Twenty-two years

Posted by Allen Rucker in Life After Paralysis on December 26, 2018 # Health, Mobility

Blackbird singing in the dead of night

Take these broken wings and learn to fly

All your life

You were only waiting for this moment to arise.

On the day I’m writing this, I will have been paralyzed from the waist down for twenty-two years, not much of a time span for you oldsters, a lifetime to you youngsters. I guess such anniversaries don’t mean much to many of us because there doesn’t seem to be much value in commemorating them. In my case, I am looking back every day at the consequences of being randomly afflicted like this. I don’t need a special holiday to do so.

The first thing that pops up when I think of those early days is the Paul McCartney song above. Though it was written as a comment on the American civil rights movement, it became like lullaby on a loop for me, both melancholy and hopeful, lying in that hospital bed, alone in the dark, night after night. It was the soundtrack of my distress

Ironically, I don’t remember that much of the early pain and suffering. I remember the stupid things. I remember the shiny new bicycle helmet my wife Ann-Marie gave me on Christmas day, bought before the paralysis, and how sad and goofy it looked on my head sitting in that bed. We got a good price for it at a garage sale.

Our then eight-year-old got a PlayStation rig for Christmas and was thrilled beyond measure when the staff hooked it up to the monitor in my room. We didn’t hear from him for hours. My mother in law came by that day and noticed I had passed on my watery, overcooked carrots and meatloaf Christmas lunch for a corned beef sandwich from the local deli. Her eyes lit up. “Can I have it?” At 85 and counting, she loved watery, overcooked hospital food. She feasted while we noshed.

That was then, but the undercurrent of sadness and guilt brought by paralysis has never quite gone away. The other night, twenty-two years later, I had a powerful dream that deeply upset me. Ann-Marie and I were visiting an old friend, now in her seventies, on a college campus where she had returned to take classes after her husband had passed. She looked young and radiant, an older version of the sorority girl she once was. A man her age, equally youthful in spirit, maybe a professor or an emeritus classmate, came up and introduced himself. Before long, they were strolling away -- off, I imagined, on some whimsical adventure.

Meanwhile, Ann had gone inside the campus book store to look around. As I walked in, she too was chatting it up with a handsome, healthy older fellow. I just stood back and watched. You could tell how much enjoyed each other’s company. As she too started to walk away with him, she turned to look at me. It was a loving look of regret. The message: it was time for her to move on.

Only later did it strike me that it might be a dream of either my passing away and letting her go or Ann passing away and saying goodbye. That guy could have been her escort into the afterworld. My immediate reaction was that it was about her unspoken wish to experience another life, now. I felt profound guilt at the price she has had to pay for living with my paralysis for two decades. As I mentioned in a past blog, her life has come to assume a pattern exactly in sync with mine. We share all the same constraints. You try not to think about them, try not to give them any emotional weight at all, but then you have a dream where they bubble up and you can’t ignore the cost, at least until the next dream.

In case you might think my paralyzed life is rife with guilt, regret, or nightmares of abandonment – it’s not. Far from it. Bad feelings about my condition, aside from occasional bouts of self-pity, have become more muted as the years unfold. Practical hassles and periodic health scares will never go away, in the same way they will never go away for most non-paralyzed septuagenarians. Paralysis, for me, was simply an early – twenty-two years early -- introduction to the vagaries of aging.

Another Christmas is here. Maybe I’ll get another bicycle helmet to protect my head while wheeling across Sepulveda Blvd. But, please, no runny meatloaf.