Monday, March 12, 2007

Boulevard of Broken Backs

I did what I always do whenever I hear the first few bars of Boulevard of Broken Dreams – I reached for my cell phone. But even the 25 seconds of tinny Top Forty wasn’t enough time to find out who was calling. My injury made virtually any movement an impossibility.
I make an effort to stay fit. I mean, you have to – right? The current obesity statistics and health warning scare tactics are beginning to make the tobacco and firearms industries look like also-rans in the race to decide who kills more North Americans per bite, butt or bullet.
I eat well. Right, I mean. Properly. Always with an eye to balancing the proteins, fats and carbs. And not just any carbs mind you; the complex carbs – the fruit and veg, the mutigrained and whole-wheated; the stuff that really only earns its stripes by being purchased in straw baskets, priced by the pound, with pounds of expensive dirt still clinging to it.
Skinless chicken. Poached fish. Olive oil and grapeseed oil and virtually zero fat gleaned from anything remotely tasty.
I still enjoy a lovely fried up breakfast every now and then – the odd french fry, the occasional hunk of marbled meat accompanied by a baked and buttered potato. Even my doctor says that a diet comprised solely of healthful items represents a lifestyle not much worth living. But still, I eat well enough to complain about it.
And I certainly work out enough to heave the odd long-suffering sigh. Daily aerobic exercise and every-other-day weight training to keep my heart healthy, my muscles burning and my stomach flat enough to risk a navel piercing. To be honest it’s mostly vanity over health, but if the results are the same – what’s the dif? I walk everywhere and I walk fast – I don’t play any actual sporting games, but the group I play charades with – and the charades themselves - are highly physical.
So it’s come as a complete shock and not a little embarrassing that I find myself laid up at this time.
The fact is, I threw my back out reading.
This isn’t like the times I broke my toes. (Five.) Or the time I had my appendix out, or tonsils out, or was kicked in the leg by a horse. This isn’t like when I got my fingers stuck in a swing set, or when my mother closed my thumb in the car door. This isn’t like when I hit the ground on the netball court and broke one of my front teeth right in half when I was ten. This isn’t like when I dropped the lead crystal vase on my foot, or was bitten by the spider, or sprained my ankle by getting it caught in a recessed sprinkler hole at the Rosedale reservoir or… or any of those things.
This really hurt.
And I’ve been reading for a while now, so you should know I know how to do it for the very most part without any serious risk at all.
But I was – and this may be the key – I was binge-reading.
It’s been a stressful time of late. The dog has been very ill. (See previous blog re: Emergency Veterinary Hospital – total racket) And my dear, beloved friend has been under near constant strain and medical observation for a cancer that we know exists, but until definitively sourced remains untreated. I won’t whinge about the weather or the war or the President (or the Vice President) or Steven Harper or Hillary Clinton or the president of my condo board or traffic, as they’ve all likely been driving most of us to distraction; it’s all this illness and what’s behind it – and what’s likely before us – that has me positively vibrating in a state of fear of late.
And reading is what helps.
It’s always helped.
I remember a time of unemployment when I first arrived in London that had me nearly prostrate with terror. Luckily, a useful position to be in while being perversely comfortingly terrified by an absolute raft of Steven King novels. I went through them one after another like that suspiciously skinny Japanese guy who wins all the hotdog eating contests: not really enjoying them at all – just methodically cramming them all down. Maybe a glass of water in between.
When my father died I went into Eyre-mode (Jane) and then went on a search for all the Bronte books, focusing my attention on people long since dead. I appreciated that the authors I was reading had been dead and buried and fully and completely mourned more than a century and a half ago. Solidarity you understand.
There was a friend’s suicide that only Monica Dickens could help me through. Beginning with her book The Listeners about a suicide hotline, and continuing through deep tragedy and high comedy, Dickens has always been a very personal favourite. She reminds me of my mother. When she (Dickens) died I cut out her obituary (I still have it) and read her all, all over again.
To be honest, there was nothing, no magic, no book yet written that could distract me for even a moment when my mother died. But then penicillin can’t cure every infection – and even tried and true recipes for recovery may fall far short of a very great need. Still, it’s coming up on 25 years now – and I feel a little better.
But that was cancer too. And this is cancer now. Both my beloved friend and Lily have been roughly diagnosed and neither are receiving treatment. The friend because we don’t have all the facts yet (despite a virtual river of blood tests, multiple MRI’s, CAT scans, X-rays, two biopsy’s and even a PET scan) and the dog because she’s too elderly and spoilt to withstand any treatment beyond actual treats. She’s wobbly though (rickety too – not to mention shaky, tottering and feeble) but still eats and sleeps like a pro. So we go on.
But I’d pulled out the big guns. The complete novels of Jane Austen, beginning with Sense and Sensibility and continuing through the originally unpublished works of Catharine, Lady Susan, The Watsons and Sanditon.
I needed distraction big-time. So the first weekend with neither plan nor hospital visit scheduled I just turned on the bedside lamp, heaved up the all-in-one volume and lay down on my stomach to disappear into the 18th century for a while.
Some eight hours later I realized I was feeling a significant crick in my neck and a stabbing feeling in the small of my back that upon moving about, got worse. I ignored it. I just turned over and started Mansfield Park.
The next day feeling decidedly stiff (and using words like “behoove” and “opine” even when talking to Lily) I polished off the paper, then picked up my trusty Austen again, flipped to elbows propped and stomach down position and got stuck in for another day of drifting and dreaming.
It was the following day, last Monday morning when the chickens came home to apparently abandon roosting in favour of pecking vicious little divots all up and down my spine. It took me ten minutes to get out of bed. It took me slightly less time to get to the kitchen to make coffee, but I had to abandon even the thought of the paper for the time being as I knew the effort to stoop was at that precise moment totally beyond me. I fed Lily treats basically by shying them at her. I figured mollifying a Yorkshire terrier was just one bend away from facing life facing the floor – a permanent right angle trying desperately to get vertical, or at least horizontal.
To say I suffered the tortures of the damned might be overstating it just a smidge, but as anyone who has back pain knows, it’s a teeth-gritting, step-shuffling, fragile-as-glass feeling experience from start to finish.
Luckily for me, it’s mostly finished. Pain shoots across my shoulders fairly regularly and when I get up from a chair I still look like a cross between a pregnant woman and an ancient cleaning lady. All that hip-shot, small-of-the-back supporting and gusty sighing.
I have a new-found empathy for the pregnant and the bent, not to mention all those who suffer chronic back pain because while it lasted, my literature-related injury was hell.
But the distraction? Heaven.

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