Wow, but it’s a long way up the Hayes Street hill. This is the slope made infamous in San Francisco’s Bay-to-Breakers marathon, annually the site of tens of thousands of runners, some costumed, a few nude, all winded…laboring up this infamous hiccup of the San Andreas Fault. Not that anyone struggling up this incline has a neuron to spare for geology. It’s all about getting to the top, staying alive to the top, staying power being all there is. Though I do have enough energy to ride up a driveway, along the sidewalk and through the pedestrian markings at an intersection, before swerving back into the street, climbing and climbing, my legs beginning to fail on the bicycle pedals, for foolishly I am not in a low gear. In fact, this is high gear, or damn close, and there’s no possibility of stopping, downshifting, and making this ride a little easier. For the simple fact is that I am going too slowly, and the only way is forward. And the only action is hanging on, hoping in the essential matter of will, and things are balanced on a knife edge. Yes, the summit is within sight, but not necessarily within reach, and falling short, is a definite possibility….
Even though it is a dream, and the alarm radio is now waking me to the true nightmare of the day, the nation’s Republicans screwing with the debt ceiling. I listen to the thing unfolding. My legs are still pumping a bicycle up Hayes Street. And which nightmare is worse no one can say.
The morning wheelchair waltz ensues. That is, once I am in it, and although parked right next to the bed, it does seem a long way. But, okay, I whir into the office to turn on the computer, arc into the hallway and unlock the front door, even as I am banking toward the kitchen, slaloming around the end of the counter to the tea kettle. I click the thing on. It begins to roar. I stare at it stupidly. Hard to say if it was wise or unwise to have taken a Walgreens sleeping tablet. Quality of sleep being a complicated, issue. But for now the only issue is tea. And yesterday.
The dream tells part of the story, perhaps the most important part. I hadn’t slept well yesterday, was quite exhausted. And now, at the end of the day, there was the matter of exercise. In my mind, physical activity rotates from walking up and down the footpath in front of my apartments leaning on whatever available arm, or having a five-virtual-mile go at the exercycle or, as somehow suited that day, having enough of a bout with the rowing machine to get through ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ on BBC Radio 4.
It is a perfectly adequate arrangement, this rowing machine. The actual device hails from my first marriage, which means that it has lasted for a highly successful 25 years. In fact, the rowing machine is in such robust mechanical health, that I really should will it to someone. So, speak up. If you would like me to insert a personal line or two into my will, do get in touch. The rowing machine is yours.
For now, it is mine, and Jane has strapped me into the thing. Although ‘strapped’ hardly does the situation justice. Yes, there are the usual foot straps. But in my case there is also a special physiotherapist’s hand strap to hold my paralyzed right limb on the rowing machine’s handle. Row, row, row yourself gently up the cardiovascular stream, merrily, merrily, merrily…and this dream is already becoming something of a nightmare. I just don’t have the strength, it becomes clear. I can barely hold my torso up, such is the condition…of what? My general stamina? The late afternoon heat? No, this is a condition of the mind. I am defeated, this cannot be happening, and the long slide toward incapacity has begun. The antidote? I shall prevail. I shall conquer this thing, this triple-headed enemy of neurology, stamina and age, the thrashing tail of fatigue not currently acknowledged.
I get in about 50 rowing strokes. Jane, currently vacuuming her car, must be able to do something…and that something amounts to a shove. I want the rowing machine shoved closer to the stucco wall. Jane balked at this suggestion earlier, but now the matter seems urgent. I cannot support my torso, stamina and/or heat being what it is. Leaning against the wall is now essential. Jane pushes on the wooden platform, then the actual steel rowing machine. This takes a few tries. She is having a few middle-aged aches and pains these days, and hoisting me out of various recumbencies can only add to this effect. Never mind. I am at my wit’s end. I ask her to push, she does so, the rowing machine slides closer to the wall, and now I can lean my shoulder against the stucco. But this hardly matters. I am still exhausted.
Which is why only minutes later, I throw in the neuromuscular towel. And having decided this, I stop fighting the weak abdominals and let the torso fall backwards. Why not? I sort of wonder what will happen. Jane helps me sit up. I undo my own foot straps, grabbing at them in the usual way, using a stick with a hook on its end. Although something most unusual happens. I drop the stick. Usually, I tell myself that this is impossible, must not occur, for there is not much back up. Without this stick-metal-hook approach, quite standard in the world of quadriplegic occupational therapy, there is not much. Except for the other stick, which has lost its hook, but I do keep in reserve. Why I do not simply replace the hook on the empty wooden dowel, well that is a matter for another time. For now, Jane is yanking my legs out of their foot straps, grabbing my legs, and turning me to stand.
Normally, I am rather picky about this maneuver. I insist on having one leg moved at a time. So the first is dropped to the concrete carport floor, enough to brace myself while the other gets swiveled around. But not this time. I am exhausted and quite happy to let Jane maneuver me her way. And so my legs are turning, and so is my torso, and now everything, as I turn, turn, turn, to everything, my entire body, butt first twisting, then falling onto the wooden platform. And incredibly turning some more, now tumbling off the entire apparatus and onto the concrete.
The scariness of which I am fully aware, in mid air, my neck being the orthopedic disaster area that is, stenosis putting an unknown degree of squeeze on my spinal cord at all times. And who knows what I do, whatever it is being automatic, but my arm probably does rise to block the fall. And what hits, and hits hard, is mostly my scalp. I lie on the concrete in a twisted mass. First issue: check for movement. The leg moves, the arm, and there has been no flash of light or other telltale sign of head concussion. Now, there is only the issue of verticality. And Jane and I are both talking quite calmly considering the circumstances. She speculating on ways to lift me up. Me telling her to summon a neighbor. Which happens. The young Asian couple from across the way both appear. Jane backs the wheelchair out of the way, and after some instruction to pull here, and let go there, I am up on my feet, twisting and now sitting back in the wheelchair.
Traumatized? Somewhat adrenal? I suppose. Mostly shaken, reminded of the fragility of my state. Balance minimal. Control inadequate. And the ultra-cautious way in which I proceed through my days, well, there is a reason. Thing is, there is also a psychology. Jane and I being close these days, there is a tendency to get into the general need for mothering and take one’s hand off the quadriplegic tiller.
There is a way to get me off the rowing machine. Only I know it, and there are times when I can only nurture myself, this being one of them. Throughout the evening I brace myself for some unexpected soreness, a bruise rising. But it doesn’t happen. Life is fragile. Life is good, although it does demand alertness. And there is growth. Go no further than my raised beds, where Agronomy in Action has outdone any lyrical the-corn-is-as-high-as-an-elephant’s-eye whimsy, replaced with tomato plants…that are about as high as a brontosaurus’s ear. Only this morning volunteer Paul and I purchased three-meter stakes from the local hardware store. They were barely adequate.