Sunday, September 19, 2010

Comrades in broken bones.

I keep my URL tag from the hospital on my wrist by way of superstition. My fantasy is in keeping it there I reduce my chances of a return to hospital. When I am no longer fearful that the bone might move, only then will I remove it. What a great day that will be. Like cutting off the dried placenta cord from a newborn’s navel.

This morning my husband removed the brace while I kept my leg steady on the bed and he washed it down in warm water with a face washer. The bliss of having my increasingly itchy leg rubbed down is without words. My husband then dried my leg and rubbed it with moisturiser. My leg glowed. I could see the yellowish bruise as it curled around my knee cap down my calf on the left side, faded now but still tender to touch.

This brace that has replaced the original plaster cast, is a wonderful invention, however ugly, though the orthotics fellow says it is not a new invention. The materials may have been ungraded but the device and its design have been around for aeons.

The brace consists of a skin covered section covered in air holes that the orthotics fellow, whose name is Damian, first heated to soften and then molded to my leg. When it had cooled and hardened, Damian snapped the mold down the centre and peeled it off. Later he cut it in half at the area of my knee. He has since fitted hinges there on either side. The hinges are fixed at the moment with the option of opening them to allow my knee to move incrementally at fifteen degree angles over time.

The brace is held in place with thick black Velcro straps that run up and down my leg from ankle to thigh. The whole lot is then further held in place with two hard plastic strips, velcroed on either side of my ankle. These then fit into a cup into which my heel fits. This last piece is finally kept in place with a shoe. Underneath the brace I wear an elasticised white ‘sock’, a long tube of towelling type stretchy material that covers the length of my leg to protect it against rubbing from the plastic and metal of the brace, which itself is padded.

The sock is tight fitting and snug. It keeps me warm but it does not allow my skin to breathe.
‘It’s the dead skin’ Damian said. 'Once you wash your leg and rub it down with moisturiser, you’ll feel better.' He was right.

The world of orthotics is a whole new world to me. The shop in Prahran is located at the grungy end of High Street near Punt Road. I do not imagine they need a high-class show room to demonstrate their wares. They have a captive and regular market. Their goods are in constant supply.

On the two days I was there, on the first to be measured and on the second to be fitted with my brace, Damian told me about at least three other broken legs that were on their way to him, including a woman who had broken both her legs. Two broken legs. Imagine that. She had broken them down near her ankles, Damian said. She will be wheel chair bound.

I find I am getting into a broken leg rhythm. After two weeks my strength on crutches increases daily and I can now hop on my right leg with confidence. The broken leg itself causes little pain most of the time, though occasionally it gives me a twinge. But every twinge passes as soon as I change position.

Once a day now my husband helps me to take off the brace and he washes down my leg. My leg looks strange, like a beached creature from the sea. The bruise is now the palest mustard yellow. It has a sallow look like jaundiced skin.

My husband rubs my leg vigorously with the face washer and although it is blissful for my neglected skin to be rubbed in this way, I am also terrified to keep my leg still. Damian had suggested I do this in the shower while seated on the shower chair, but I am not yet confident enough to let my leg hang down unbraced.

In my imagination the bone could pop out of place at the slightest jar when exposed like this and I am so fearful that I will only undergo the procedure on top of my bed with my leg stretched out in front of me, unable to drop or fall or slip out of its moorings.

I have an odd relationship with my leg, my left leg, as if it is a withered appendage that I despise and at the same time a beloved and fragile infant of whom I must take particular care. These opposing impulses give rise to the odd flash of indignation, the odd impulse to dash my leg onto the ground, to bear all my weight on this one broken leg and go racing up the corridor.

I have this perverse impulse at times when I feel most helpless or when I feel angry, like last night with my husband for leaving the light on in our bedroom when I had been trying to sleep.

In the past I would have gone to turn the light off myself but in my helplessness, it is such an effort to get up, to get the crutches, to hobble to the door, to turn off the light. I have become the dependent one who waits for others to do these things and I was angry with my husband for his lack of consideration, or his temporary failure to recognise my needs.

I can be cranky in my new found immobilised state, far more impatient than I have ever known myself to be. It is hard being waited upon. It is hard when others have control over when you eat, when you can enjoy a cup of tea, when you can wash. The list is endless.

I have learned to ask more clearly. My husband and children resent it when I do not, when I throw hints.
‘A Cup of tea would be lovely’ is not the way to ask for a cup of tea.
‘Would it?’ my husband says. ‘That’s nice.’
No, I must say, ‘Could you please get me a cup of tea?’ A clear and direct request.

Have I developed this tendency to hint at my needs or requests from my mother? She is a master manipulator. She rarely asks directly for anything. As a child I was amazed at the way it worked.

On Sunday mornings we walked to Mass in Cheltenham. The church was a good half hour walk from where we lived on Warrigal Road. We straggled in a bunch up and down side streets, our mother in our midst. She liked to point out to us the houses and gardens that she most admired.

After Mass, the thought of a repeat walk home was always daunting. My mother never asked anyone, not as far as I could see, but invariably she managed to get a lift home, while we children wandered back through the same side streets, this time unaccompanied by our mother who reached home at least twenty thirty minutes before us and was already sitting with her cup of tea in front of the fire and reading her copy of The Advocate.

Women of my mother’s generation, I have been told, women who grew up believing their place was in the kitchen attending to the needs of husband and children, needed to develop new ways of getting their needs met that did not include direct approaches for assistance.

I have a touch of this. I can sense it. I do not like to ask directly,
‘Can I please have a cup of tea?’ It seems too demanding, however clear it might be. And yes, I would rather someone offer me a cup of tea.

That way I do not have to ask. That way I do not run the risk of their annoyed expressions if they feel inconvenienced or if they should say 'no'. My family never say 'no', but sometimes they say ‘in a minute’, and the minute can extend into an hour, as I sit waiting as patiently as I can, not wanting to nag.

Don’t get me wrong. I have progressed now to the point where I could make my own cup of tea, but it is the task of getting the tea from stove top to my place on the couch that is such a challenge.

I have no hand free when I use the crutches and so I must support myself on one crutch and carefully pass the full cup from stove top to bench top and from bench top to table, from one flat surface to another, until I can get it to its destination at my table near the couch.

I hear and see broken legs everywhere. Yesterday I received a letter from my writer friend and correspondent, Gerald Murnane. I had written to tell him the saga of my leg and he sent back a copy of an article he wrote for The Metaphysical Review called ‘The Falling’ in which he describes how he too broke his leg on 14 October 1994.

Given that GM was born in 1939, as I recall, he would have been in his mid fifties when this happened, not far off my age now and it happened, it seems, for similar reasons.

GM writes, ‘Before last October, I had never been a patient in a hospital. The only surgery I had ever undergone was my circumcision as a baby (unless I was born without a foreskin) and two small operations for the removal of cysts from my scalp in 1955 and 1990. Neither of these required a stay in hospital. Before last October I could say that I had never broken or dislocated any bone in my body.

‘As of last October I had more than ten months of accumulated sick leave, so seldom had I been ill... So I was someone who needed to be reminded that he was not made of imperishable stuff; who needed to be brought low – literally as well as figuratively.’

The cause of his fall, as GM goes on to describe, is one of excessive busyness, working as he was, full time as ‘the Selection Officer for the [Creative Writing] course at Deakin [university] by day and trying to finish [his seventh novel] Emerald Blue by night and at weekends’.

But the real catalyst was the fact that in 1994 GM’s twin boys had finally left home for good. All year the boys had been looking for a place to rent and finally they found it three days before their father’s fall.

I resonate with GM’s comments here: ‘The crowdedness of our small house was becoming unbearable, not to mention the strain of finding dirty dishes on the sink at all hours and the feeling that we [GM and his wife, Catherine] were being used up. I say this without meaning to speak against my twin sons. However, a time comes when the parents of any animal turn away from it. I used to watch with interest many a mother cat boxing its half-grown kitten over the ears when it was time for the young one to stop trying to suckle and to get out and catch mice.’

After the boys finally moved out, GM and his wife were left with ‘these two empty rooms given back to us after we had lived like Japanese for so long, with our belongings piled up in cupboard...’

The accident happened three days after his sons had left, on a fateful Friday evening, when GM took to moving filing cabinets and their contents. He had ‘opened a six pack of Coopers Sparkling Ale and got to work...At about eleven thirty, I was standing on a chair and pushing a row of books along a shelf near the ceiling of what had been for so long my son Martin’s room and out of bounds to me but was now my new playground. Some of the books began to fall. Instinctively, I reached out to save the fuckers.

‘I do not know how I fell. I recall lying on the floor and knowing, as one knows these things in dreams, that something was wrong with me. I recall hearing the last of a stubby of beer pouring out onto the carpet from the ironing board nearby. As I had fallen, I must have clipped the corner of the ironing board and caused the stubby to fall onto its side and to pour out its contents. I recall reaching up and standing upright the now empty stubby.

‘I recall lying where I lay for a minute or two, knowing, as I just said, that this had been no ordinary fall. I recall using the chair to drag myself to my foot. I wrote foot because I had not as yet put any weight on my left leg, which, so I divined, was not quite right. I recall standing up with my hands on the chair and putting weight on my left leg.

'I recall – and I’ll never forget – my left leg buckling under me as though the bone from knee to ankle was a strap of licorice. I recall – let’s be frank – hopping out to the toilet with the chair as a walking frame and emptying my bowels for fear of what I had done to myself. I recall hopping to Catherine’s and my bedroom and waking her up to tell her that I had injured my leg. I do not recall any pain. God is merciful. Injuries such as mine seem to be painless. You can say I was in shock, if you like.’

And here GM’s story and mine diverge considerably. I was in pain after I broke my leg, the worst pain I can recall beyond childbirth. As my husband drove me in the back seat of his car to the hospital, every time he turned a corner the centrifugal force pulled the bone out in some way, even as I tried to hold my leg in place. The pain was like a hot sword through to the bone.

But if the pain I suffered then as opposed to the pain that GM does not recall suffering is any indicator so far, my progress has been more steady. GM also broke his tibia near the knee cap, but GM’s break required surgery, screws and plates inserted and a bone graft from his pelvis to replace the damaged bone.

So far no such treatment has befallen me. GM’s period of hospitalisation extended beyond two weeks and he was not fully recovered for another three months. I am confident, at this stage at least, that my recovery will not take as long. Touch wood.

I am cheered to be a kindred spirit of one of my literary heroes. We are comrades in broken bones.
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