August is always a strange month for me. It's strange because it is the month when my grandmother died in 1981, unexpectedly from a heart attack after experiencing a blessed remission in the lung cancer that was eating her alive. It is also the month in which, three years later, I was in the car accident that changed the rest of my life.
The good news is that I wasn't drunk and nobody died. Except maybe a tree. Well, and my car, which was a really hideous butter-yellow Aries K. It was just an instance of driving too fast while listening to the radio and going over a blind hill like a bat out of hell. Stupid, so stupid.
I was not belted in. It was 1984 and seatbelts weren't often worn. So my head went through the windshield, permanently scarring my forehead and taking a lot of the hair forward of my ears with it (which grew back) and most of my left eyebrow (which didn't.) I also broke both of my legs; my right ankle was nearly snapped in half and my left knee was destroyed when the engine block was forced back into the front seat, due to the impact with an enormous old oak tree.
Because I had such a severe concussion, I can only remember bits and pieces. I can remember being so afraid that Jim, my boyfriend, was dead. I don't remember walking on those two badly broken legs with the ankle and the knee and the whole bit to find help, but I do remember flagging down a car. When the horrified occupants got out of the car, I remember saying simply, "Jesus sent you."
That's all I remember until we were in an ambulance. I kept calling for Jim, who had a concussion of his own and a broken arm and leg to contend with, asking the paramedic if he was alive. "He's okay, he's right here," the paramedic soothed me, joining my bloody hand with Jim's. The paramedic held my other hand.
The next thing I remember was lying on a bed in the emergency room, crying because I couldn't remember my name. It was dark and quiet in there and I kept sobbing to the nurse, "I don't know who I am. Who am I? What's my name? Why can't I remember who I am?" She looked at me with enormous pity, stroking my cheek and telling me to hush, hush. Everything would be okay. And it was okay a little bit later when my Dad came through the curtain, having been routed from his bed by the phone call parents pray they'll never get, and took my hand, saying in his quiet way, "Your name is Shelley and you're my daughter." I don't think I'll ever forget the enormous sense of comfort, the sheer relief, of being known.
I was in the hospital for two months, missing the first quarter of my senior year, plus having to drop out of the two summer session classes I was taking. I had a lot of unpleasant experiences in the hospital: a staph infection that led to a temperature of 107 degrees and a night spent in a bed full of ice, hallucinating and holding onto a nurse's hand - Debbie, who stayed over her afternoon shift to sit by my me and see me through the night - as she quietly comforted me. I wish I didn't remember so much about that night. I also had some deep-vein blood clots that were a terrible cause of concern. And I had to learn how to walk again.
I walked with a walker for about three months, and a cane for about a year after that.
Because the muscles in my legs were so atrophied, I had to sleep on my back for over a year, every single night. I have never slept on my back since.
For a long time, I was able to ignore the extent of the injuries that would be with me forever. My left knee has only about 30% range of motion and is completely bone on bone. It's hard to climb up or down stairs, difficult to walk on uneven ground. My right ankle is very, very mean to me when the weather is wet or cold. Having been so severely whiplashed, my neck gives me trouble from time to time. I've felt these things a lot more since I was about thirty-five. It's so much fun getting older!
Last year, I sucked in my breath and took a step that I'd been studiously avoiding for a long time: I filled out an application for a handicapped placard to hang on my rear-view mirror, giving me access to special parking places. I didn't really want to do it. I didn't want to give in. But it was time.
One year later, I'm faced with another new step -- I've begun using a cane whenever I know I'm going to be walking for a long time, or if I know I'm going to be walking over bumpy grass, like at the 4-H Fairgrounds last month.
It was a hard decision. First of all, I have my pride. Who wants to walk with a cane at age forty-four? I mean, my husband is a runner, now doing two half-marathons a year (I have the feeling that Boston lies somewhere in his future, and I'm not talking about any measly thirteen miles, either) plus 5ks here and there with Meelyn. And here I am with him as he puts on his racing bib with its ID number and his computer chip on his shoe, leaning on a cane.
"You were in a car accident," he says firmly, holding my face and looking straight down into my eyes, wiping away my tears with his thumbs. "I knew about this before we were married, which, by the way, was sixteen years ago. And I think you're fine the way you are. With a cane, without a cane. Just don't hit me with it, that's all I ask. Even if I deserve it."
The other bother I have is that using a cane makes me feel like I'm giving up. I don't feel like I should give up. I'm a Catholic. We believe in miracles. We believe in healing and that it definitely happens in the next world, but can also happen in this one. If I walk with a cane, I wondered fretfully, does Jesus see that as an admission of defeat?
No, said one of my friends. It just means that you're doing what you need to do as you continue to wait for healing with hope. To quote the epistle of James, "faith without works is dead," so I should see this as an opportunity to exercise the fruits of the Spirit, particularly the virtues of patience, faithfulness and self-control, she continued. God will do His best for me, I can trust in that.
And meanwhile, I can assemble a rockin' collection of canes and walking sticks. I already have the old, grey orthopedic cane that I used in college. It is horrible and I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy's mean Aunt Ethel. I also have a bronze-colored aluminum cane with a Derby handle and a black offset cane with an ergonomic grip. I see these canes as ones to get me to the grocery store, to the State Fair, to the movies, to Bump Day at the Speedway.
But here's a picture of the one I'd like to get as the kind of cane one would walk with at the art museum, at church, at the theater and other nice places. It is a nice brown walnut with that really pretty brass derby handle. I hope to order it in a couple of weeks.
I've also ordered some St. Roch medals. St. Roch is the patron saint of those who suffer from knee troubles; he himself was healed of a terrible injury to one of his knees. I'll have Father bless them and attach them to my canes, effectively putting St. Roch on the case, asking for his prayers as I continue to hope for healing. There is actually a St. Roch parish in Indianapolis - we may have a Mass offered there for this intention. I love being Catholic.
We may go and light a candle, keeping hope alive.
St. Roch, pray for me and my knee. (And if you wouldn't mind, throw in a few for my neck and my ankle.)
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