Backache


I awoke this morning not thinking of what wonders were in store for me today. Instead, my mind returned to yesterday - and if I were in for more of the same. Because when I went to bed last night, I didn't just settle in for my typical nocturnal respite. No, I lowered myself slowly onto the bed, achingly swiveling my legs onto the mattress. My fingers and arms crept accordingly, for perfectly constant support. I finally and gingerly lowered my torso down until I was level with the bed.

It wasn't over yet. Pain shot up and down my spine as my weight readjusted to this new position. Arghh! What to do to end this agony?, I wondered, grabbing one leg by the ankle to bring it to my chest. I followed this with the other almost immediately, staying in a vertical version of the fetal position for a spell... before I chanced to finally let one foot down again to plant on the bed. Slow and steady does it, I hoped.

Eventually setting down one foot, then the other, I succeeded in flattening my back to the mattress. This left my eyes directly facing the ceiling, possibly some kind of consolation in its focus-less expanse of white. Now I felt the effects of gravity course around and about my spinal column; my weight finally stabilized at rest. All of this happened in minutes measured as endless mountains of seconds, each painstakingly realized. In any case, it was over: at some indeterminate point over the next hour or so, I lost sufficient consciousness to relax and sleep.

Yesterday morning, however, I woke up all energy and strength. I had been extremely productive the day previous, working into the night to remove a sodden pile of clay and muck. This stuff had accrued from landscaping that had been making its way into a heap against my back door for some time. Finally the time had come to be done with it. Come the fateful morning, thus, virtually done with the mess and a skip returned to my step, I was just going to make some last adjustments. I'd merely finish cleaning up the project since it was only a lacking of night vision that had ultimately trumped my continuing in the dark.

Sweeping up, picking up odds and ends, I plugged away, erratically jabbing at a few more shovelsful of sludge to make a rain-safe runoff. Then, my shovel fatefully probing the depths of the ditch below near completion ... arghh! ARGHH! "What the hell was that? I ... can't ... hardly ... move!" (Let alone sit, stand, or lie down.) I half stood in a semi-paralyzed crouching position. Oh... no. Yes, indeed.

So began a long, long day. If ever I had empathy for people with physical ailments, or the elderly infirm, this was the day for all such thoughts to come to roost. My gait, in a fleeting moment's time, shrunk by over fifty percent in distance. This was further compounded by a drastically reduced speed for each step. Previously unnoticed things, like handrails, suddenly took on new meaning: where were they, and how weight-bearing? Similarly, as a blind man invariably takes to listening ever more acutely, my arms immediately were called upon to compensate for the undependability of my legs.

With this my new backdrop to locomotion, a previously trivial affair - of strolling to return a video by its 7 p.m. deadline - now turned into an ordeal of twelve tortuous blocks. I consciously took into consideration both the six there AND the six back, whereas I would have only considered it merely six before. Each block now represented an achievement discretely measured in painful, sweaty effort.

How quick this tide had turned. Overnight I had become an old man watching each step as taken, simultaneously taking an inventory of all possible spots to sit and rest. Bus stop bench, low retaining wall, telephone pole (hopefully staple-free), lamppost. These were my new friends: I adjusted my mental list of them as they popped (slowly) into view and I creeped along (somewhat) upright.

Along the way, a misstep here or there - nastily unpredictable - instantly turned my spinal column into fiery jelly each time. Yow! Those instances each required an instant, supremely extreme effort to compensate in keeping me from vertically crumbling onto my butt. Shortness of breath, too, became a reality with my mind so preoccupied - I was forgetting to breathe! Later on, merely standing to cook that evening, followed by sitting to eat, meant agony as well. What a long day! My normally forward-looking outlook, taken for granted, had turned into a coping mentality of the now.

Being forced to dwell in the moment even on a day like that, I managed to drift into pondering the future, too. Or rather, I pondered on how shockingly restricted possibilities could be. This was especially true since I wasn't used to thinking that way. Humility can take a slap to the face - sometimes this is a requirement, sadly. Indeed, I'm a person used to looking at problems and searching for solutions as soon as possible, always willing to deprive myself of comfort when putting in extra effort in favor of efficacy. I pride myself on this attitude, actually. Not being able to move well... yeah, that could put a dent in things.

But it felt like my greater discomfort was something else. Certainly it wasn't the first time I had thrown my back out of whack or temporarily injured myself, however more acute the focus this time. Was it because I'm nearing 40, with what that supposed mid-life point implies? Maybe.

Perhaps more likely, already IN mid-life crisis for going on 10 years, it's because I find myself living near a nursing home. I daily jump onto a bus that stops in front of it, often at the same time that the Metro Special or Elderly Services Buses pull up for their charges. When that happens, each potential passenger tentatively and ploddingly marks their steps to get onboard. When visual cues like that abound, it doesn't take much to get to thinking.

Anyway, an expected week or so of misery fortunately turned into only a couple of days. I'd like to reason it's because I keep in pretty good shape, maintaining my weight in check and turning to yoga to keep up flexibility. This episode unquestionably confirmed my belief in the usefulness of such efforts, redoubling the motive if anything.

Thoughts turned further astream, as I find myself wondering if I should have gotten something more from this brush with disability and humility. Preaching the values of good living can be judged passé; they're probably not even welcome in the country of endless obesity victimization. Besides, the concept of rating "good living" probably occupies the same realm as beauty when it comes to eyes and beholders.

Hmmm... this set me to further thinking. I've always been helpful to anyone recognized in need, particularly due to a disability. I haven't been lacking in that necessary compassion, though I perhaps could uptick that version of karmic thinking. In such an arena, more is only more. That doesn't necessarily make for a greater, holistic approach to the situation, though.

More along such complete lines, I mused, a lesson could instead be Be Prepared. Hmmm... familiar, that, not that I ever made Boy Scout. Since some level of infirmity is probably going to come my (all of our) way one day, even in the best of worlds while hopefully at the slowest of onsets, it's probably not too early to accept this fact a little more sincerely. That's probably the better lesson - BE PREPARED. This might be YOU, or ME: I possibly won't be that spry elderly guy I've always envisioned myself to become someday.

Maybe it's not even any use dwelling on the matter, either, even if the lesson should be internalized all the same. It doesn't feel right to waste this opportunity to redouble efforts to accentuate that positive. One has to react to a brush with Mr. Carpe Diem, no? Yes. Help others, be prepared... and take advantage of life's possibilities now, lest they be taken away later.

Or... there could still be another view. Yeah - something much more simple! Maybe next time I'll set down the damn shovel sooner! What the hell was I thinking? Why didn't I use my knees instead of my back? Mud! What's it good for? Absolutely nothing! Perhaps THAT's the best lesson of all: don't be stupid.

(2005)

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