Tendon is the Night

Tendon. While, it is not a particularly intimate or erotically charged part of human anatomy, one doesn’t want it on a menu. Yet there it was, staring at me, while I had a time-killing Chinese lunch at the restaurant next door to California Rehabilitation Equipment, Sunnyvale. Downright creepy, it was. No way around it, fried tendon, fricassee of tendon, even baked, however essential this body part may be to physical medicine, its presence in a list of stirfry options…well, it is enough to put one off lunch. Perhaps forever.

Of course, forever is a long time. And since it is always a short time between visits to one’s wheelchair repair shop, and a long time waiting for the work to get done, there are opportunities to come to grips. Even with tendons. Which, in the fullness of wheelchair-repair-lunch time, revealed itself…as one considered the menu more closely…to be the name of a Chinese dish. Ten Don. And after a brief chat with the waiter, very brief, his English being what it was…after a certain amount of pointing to his own body…damned if we weren’t back where we started. Tendon. Beef tendon, at that. Which was not a place I wanted to be, somewhere between the kitchen and the physical therapy mat. Not that one should worry. Surgeons spend their lives in that very spot. There is no escape.

Which I can confirm this very morning. Lorna had helped me on with the bicycle shoes, the ones with the metal clips. We headed for the exercycle, whose pedals contain the complementary half of those same clips. All the better to stabilize the partial quadriplegic’s paralyzed foot. Lorna helped me up and over the exercise machine’s central bar. I sat down and let her snap in my feet. Which didn’t quite work. One of the pedal clips was broken. Actually, a screw had fallen out. Very well. There was always the rowing machine. Except that there wasn’t. The carport, my exercise machine center, is currently all a jumble of paint cans and disturbance. Improvements are under way, some would say. My rowing machine sits atop an array of milk cartons, a redoubtable system devised by my physical therapy assistant. It’s been that way for years, but it is not that way now. I wasn’t about to try rowing atop an unstable rearrangement of platic boxes, that was the point. So, never mind. We would do a bit of walking, Lorna and I.

Do Chinese waiters have a blithe quality about them? Doubtless this is an utterly unfair stereotype, something comprised of English as a second language and, who knows…the experience of maintaining your sense of self in the midst of 1.2 billion people. This excessive readiness to serve up a plate of tendon, well, it hasn’t gotten out of my consciousness, has it? The Sunnyvale waiter’s description of the luncheon menu, coupled with my repair of orthopedic equipment…it all came back to me, didn’t it? For as soon as I was out of my wheelchair and taking the first tentative steps…pow from the, you guessed it, tendon. The one in my left leg. It has been worrying me, this particular one. My Rolfer, actually a trusted member of this cripple’s physical medicine team, had a thorough go at this tendon just the other day. Mild tendinitis, he said. Nothing terribly serious. Surrounding tissue apparently calm. Not to worry.

Telling me not to worry may not be the best idea, though I found these words reassuring. Honestly, I tried to find my way into them, snug and warm. But this didn’t work. The leg is sore. When I take a step, the pain intermittently takes over, making my knee collapse. No, there has never been an utter failure. But the prospect seems imminent. Thing is, I need to exercise. Carport construction got in the way of yesterday’s physical workout. Today, as far as I was concerned, there was no stopping me. I was going to walk, dammit. Despite all indications to the contrary. And there were quite a few. Not the least of them Lorna herself. She is a sturdy sort, and she routinely urges me on. But on this day, even she was having doubts. Maybe we go back, she said. Forget it, I said.

And so we progressed, slowly, haltingly, and painfully. To distract myself, I attempted to chat. Generally, this involves the lightest of topics, for 99% of my brain is secretly occupied fear of falling. Still, if we can talk about, say, Lorna’s husband’s classic cars, this anxiety can be reduced to something like 98%. In other words, distraction is welcome. Which may be why when I heard my mobile phone go off it seemed an attractive diversion. Besides, it was most likely Jane. And who could be more diverting? Naturally, I went for it. That is to say, grabbed the phone and…not much.

I have this iPhone dangling around my neck in the tradition of eccentrics. Do other quadriplegics do the same thing? Perhaps. The data isn’t in yet. Alan Turing used to jog in and out of central London with an alarm clock hanging from a string around his neck. True, I am not the father of modern computing. But I am determined not to drop my smart phone anymore than is necessary. And there you are. Or here I was, letting go of the crutch, attempting to hand it to Lorna while holding up the phone so that I could see…that, yes, Jane was on the line. Hello? No Jane. Damn. I am so slow. Everything I do is like this. Fumbled. Missed. And endlessly frustrating. Well, I could call her back, easy enough if one can align one’s single functioning thumb with the green bit on the iPhone.

Oh my God, I was falling. Tilting, turning, leaning way over into a non-recoverable moment that would lead only to the hard concrete beneath. No…I said this aloud. Lorna…this uttered desperately…the endpoint already in my mind, lying orthopedically shattered on the cement. Why…and where were my feet? The latter being something of an eternal question for the cervical spinal-cord injured person foolishly up and quasi-walking. There. My gaze drifted to them, both of them, feet so often coming in pairs…and they were at odd angles and too far apart. But, as Lorna said, it’s okay. Okay. This visual contact with my own extremities led me back. To that place over the center of gravity that is so essential, unless one wants a life of neuromuscular chaos. I was standing now. And moments later, I was leaning against the edge of one of my raised beds, the redwood boards most reassuring on the back of my left leg. I called Jane. I got her voicemail, left a message that I would call back in 10 minutes. Good.

I hadn’t fallen. Somehow even reversed course and was heading back to my wheelchair. Painful, and frightening the way the knee kept collapsing. But never mind. We could still chat, couldn’t we? What were we doing with our respective weekends? Menlo Park Chorus concert tonight for me. Did Lorna want 35 tickets? She assured me that, no, that was too many tickets, and in any case…. Just a joke, Lorna. Yes, I did have a silly way with jokes. Even sillier, my assumption that what passes for humor in my California world must amuse someone from Southeast Asia. Provincial in my own way. And halfway up the footpath, now, aren’t we? I hadn’t fallen, that was that. And I was now utterly exhausted, after only one schlep. A rather action-filled one, it must be admitted. And what was there to do but more or less crab-walk the last 20 meters or so? I collapsed, truly collapsed into my wheelchair.

A quick call to Jane. Apparently not the first. She told me that when I had called her during my walk and left a message…the connection remained open. The phone dangling around my neck, I continued walking and chatting to Lorna about the 35 tickets and so on. Jane being exposed to 10 minutes of this before presumably giving up. And why? I don’t entirely know what happened. Perhaps this is how phones work. Whatever. My fingers don’t. In any case I was so addled, so overcome with my near fall and my Chinese stir-fried quadriceps tendon…well, the phone was the least of my worries. I have so many. That is the problem.

What to do in times of musculoskeletal crisis but repair to Peet’s? The reassuring caffeination, the person or two I might run into there. If nothing else, ordering a cappuccino from the staff. It’s a reminder that there’s an outside world in the outside world. But I don’t need a reminder of that other thing. That there is no leg outside of the one leg I have left and functioning. It’s a scary truth. My life, my future, my independence hang from a fraying neuromuscular thread. This thought, which is not quite a thought, more a disturbing reverberation, makes me want something. Anything to assuage the present reality. Something small will do. Like a chocolate mini-scone. Which I order. And in the space of two bites consume…long before the cappuccino. I regret this. First, scones are not, and should not be, chocolate. The sprinkling of chips throughout the batter really has achieved nothing. I get the faint chocolate hit in occasional mouthfuls, but nothing more. Besides, the thing is disappointingly mini. As in the old Jewish joke, the food is so bad…and the servings are so small.

Sometimes I think that the twice yearly concerts of the Menlo Park Chorus serve most effectively to gauge my waistline. Can I still get into the suit? There is the question. And the answer? Well on this particular day, it’s moot. Yes, I can get in. But barely. Can I get out? It is after 10 PM when Jane and I return from the gig. Yes, the trousers can be disengaged. But they are tight enough to have left rather impressive marks on and around my belly and thighs. A.k.a., beltline. Bodily maintenance being a constant struggle. But what isn’t?

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