Death by cold or cold as death itself, such are my coastal Californian intimations. We have had some frosty mornings here, and if my reaction seems overblown…well, try experiencing such weather changes from within the positively operatic world of quadriplegia.
Menchu has helped me dress. She has fed me a bran muffin. We have discoursed upon her days as a nanny and caregiver. And now there is nothing for it but to charge once more into the exercise breach, dear neuromuscular friends. I must say one thing on my own behalf. Wool socks. I not only own them but this very morning have donned them, with help from Menchu. A simple acknowledgment of weather, of my own limited sensation, of reality.
Still, once I am on the exercycle and Menchu has snapped my bike shoes onto the pedals and I say goodbye and she says goodbye and we mutually wish each other a Californian nice day…the want of meteorological niceness in the day becomes apparent. No, there is more, considerably more. It is slightly scary to be out here, my limbs locked into a machine, and feel the night’s cold rising from the concrete of the carport. Beyond, in the open drive between apartment buildings, there is sun. It is reassuring, this solar-heated patch of pavement, and I gaze at it as my legs pump the pedals around and around.
Even more reassuring are the comings and goings of my neighbors, most heading for work, Tom, my landlord, heading for parts and purposes unknown.
The fact that they are neighbors is important here. For if I got into some sort of cold-derived danger with just anyone about, the complications would be much greater. Strangers would require an explanation. What is the man sitting on the exercycle so upset about? True, the presence of the adjacent wheelchair might offer a clue. But only a clue. My neighbors have seen me in action, and in inaction…my recent fall from the rowing machine required neighborly assistance…so they would get the general idea. And what is the general idea? Hard to say. But much of existence feels dangerous to the wise quadriplegic. Some of it actually is. And in the difference between predicted and actual danger, I live my life.
The exercycle is actually a one-legged operation, and there just isn’t enough musculature working in my body to generate sufficient heat…on certain days. One of which might be this day. Also, I am now a Medicare client, almost, and although cardiac fitness is one thing, cardiac immortality is another. Hard to say how much circulatory strain the body experiences under moderate conditions. It must be worse under heat. Possibly worse in cold. Whatever. I just imagine something going wrong, me being trapped in the cold, and more or less freezing to death in my own carport.
What happens at the beach? Jane and I are headed there this afternoon, December on the Pacific coast not being so terribly different from June. As for safety, parked at one of the county beaches what could happen? Mechanical failure and a wait for the Auto Club? An attack by one of the nation’s roaming psychopaths? The latter always seems a distinct possibility. But this could, of course, be me. No, the ocean feels safe, as does the car park, as does the car.
The freshness of the sea, its surges and endlessness, never fail to please. Hour after hour. Decade after decade. And yet what I often feel at the seaside is not contentment. In fact, it has to do with running out of possibilities. This, the San Mateo coast seems to say, is as good as it gets.
It gets better actually, driving along Highway 1 toward half Moon Bay. Here the beige cliffs are falling away like chunks torn from a big round of halvah. The day shines so bright, the sun blasting off the ocean in a low and brilliant sheen, that on this particular day I feel less trapped than usual. Less aware that I am not driving. That the wheelchair is inconveniently far away. That getting up and into one of the county park toilets would require vast resources of will that may or may not be available.
No, instead, the waves command my attention. They are rolling inbound with the grace of a waterfall, the force of a linebacker. Each wave hits black rocks 50 meters offshore, explodes into spewing froth, drains and flattens back into itself. Quite a show. Jane and I eat sandwiches from a tourist deli in the tiny burg of Pescadero, two miles away. We have done this many times before. Each time is as pleasant as its predecessor. It is good to enjoy small and simple things.
It is a confusing subject, danger and risk. Even foolishness is a confusing topic. All these topics converge in a painful recollection from…gosh, must be the mid-1970s. I had time, that is one of the clues to the epoch. And this time must have been in the summertime. What other season would bring a sensible person to the sandy edge of the Arctic’s Humboldt current, otherwise known as Stinson Beach? I was there, and almost certainly with my old friend Joe. And definitely in a chemically enhanced state. And in this cannabis-borne moment of abandon who wouldn’t want to go for a little quadriplegic wade in the water? Just a dipping of the toes at the Pacific’s edge. Which I did.
And which went terribly well until I went down. Hardly surprising in retrospect, but there I was being rolled like a log by the smallest of lapping wavelets. Not head over heels, but face over back. All efforts at swimming, even clawing the wet sands, ludicrously ineffective. Not only was I tumbling, but my aluminum crutch was tumbling too, all happening with remarkable force in very few inches of water. Pam was also there. My sensible kiwi friend somehow spotted me helpless in the ocean. She pulled me out and up on my feet, and I lived to tell about the druggie foolishness. And was it, let us say, a necessary foolishness? What chances are worth taking? In any case, I do not believe that this daredevil moment was entirely stupid. I don’t know what knocked me down, and I will never know. And armed with that experience of not knowing, I made it through several more decades of paralysis. I lived long enough to have a wife and watch her ashes dissolve in the same ocean, not that far away. An experience we will share some day.
And I lived to have another love. And I lived period. And I lived foolishly. All this and Medicare.