I am a pathetic worm. A writhing, whining, grunting, squirming carcass of need.
Normal everyday function has been rendered impossible. For example, if I concentrate and struggle mightily for several minutes, I can remove one of my socks. I won’t be able to put one on myself, though, until sometime after baseball season starts.
In many ways, this spinal fusion surgery three weeks ago has left me helpless. The delicate nature of the procedure requires me to wear a stiff, form-fitting brace around my midsection to keep me from bending, twisting, stretching, or turning in any way. When the neurosurgeon reached through my innards and wedged a medical-grade fishing bobber between my bottom lumbar and top sacral vertebrae, he stretched all the nearby muscles, ligaments, tendons and connective tissue to accommodate the extra part.
“You’re going to feel like you pulled a muscle,” he told me the day after surgery. “Only you didn’t. I pulled it. Ha ha.” Surgeon humor.
So the brace clamps my trunk tightly and keeps any unauthorized movement to a minimum. The only time I don’t have to wear this overpriced exoskeleton is when I’m in bed. I have mastered the Frankenstein-like series of right-angle movements it takes to lever myself into a sitting position on the side of the bed, at which point I reach for the strap-on. This thing employs enough Velcro to fasten a horse trailer to the side of a barn.
There’s also a complex lattice of thin nylon cord across the back that allows me to pull it super tight. Corset tight. Joe-Pesce-squeezing-my-head-in-a-vice-until-an-eyeball-pops-out tight.
If Barb is here she helps me put on the brace. When she does that it makes me feel like Batman.
“So that makes me, what, Alfred?” she says.
“Just hurry up,” I mutter. “I have to drop some guano.”
When you think about it, if you can’t bend at the waist there’s a lot you can’t do. I didn’t think about it. So when I came home after four nurse-baiting days in the hospital, I immediately ran into trouble. Although I can walk around, having ditched my walker after the second day, when I get to where I’m going I can’t get what I want.
Like food. All the good stuff is on the bottom shelf of the fridge, out of reach. Beer, leftover lasagna, that bottle of Vietnamese chili sauce, pickles, juice, a big container of pork fried rice. And what’s on the top shelf, in easy reach? Fucking yogurt. Not even tasty yogurt. Plain yogurt. One of my friends told me I should eat a lot of yogurt to help my bowels along after their four-day strike. Have you ever tasted plain yogurt? It’s awful. It’s like eating llama snot. I prefer the constipation.
I can reach the eggs in the fridge door, no problem. But I can’t get the pan out of a lower cabinet to cook them. If I drop a pen on the floor, I have to leave it and go find another one. Barb comes home in the evening and spends several minutes going through the house, picking up all the detritus from my short jaunts away from the bed. She finds condiment lids under the kitchen table, the remote control and house phone on the living room rug. In our bathroom there’s usually an assortment of pills on the carpet. I really have to keep track of what’s dropping where, because I don’t want to mistake a handful of laxatives for a handful of painkillers. When the shit hits the fan I want to be able to feel it.
Barb and the kids are starting to realize how many of the little household tasks I do every day that go unseen and unacknowledged. Take something as simple as feeding the dog. I’m normally the first one up each morning, and before I pour my first cup of coffee, I dump a scoop of kibble from the plastic container into Houdini’s dish. The container sits on the kitchen floor, though, so now I can’t even come close to reaching it.
In the daily hell storm of activity each morning as people careen about the house getting ready for work and school, sometimes the dog doesn’t get fed. This happened Monday morning and I tried to lower myself down to the container by way of a crude ballet squat. The Velcro on the brace crackled with the strain, and suddenly my left knee exploded with the pain from an old football injury. (If you must know, I banged it on the edge of a coffee table during a Super Bowl party.)
But I wasn’t about to let Houdini go hungry. I can reach the meat and cheese drawer in the fridge. After devouring half a pound of low-sodium Black Forest ham and a few slices of Provolone, the look he gave me said this was the best Christmas ever.
This lack of reach tortures my existence in lots of other ways. Our collection of 800 CDs is arranged alphabetically in a row of five-foot-tall shelves along a living room wall. I’m listening to a lot of Aerosmith, Beastie Boys, Cracker and Dixie Chicks. Uncle Tupelo, Neil Young and ZZ Top, well, they’re just going to have to wait for barbecue season.
I have implored Barb and the kids to put things within reach. She bought the flavored soda water I like to mix with my juice, but the case sits on the kitchen floor, tantalizingly out of reach. Housework of any kind is strictly forbidden by my doc (I knew there had to be a massive upside to this situation), so at least I don’t have to worry about getting anything from under any sink. I’m not cooking any meals, so my kitchen duties are pretty much relegated to making toast. And if I drop a slice of peanut buttered toast onto the kitchen floor, well, let’s just say that access to the dog food becomes a little less important.
I have found a partial solution to my drop-and-ditch problem. It’s a long handled grabbing tool. You squeeze the handle and it brings together two pinchers at the end of a two-foot rod. It’s delicate enough that I can pick up a single sheet of paper, and strong enough to lift a pair of sweatpants. I keep it looped through a Velcro strap on my brace when I’m doing laps up and down the hallway, like some retirement village Zorro.
I’m trying to follow doctor’s orders to the letter, because I don’t want to have to go through this again. But it’s frustrating. This morning I was in the kitchen, pouring that all-important first cup of coffee, when the phone rang. I tried to turn away from the coffee pot without swiveling, and the cup caught on the edge of the counter. Hot coffee splashed all over me and the cup shattered on the floor. I let loose a string of curses that caused Houdini to bolt out the dog door. Shuffling across the wet kitchen floor, I grabbed for the phone. I missed and knocked it to the floor. It was still ringing so I reached for my trusty grabber. It wasn’t there. I looked back and there it lay, on the floor next to the coffee maker.
I almost started crying. The day had just started and I was already at the end of my rope. I ignored the phone and returned to my bedroom, where my backup grabber leaned against the dresser. I snatched it up and walked into the bathroom. I turned on the light, and the bulb blew. Shit. Changing light bulbs is definitely verboten. More curses.
Screw it. My back was starting to hurt so I decided to go back to bed. First, focusing all my concentration, I used the grabber to pick up three white pills from the carpet and dry swallowed them.
I hope they weren’t laxatives.