The child falls asleep in San Francisco, is awakened in Oregon, again in Montana, again in Nevada; a pinball bouncing from paddle to paddle at the hands of others. The father is there. The father is not there. The child and mother return to the city of hills. Tilt.
A charming, deep voice cuts through your semi-conscious state, “We have to get you into surgery right away, Miss Martin.”
“Will it leave a scar?” you hear yourself reply.
“Yes, but the alternative is paralysis.”
“Go for it,” you say, and then the charming voice is gone.
You have fallen and broken your neck. You cannot walk and, while your arms are agreeable to whatever you ask of them, your hands have curled in on themselves like claws and stubbornly ignore your commands.
It was a sweltering July evening – the type of heat that can make a person a little crazy, a little careless. You arrive in the mountain village of Ojai, California, with two friends to attend the celebration of another’s new art exhibit. Wine is free and flowing generously, and soon you forget you’ve had little to eat that day.
With the sun having long given up its guiding light, the drive home along a dark, winding road has your stomach pitching as if on the high seas.
At the road’s edge, you open the car door and no sooner do your feet hit the ground than you lurch forward, slamming face down into an unseen ditch. Immediately, you know you’re screwed. You can’t move. You do manage to whisper, “Jesus, help me,” even though it has been decades since the last time you were inside a church.
The child and mother live with the aunt, live with the grandmother, live with strangers she will never be able to recall. With the ground constantly shifting beneath her, the child learns not to get attached.
You awake from surgery in a large, metal crib of a bed. Tubes pump fluids into your body and draw them out again. Your neck is engulfed in a soft collar and you still cannot move. A nurse sits at a desk in the corner quietly writing.
“Hello…?” you manage.
She explains that the disks between C-four, five, and six have been removed and titanium rods inserted in their place. You are no longer biodegradable. The confining collar will be a constant for several weeks and even then there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to walk. But for a disabled dog and three cats, you live alone. Who will take care of you if you can no longer take care of yourself? You start chatting – about nothing, about everything – small talk, you can’t shut yourself up. You want to appear normal, strong, and in control. Above all, in control. The nurse is kind. She smiles, nods, keeps up her end of the exchange. You suspect she knows how scared you are, but she doesn’t let on and you are grateful.
The child’s mother will marry again. “To provide you a home,” the mother says. “You are a burden,” the child hears. The man is kind and good, but the match is a poor one and cocktail hour starts earlier every day.
Your surgeon visits. He doesn’t have to tell you who he is. You recognize the charming voice. He asks you to take his hands and squeeze them. You’ve got nothing. He looks worried. You’ve let him down. You change the subject, nervously joke about your comment to him before surgery, “Will it leave a scar?” He must have thought you a complete idiot.
“I’ve heard dumber,” he says.
A friend stops by with flowers. “You’re looking better today,” she says.
You haven’t looked into a mirror since before the accident two days ago… three? You can’t remember. She takes one from her purse. The puffy mask of purple staring back causes you to recoil.
“Maybe some lipstick,” your friend offers.
“I don’t think lipstick is going to do it.” You try for lightness and are relieved when she smiles. Now you can both pretend nothing is wrong.
The child sits on the floor in her pajamas, her nose only inches from the make believe family on the TV screen. The mother says this will ruin her eyes, but it is the sound that holds her in its comforting embrace. It doesn’t matter that what she is hearing is canned laughter. Only that it drowns out the angry voices of the grownups, the crash of furniture when one of them stumbles and falls, the shattering of a glass thrown by one at the other. The mother needn’t worry about the child’s eyes. They are always closed.
In a few days, you are transferred to a nearby rehabilitation facility, spiking your anxiety as the unfamiliar looms once again. Blessedly, you’ve been given a private room, but the door opens onto a bright, busy hallway. The cacophony of voices, the cries of pain, the peering eyes of strangers, press in on you. You request the door be kept closed, and try to create a world of your own within another strange, new place.
An attendant brings your dinner tray and then leaves. You resist the urge to go face-down into the mashed potatoes, instead willing your gnarled hands to manipulate the fork so that it makes its way to your mouth almost fifty percent of the time. Good for you. Night descends and drugs gently ease you into slumber where, for a few sacred hours, you escape into dreams where your body is whole.
Morning arrives along with Sandy, a physical therapist. She’s a strongly-built, no-nonsense girl in her twenties. Together you work on getting you dressed, although “together” would be a bit of a stretch as Sandy’s contribution is more like a coach from the sidelines. Baggy, elastic-waist pants slip through your fingers, forming a jumbled wad at your feet; you fumble with your bra clasp like a horny teenage boy; the arm holes of a t-shirt prove elusive, entrapping you in a cocoon of white cotton. And there is still the matter of shoes.
“You’re kidding, right?” you say, at the sight of the laces.
By then you’re wiped out and want to go back to bed, but it’s into the wheelchair and off to the therapy room the two of you go.
Fluorescent lights flicker above a wood-paneled room filled with others in varying degrees of brokenness. Sandy wheels you to a long, metal table where she explains that you are to put ten of what seem to be absurdly tiny pegs into matching holes with first your right hand, then your left. Repeatedly, they escape your grasp, clattering across the table top, always just out of reach. You continue to struggle with the task, hoping that Sandy will realize your frustration and grant you a reprieve, but each time she just patiently picks up another peg and hands it to you. Thirty minutes later you’re done, but near tears. Your job requires hours of typing. If your hands are useless, how will you earn a living?
She teaches you a series of exercises to do on your own, balls to squeeze and thick rubber bands to manipulate to promote dexterity as well as build strength. With something you can take charge of, the fear loosens its grip and you can breathe again.
The child fills her own Christmas stocking with treats she has found in a bag on the floor of the mother’s closet. The mother is asleep on the couch, an empty Martini glass overturned on the carpet beside her. In the morning, the child will act surprised as she removes each item.
You elect to take all your meals in your room. Concerned about your self-imposed isolation, the staff encourages you to eat in the dining room with others who find themselves in situations similar to your own. But you do not want to have those conversations. I’m so sorry about your stroke… Me? I got drunk and fell down.
Lunch arrives at the same time as your friend, Mary Ann. She offers to cut up the chicken and you let her, your hunger overriding your embarrassment at having to do so. Over the next few weeks, you work diligently on your exercises and slowly your hands begin to respond, first the right, then the left, which remains the weaker to this day.
Friends bring your mail, do your banking, and make sure your pets are cared for. There is no payment extracted for their kindness, no talk of sacrifice, yet the guilt you feel for the burden you believe yourself to be weighs like a boulder on your chest.
The mother leaves the man, packing up the child as she has done so many times before. The child and mother return to the man. The child and mother leave again. The ground continues to shift and home is no closer.
Afternoons, it’s back to the therapy room and work on walking between parallel bars – forward, backwards, sideways – Sandy always right there beside you, holding you when you waver, giving you confidence to try again. You are put on an exercise bike to build stamina; first seven minutes, then fifteen, pushing yourself to thirty. Closing your eyes, you envision yourself on the bike paths of Golden Gate Park in the city where your first patchy memories were formed. The caress of a salty breeze off the Pacific. Pigeons taking flight in your path, the flapping of wings like soft applause .
It’s been almost three weeks and you are standing in between the parallel bars when Sandy says, “Okay, now let go and walk forward over to the wall.” A cold chill snakes its way down your spine.
“You can do this,” she says.
You take a deep breath and steady your focus on a small spot on the wall a dozen feet away, hoping it’s not a fly because if it moves it’s all over. You lurch one foot, then the other, pitching each in a flat, wide stance like a child taking its first steps. Not pretty, but you make it. And now you’re crying. You can walk.
The mother exchanges alcohol for cancer when the child is 19. The child cannot save her and the mother dies with much between them left unsaid. The child is on her own, and will remain so.
You’re told you’ll be released in two days. What should be joyous news sends you into a panic. While you have some agility back in your hands, you can barely lift two pounds. Your ability to walk remains a challenge and you haven’t yet the strength to stand even for the time it takes to microwave a meal. How will you bathe? What if you fall and no one is there? It’s no longer a matter of pride or determination. You can’t possibly do this by yourself.
The child allows herself to need and be vulnerable, to receive and permit others to give.
The outpouring of love is beyond measure. Neighbors do your grocery shopping. Safety bars are installed in your shower. Your closets and drawers have been rearranged so everything is within reach. A woman you’ve known for thirty years, but had lost touch with, hears of your accident and travels the two hundred miles to your home to stay with you until you recover. She cooks, cleans, helps you bathe, her hands gentle and patient.
The ground ceases its shifting. The child is home.