The arch of your foot may not seem like a thing to obsess over, certainly nothing to keep you awake at night. Yet this is what is happening. Where does this story begin? Is it even a story? The boring details amounting to nothing more than the fact that I have a foot, that it swells and stings. This pain occurs in the foot’s arch, triggering spastic muscle activity in the area. Which makes the foot twist or jerk, and this is a good thing. Paralyzed people need all the movement they can get. A jerking foot is a foot that needs blood. And the more blood flows, the less it collects in the body’s oil pans, such as the feet. The alternative is blood clots. Thrombosis. And so on. Good to have your swollen foot jerk its way back to, well, something less swollen.
Problem is, this foot pinging has begun erupting at all hours. The middle of the night, for example. And this seems to be happening at the very point when the foot is least swollen. Bad circulation, I tell myself. Though what I really tell myself is more expansive. That I do not like the body’s aging. That I exercise enough to avoid this sort of thing or think I do. And that it is frightening to have the body so thoroughly out of control. At times I worry about what this means, this apparent decline of my circulatory system, seemingly inevitable in one’s mid-sixties. But mostly I fume. Then despair. For already this foot stinging has narrowed my options. Which were narrow enough already, thank you very much. The foot’s needling has been waking me up in the wee hours. This afternoon, while the housekeeper bustled about, I looked for a way to keep the foot elevated while doing the same with the conversation, that is to say, this blog. This requires getting into my recliner chair, cranking up an old laptop and having a go at the voice recognition software. Which took forever. ‘Your memory is low,’ advised Messrs. Sony. At age 65 no one needs to be reminded of this fact. A good 20 minutes of computer memory adjustments before work could begin. Oy.
It is a hot Indian summer day in this region, and heat only makes foot swelling worse. The confines of the body. The remains of the day. The neuromuscular dregs of what is left of one’s life. I try not to go there, but there I am. So goes my despair. Along with something else, a new and heightened sense of disgust. A revulsion at things old and ossified. Tired. The fact is, I have been disabled for a long time. Why not get fed up? I can feel it in my shoulders, this old tired thing. In fact, whatever the feeling is, chances are that it’s been there for a long time. As have I. Tired.
Jane calls it the ‘border patrol.’ Her term for all the forces that resist change and try to keep a person within comfortable boundaries. The comfort zone. As opposed to, say, the publishing zone. I do have a book coming out. Perhaps I am coming out. God knows what else is coming out too…a voice, louder, sharper, bigger. Listen to me. All exceeding the boundaries, currently under patrol, if one follows Jane’s metaphor. And why not follow it? It can’t be bad, this idea of learning while resisting change, instinctively sticking with what one knows, what feels safe. As the wise men say, what the hell? Follow me.
Which in the 1960s was an actual sign on the back of a jeep at Palm Springs Airport. Did this go on everywhere? Were there similar Jeeps with ‘follow me’ signs in resort airports around the country? As a kid, it seemed quite natural that someone landing in a private plane would be guided to their parking spot in this particular way. Just as it seemed natural that my father, either bored by small town desert life or considering escape, would occasionally stop by the airport…where the odd celebrity descended the aluminum steps of a DC-6. It was most infectious, this experience. Palm Springs had not yet been hit by an urban bomb, the sprawl of pavements, golf courses, roofs and, of course, smog, still a couple of decades away. For now, people called it The Village, with a center that was all of three blocks long and an airport with nothing beyond it but desert, the edge of development, the edge of the world. The San Jacinto Mountains overwhelmed everything in sight, throwing a rocky protective arm around even the extreme southern end of neighboring Palm Desert. When a Western Airlines DC-6 rolled skyward, the blue smoke mysteriously vanished, the plane rose before our eyes and seemed to head right for the mountain before vanishing too.
As for my father, most of the time I hoped he would vanish…while secretly fearing what would happen if he did. For better or for worse, he was my parent. I saw my mother in Santa Barbara a few times a year, mostly in the summer. It took years after their divorce for my father to cease railing against her. His obsession, how she had ruined his life, wasted his existence, undermined him in ways unstated lay at the center of his post-marital life. Get one, I was starting to tell him, mostly silently, as I moved into adolescence. By the time I was moving out of the house, as boys do psychologically in their late teens, it was no secret. Get a life, that was my message. My father and I experienced a succession of schisms. My anger achieved nothing, of course, except accelerating my departure from the nest. Sadly, he never did get much of a life. Today, just Google ‘narcissistic personality disorder,’ and you’ll get a general sense of the guy.
And then, first thing I knew, a little time having passed, I was staring at the ceiling of a private room at Berkeley’s campus hospital. My mother drove in fairly often from nearby Walnut Creek to visit her paralyzed son, and my father flew up from Southern California as often as he could. I had time on my hands. Both of which were paralyzed at that point, and so I had time on my body. Quadriplegia’s path to enlightenment involved lots of staring at acoustical ceiling tile. And thinking, of course. And somehow, out of all this helplessness, post-terror and anticipatory grief…the full extent of my bodily loss not quite apparent…came The Night of the Father.
‘That blows my mind,’ a friend told me, hearing me tell the tale. Which was simple enough. Somehow, it had come to me. I had to tell my father that I loved him and I hated him. Naturally, I had to tell myself this first, but opportunities for self reflection were rather slim at Cowell Hospital. Despite the abundance of time, there was no psychotherapist handy. And there were the drugs. I was on so much cortisone, then a recently discovered technique for shrinking the swelling of a damaged spinal cord, that my days were quite speedy. Definitely an extroversion drug, whatever I was on. Balanced with that other drug, my own reclusiveness and defensive silence. Battling forces dwell with inside everyone, I suppose. But when they battle within a neurologically damaged body, the effects can be odd.
I was shouldering the burden. My scapula, to be exact. The right one, in particular. Lying awake in my hospital bed, anticipating my father’s visit the next day, I went back and forth. I would tell him about this insight about my love-hate feelings for him. And then I would decide no, I wouldn’t say anything. And whenever this thought arose, my right, neurologically damaged shoulder blade’s muscles would spasm. ‘Yes,’ I’ll tell him…and there was no scapular activity. ‘No,’ I won’t do it…and the shoulder muscles would clench. Was this really happening? Yes, and fortunately I told a friend or two. After all, I had lain awake for hours with this, going back and forth. Life spurring me onward, in a general worthwhile direction toward confrontation and
self-revelation. More than a message from the body…a major e-mail, with attachments, download time estimated at 45 years.
So what happened? I must have known the likely course. My father sat at my bedside, the window side, June light streaming in from the bay. I told him of my revelation, said it as clearly as I could. A mixed message, the ultimate mixed message. There was no right way to say it, all ways wrong in a sense. I love you and I hate you. My father frowned, rose and announced his early departure. As I had announced mine, for points unknown, timetable uncertain. The whole thing announced much earlier, and this is the point, by my shoulder blades. Which brings us back to the arch of my foot. The archvillain, as it were. Whereas actually its role is as yet uncertain. Oh, I will drag in the usual physical medicine experts. My doctor having already pronounced his ‘not to worry’ verdict. The upshot…of the gunshot…four and a half decades later, still unclear.