAB?” she asked. He shook his head and raised a humorous brow, “Temporarily Able Bodied.” Fundamental teaching. Talk about impermanence! Yet so easy to forget.

I kept slipping back into the vortex of the challenge. With each reach, jerk and twist, I wrenched a new muscle. My sore body—with aching shoulders and hips, waist and spine—felt like a cumbersome Halloween costume, glued and pinned out of my reach. And with each wriggle and stretch, I torqued it further. Any inept move could catapult me onto the floor, precipitate another accident, this one not so blessed. I was scared.

Mask from Bali, on the wall in my husband Patrick's study; gift from brother Mark

Midmorning the phone rang. On the screen, the medical office phone number. A huge rush of adrenaline and relief! I answered elated. “I’m thrilled that you called. Now you can refer me to some training in how to use this wheelchair.” An unfamiliar voice: “I am calling you on behalf of the doctor’s office. For a referral, you need to come into our office.” “But I called to come in on Thursday right after the accident," I protested, " No appointments available on Thursday or even Friday.” The voice again: “For a referral you need to come into the office.” “When there weren't available appointments, your office sent me to a very fine podiatrist who x-rayed me and put on the casts, and boots on both feet!” My voice got shrill. “On Friday I paid $350 out of pocket for a medical transport to get me down the 16 steps of our upstairs unit in a Victorian house and to take me to the podiatrist. I can’t afford to do that again today.” I was beginning to quiver. “And it doesn’t make any sense!” The voice was level and firm. “If you can’t get into the office, you need to go to the Emergency Room.” I was up against an impenetrable tangle of bureaucratic red tape. “But your office told me, unless the pain got worse, NOT to go into the Emergency Room.” “For a referral, you need to come into the office. If you can’t get into the office, you need to go into the Emergency Room.” My mind flashed on wild alert. “I will not!” I heard myself shout. From the depths of helplessness, I spewed forth. A stream of wretched blue blasphemy gushed out of me unbidden. Shocked at my own language, I terminated the call. I fell back into the armchair, shaking. I was up against the implacable protocols of the medical system, and now, so alarming, my own failure to contain a rage I didn’t even know I carried. Some ancient and corrosive bile.

Mask from Bali, on the wall in my husband Patrick's study; gift from brother Mark

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