October 2010 archive

Out on Parole

Seven weeks ago, as you know, I broke my leg. When it happened, after it happened I found it hard to imagine that I might ever use my leg again. Once on crutches, I imagined myself forever on crutches.

I became accustomed to planting only one leg on the ground. My right leg grew stronger, my left leg more useless. Every night as I took off the brace and washed down my leg, I examined it for signs of atrophy.

They were there all right. My left leg has shrunk, and is wasted. Although my calf has thinned down to almost half its size, my knee has stayed swollen much bigger than its companion on my right leg. My left leg has taken on the shape of a toffee apple on a stick – the stick my leg, the apple my knee.

All this is changing. Last Tuesday when I saw the surgeon he decided I might begin to bear weight on my broken leg.
‘Normally it’s eight weeks before you can be weight bearing,’ he said. ‘But you can begin early. For good behaviour’, he added. As if my confinement in a brace, on crutches has been a prison term and now I have been let out on parole. Parole, in so far as I am allowed to bear weight on my bung leg, but only half my weight. I am still under supervision. I am not yet free.
‘Get on the scales at home,’ the surgeon said. ‘Stand on them with your bad leg and bear down until you reach half your weight. That’s as much as I want you to use.’

I do not imagine that he intended that every step I take should be or could be measured so precisely and yet it worries me. I try hard to weigh down lightly on my left side. I trust my body to know how much my leg can bear. I trust my leg to tell me when it carries enough.

I cannot go around with scales measuring exactly, besides I do not think I could put full weight on my broken leg. My broken leg is still not its old self. It feels odd, no longer painful as it was when I first broke it. It has regained some of its firmness. I can walk with it, but I know that it cannot support me on its own.

My left leg holds a fragility I have not known before, as if the muscles attached to the bone and the nerve endings nearby have gathered together in support of my convalescent leg and they tell me loud and clear, go easy on this leg, take her slowly through her paces. She is out of practice, but more than that she has suffered trauma. She is not herself, not yet. She will need care and attention.

A few years ago at a conference in Germany I heard a woman present a paper on letter writing as therapy. She gave the example of a man who suffered from a chronic and painful shoulder condition that refused to ease up. His therapist suggested he write a letter to his shoulder.

‘Dear right shoulder
How could you do this to me? For thirty-five years I have relied on you to keep my clothes up, to help carry my load, to support my head, and now you have let me down….

At the following session after he had shared his letter, the therapist suggested the man write another letter, this time from his shoulder to himself.

Dear Body
You have taken me for granted for years. All of your life you have treated me as though I were made of granite, as though I could not be hurt in any way, as though I had no feelings. Let me assure you I have feelings. I hurt. I have been weighed down for far too long without a break, without recognition…

Should I write a letter to my leg? My left leg?

Dear Left leg
Why do you ache so? Even now after I have carried you in a brace, after I have let you off all duties, like a loose appendage there on the end of my hip and still you ache. When will you return to me?

And my left leg might write back.

Dear Elisabeth’s Body
After all you have put me through, all that rushing here and there, it is no wonder I gave up the ghost. That final fall was the last straw. You cannot imagine what it was like to have so much expected of me, to carry you around for all those years with only the help of my sister right leg, and still you expect me to hold you through a fall when you twist me so uncompromisingly. I had to snap. I had to stop. Enough is enough…

I have been reading lately about left brain/right brain development but for some reason I find it hard to sort out my right from my left. My impulse is to imagine that the right brain functions in support of language and logic and the left brain in support of the emotional life, the intuitive the so-called creative, only because the word ‘right’ to me suggests rigidity, order and logic, but it is the other way around.

The left brain directs the logical language development side of things and it is the right side of the brain on which we draw for all things emotional, and dare I say creative.

This is a narrow and limited division, as I understand. There is overlap and there are also interconnections that deny such simplistic division, but I am ever the divider in my efforts to make sense of things, especially when it comes to bodily matters, to the right and the left of it, of life.

Just now I hobbled to the kitchen to fetch another cup of tea without the aid of my crutches. It is hard work. I cling to bench tops, sideboards and walls, just to lighten the load on my aching left leg. It is a strange ache like a gnawing pain at the back of my gums when a tooth is about to burst into pain, as it often did when I was a child or the dull ache of my ears when again as a child they were blocked before they too erupted into spasms of pain.

It seems strange that the ache in my leg should remind me of child hood pain, as if pain for me belongs in childhood. Truth be known, I think I have not experienced much pain as an adult.

I pull myself up short. I have had four babies, all of them so-called natural births, without much by way of pain killers beyond gas and analgesics.

I have known pain, the worst imaginable, but as it seems for most women, it is a pain that I can scarcely remember, not the feel of it so much, just a vague memory.

They say women forget this pain more readily, otherwise they are unlikely to go back for more, babies that is. Maybe because the pain comes on fast and is gone almost immediately after the event it is not like the chronic pain you hear of when people are in pain all the time, every day pain that refuses to leave. How must that be I wonder?

Breasts, Brains and Cold Sores

Today is the sixth week since I broke my leg. It is fast becoming my leg again. I can bend it effortlessly though not as far back as I once could. I am not sure I could sit on it yet. I can bend well within a ninety degree angle, though not much further. I have enough movement in my knee to be able to drive my car again. An automatic. My healthy right leg does all the work.

It is still an ordeal of sorts to get into and out of the car but I can now do it unaided. I hobble to the front door, release one crutch and lean it there beside the car, I open the driver’s door, and then toss in my crutches over onto the passenger side. Finally I slide myself into the driver’s seat all the time careful not to twist my bung leg too much at an angle so as to disrupt the bone. Once behind the wheel, I am mobile again, an independent woman in her car.

I have almost stopped worrying that the bone might move. I think it is held in for good now, but still I must take care not to bear weight on my left leg yet, much less to fall or I might not so much displace the bone as fracture it all over again.

Someone told me – in the blogosphere as I recall – that you cannot break a bone in the exact same spot again, that the scar material of bones becomes fixed like the most rigid of concrete, while somewhere else I read that once broken, a bone is more vulnerable, that the fracture points of bones are far more brittle.

I do not know the truth of this. I do not understand the science. I rather enjoyed the idea that once broken, never broken again, like once bitten twice shy, once hurt, never open again, but this is not so perhaps. Points of vulnerability become even more vulnerable.

We have returned for a dose of bitter winter weather again this weekend, with much of the State of Victoria on flood alert. This after over ten years of drought. The dams have moved from being slightly over quarter full a little over a year ago to almost half full today.

Half filled dams are a bonus. I do not remember in my lifetime a moment when the dams were almost full. Half full is about as much as we dare hope for. But then again I rely on memory and my limited knowledge here.

I have only started to attend to the state of the dams in recent years. When I was young and felt more omnipotent than I do now I did not bother with concerns over the state of the land, though I can always remember a terrible fear during the bushfire season even as we did not live close to the bush.

Bush fires are a feature of every Australian’s consciousness. They begin early summer and erupt unpredictably one after another till the end of the hot weather. They are one of the reasons I could not bear to live in bushland.

To worry all summer long about the weather and those hot fire ban days, which arrive with increasing regularity in this country, would throw me out.

There are so many things over which I have no control, weather being one of them, I could not bear to be daily anxious about what the weather might bring during bushfire season.

When I was young, my other uncontrolled worry was the arrival of cold sores on my face. When I was young I might have copped a cold sore almost monthly. Someone explained to me early in the piece that once you have suffered with cold sores you have them for life.

Cold sores are caused by a virus which lives in your lip. Usually it sleeps there and gives you no trouble, but the minute something goes wrong for you, it flares up like a bushfire.

The cold sore virus is linked to my emotions, like the handle of a tap. Become upset by something and the handle turns. It can even be an upset of which my mind might not be aware, though not my body. My body knows more than my conscious mind, but my unconscious mind drives the other parts of my mind and body or so I believed as a ten year old trying to fight off the inevitable but uncertain arrival of cold sores.

They start as a tingle in your lip and turn into a watery blister that swells to what feels from the inside when you scrape it with your tongue to be the size of a cricket ball. In the mirror this blister stage looks nowhere as bad as the next stage after the blister bursts, usually a large blister or a series of little blisters clustered together.

When I was a chid there was an ointment my mother sometimes bought from the chemist called Stoxil. I was not the only one in my family who copped cold sores. The sooner you applied the Stoxil the more likely you were to beat the virus, or so the writing on the side of the Stoxil tube said. I never had the ointment on hand to test this theory out. My mother, if she bought it, bought it after the event.

Once a cold sore took hold on my lip it was there for up to ten days or more. After the blister burst it became a wide spreading and throbbing red welt that over stretched the edge of my lips and to my mind made me look even more ugly than I imagined myself to be when I was a child, uglier even than the ugliest child in my classroom.

In my family the theory followed that the oldest were the ugliest, growing more beautiful down the line. The youngest girl and boy were the most beautiful. To compensate for this, the reverse applied to brains.

The oldest were the smartest and the youngest were the dumbest. This put me, sixth in line, in the invidious position of having neither brains nor beauty, right here near the middle. I figured in my position, one below the middle, my cleverness won over my appearance if only by a muddling amount.

I was not smart at school, as Mother Mary John in grade six testified after I failed mental arithmetic.
‘I thought you were bad,’ she said, when she handed back my exercise book covered in crosses, ‘but not that bad.’

Mental arithmetic troubled me by its name, mental. Mental with its links to mind, and numbers and to cold sores.

There was a direct line from somewhere in my brain to the place in my lip where the cold sore virus lived. When I was thirteen, I worried about the line for weeks before I became bridesmaid at my second oldest brother’s wedding. I was in between dress sizes and the dressmaker my sister-in-law-to-be had appointed complained to her that people like me were the worst to make dresses for. We were neither child nor woman.

If I had copped a cold sore on my brother’s wedding day, then not only would I be this hybrid creature who needed a bra that had so much padding inside the cups that my brothers laughed the first time they saw me lined up on the steps of the church before the wedding, I would also be ugly.

I recognised my brothers’ sneers. They knew my body was fake. I knew my body was fake, but the dressmaker had insisted there would be no point in making a dress that fitted my exact size at the time. Within weeks my breasts might erupt just like a cold sore and, given that she had started to make the dress at least three months before the event, she needed to be sure she could accommodate all eruptions.

Breasts, brains and cold sores, they go together for me in an uneasy sequence. I could not control them. I could not control how much my brain might hold in of the times table I rote learned on weekends in readiness for Monday morning tests when we lined up in the class room and took turns to recite the tables one after the other.

My surname began with the letter ‘S’. I was always to the end of the line and the end of the line was where the hardest sums landed – the seven times eight type questions, which so often evaded me; the nine times six.

Even now I can feel a prickle in my lip as I remember how the impossible sum tripped the point in my brain that pulled the cord that sent the signal down to the virus in my lip and told it to wake up and get back to work.

To fail mental arithmetic not only showed up on my school report at the end of term, it showed up on my face and everyone could see, how dumb and ugly I was, even when my sister-in-law-to-be had dressed me up in a canary yellow silk ball gown that fell all the way to my feet and was topped off by two enormous bosoms that were not my own.

Eruptions came all to easily in those days. Perhaps it accounts today for why I make such terrible mistakes and can never quite manage to conceal them.

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