The luck of the draw

My husband let out a heart wrenching cry this morning. I heard it down the corridor. A long loud lament.
‘What’s the matter’ I asked when I found him in his office in front of the computer.
‘The news,’ he said. ‘The news on the asylum seekers, the ones on Christmas Island. It’s unbearable.’

My husband reads the newspapers from top to toe, and then checks up on the ABC news online. I can scarcely bear to read beyond what I hear on the radio when I drive my car. One hundred asylum seekers from Iran in a rough boat crashed up against the rocky cliffs off Christmas Island.

I must not get into a rant on the politicisation of the plight of these people here, still I cannot understand why we are so reluctant to be more welcoming to these desperate people and why the paranoia of terrorism should so dominate the public psyche that people are left to perish on rocks – young men, old men, women, babies, children – because they have to sneak in to this country undetected or else they will be sent back to unknown horrors.

I sometimes wonder how any of us go on living in face of such tragedies, how any of us can continue on our way when disasters like this happen on our shores, not just on our shores but in our neighbourhood. Yet we do.

‘You are too emotional,’ my brother said at our family reunion in Griffith, too easily distressed. I could not believe his words. Can’t he see: I’m not so distressed as he? My distress is on the surface, his is buried deep in his heart and body, caught there in the stent the surgeons put in to open up his artery; caught there in his blood pressure which rises almost visibly whenever he walks through the front door of his office at his work as accountant and panics.

Two members of my family work as accountants. My father was an accountant. My youngest sister and this brother both work as accountants, she with a major bank and he for an air-conditioning form.

When I was young accountancy was a profession of which my family were proud. When the nuns took the first roll call and filled out identifying details at the beginning of each year, she asked each of the class the question ‘What does your father do?’. I was proud to answer, ‘My father is an accountant’.

My father wore suits to work each day, dark suits, white shirts and black shoes. He traveled to the city. But he had wanted to become a chemist my brothers told me, years later. My father had wanted to experiment in chemistry. He wanted to invent things, develop new products. He could not do this in Australia and make a good enough income on which to raise his large family. Accountancy he could study at night. Accountancy was something he could move into little by little and make good money along the way.

So why were we so poor I wondered often when we were little. Why were we so poor, and others who lived in the houses around us in Camberwell and Deepdene, so rich.

Now I think the other way around, despite my anxieties about making ends meet, the fact that I am here and they, those asylum seekers are there, does not shift too easily. The luck of the draw you might say.

My analyst used to talk about the need to make the most of what you have. There are those who are offered a great deal throughout their lives who cannot do much with it and others who receive very little who achieve great things. It is not simply a matter of what you get, it is more about what you do with it.

I went to see a physiotherapist yesterday on the advice of my daughter’s boyfriend’s mother who advised me that my leg will only get back to normal if I work at it. She knows from experience. She broke her ankle some time ago.
‘It took me a year and they did dreadful things to me, but now I can even run again,’ she said.

I cannot run, the best I can get up to is a limping stride, and then it is more like an old lady hobble.

The physio, a young woman with dark hair and a gentle manner plunged me back into memories of my past when I was a social worker in a community care centre and worked alongside the physiotherapists and the occupational therapists and other so-called allied health professionals and doctors to deliver services to the local community.

I was one of them then, but not so now. There is a strange disjuncture between how I feel inside and how I am on the outside. It hits me once more. When I first began work as a social worker, my mother – then around my age now – said to me often,
‘I would not want to see someone your age. You lack experience’. I took offense. How could I ever catch up with her?

When I told the physio I did not understand why it takes so long for my leg to heal given that the surgeon said the bone is now completely healed, but it will take between eight months and a year to come back to normal, she went into a long and detailed physiology lesson about what happens when a bone breaks.

It is not just the bone that needs to heal, all the body’s nearby cousins – the tendons and muscles – need to recover. The blood supply to the area increases to help the process and in so doing contributes to the heat and pressure which cause the swelling that pops up around my ankle at the end of my more strenuous walking days. I must rest then.

We talked in detail about my idiosyncratic experience and the physio felt around my knee joint to get some idea of how matters fare. She dug her tiny fingers into the muscle that runs down the top of my thigh just above the knee joint. She wanted to loosen it, she said.

This muscle is too tight from non-use, and as a consequence, it is not working as hard as it should.

All day long my leg has ached. This is how it should be my daughters say when I complain that the physio has made things worse. This is how it should be when you use muscles that you have not used for some time. They ache.

If I keep using a rolling pin down the length of my thigh to loosen the muscle and if I keep up the exercises the physio has set, in time I will get stronger. In the meantime, my leg aches worse than it did before.

Healing can be a painful process, perhaps that is why I had avoided it. But I cannot avoid the news about the asylum seekers.

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?