Ryan, my youngest, takes his Crayola job seriously. We sit criss-cross, side by side on the living room floor, coloring books splayed, colored pencils scattered. He secures the gold pencil in my hand with a rubber band. He knows gold is my favorite color.
“This time, Mommy, try to stay in the lines.”
His voice is soft, like he doesn’t want to embarrass me in front of his brothers. He’s got an easy smile, dimpled on the left. A few years earlier, as a toddler, he’d squeal when I kissed his face. We called it, Swooning. After, he’d press the places I pecked, say, “I’m pushing your kisses to my heart.”
I scribble a flower in wide strokes. I wrestle my pencil. It slips from the band, rolls across the page. He helps reattach it, says, “You’re doing great.”
He says this again and again and after five minutes, I say, “I need to rest.”
As a child, I loved coloring. I never thought I’d miss it. Coloring is more than filling white space. This is a meditation, pencils grazing page. This is creating—hues, forms, universes. I mostly miss holding a pen in my right hand. Write hand.
Earlier in the day, I unstick Velcro straps and remove my brace as my legs dangle over the edge of the therapy table. My right foot, flimsy, points at the floor. My right hand rests, palm up, in my lap.
“How’s it going?” asks Steve, my physical therapist.
“I still can’t hold anything. I can’t reach across my body. Or brush my teeth. Feed myself.”
“So . . . fairly well?” Steve smiles. I love him for his humor.
I try to shrug, but remember that I can’t, so instead, I sigh.
“Don’t cheat. Don’t use your left hand,” he says.
I struggle with my right hand, fumble and drop my toothbrush, my fork, my hope. I manage with my left hand, not my hand-of-choice hand. My left hand is my back-up, my just-in-case. In case my right hand refuses to return.
Steve tells me that the nerves in my right hand should pave new paths, that they’ll rebuild, like a lizard regenerating her tail. But if I don’t engage my right hand—or more accurately, try to engage—those pathways fade.
My right hand hangs from my wrist.
“You’re only one year out from your last surgery. I’m impressed you’re walking,” he says. “Look, you couldn’t hold a pencil last week.”
“I can only hold it with a ton of help,” I say.
“Yes. But you’re getting your brain to talk to your hand.”
Knowing my brain, I imagine the conversation . . .
Listen, wiggle that thumb like you mean it, my brain might say.
I shake my head.
Then I remember… I can’t shake my head.
As if he read my mind, Steve places a hand on either side of my head, manually moves it, less than an inch each direction. I wince.
“Does that hurt?” he asks.
“Not much,” I lie. My body hurts. What doesn’t hurt lives in numbness.
My face flushes. That function still works. My jaw clenches. That still works too. I want to cry—–which I’m quite capable of—but I worry if I begin, I won’t stop and I believe I’ve not enough energy, not for tears, at least for now.
“Ryan’s teaching me to color,” I offer.
Steve is also teaching—no, re-teaching, re-pairing hands to brain. This is 2015. I’m 49. And I should mention, a year before—almost to the date—I underwent my first neck surgery.
Steve assigns me two movements—home-therapy—I’m to turn my head.
I’m to turn it right.
I’m to turn it left.
Two impossible feats.
“Don’t push it. I mean it. More isn’t better. The nerves are damaged,” he says.
After therapy and before coloring, I drive to Boise State University. I’ve adjusted my driving. My seat sits further back. I tuck two rolled hand towels, one on each side, between elbows and body. My forearms rest on armrests as I steer with my left hand. I hook my right hand at the base of the steering wheel like an accessory—scarf, earring, hood ornament.
To look left or right, I rotate at the waist.
I drive in the slow lane.
Cars pass me as they travel the speed limit.
I pull into accessible parking. I’m here to meet Mick for the first time. He’s the disability specialist. He’s the man who can flip my textbooks to e-models because I’m unable to bend my neck to read. Plus, my vision blurs—the doctors think it’s because of my spine.
“Please, sit,” Mick says, seated at his desk.
I avoid eye contact. I’m uncomfortable asking for favors. I don’t want to need assistance. I don’t want to be disabled. I wave. I wave with my good hand. He doesn’t wave or extend his hand in an offer, a handshake. I’m grateful because I can’t shake back.
Instead, he commands his phone, “Siri, big text.”
From across the desk, the words on his phone grow, like font from early reader books.
This is my new life.
“Do you have an iPhone or Android?” he asks.
“Great. Open the settings,” he says.
I try to nod.
Can the body un-channel auto-responses—smiling, thumb-upping?
“Under accessibility, there’s text options. Bolder. Larger. Voice-overs,” he says.
I balance my phone on my leg, pin it with my right forearm and, with my left hand, I scroll, press the wrong tab. I roll my eyes, a movement that I still master.
I ask, “Do I have to have to read my books from my phone?”
“We can order large font in print. Or you can have audio,” he says.
“I can have my textbooks in audio?”
“I finished my degree using mostly audio texts,” he says.
I look up from my phone, away from my struggle.
Now I notice. I notice him. His movements. I notice a cloudiness in his eyes. I notice a probing cane leaning against his desk. One by one details register, and after a minute or three, I understand.
He is blind.
He swivels round in his chair, types on his computer, his visual limits nearly undetectable. I bite my lip. Here’s Mick. I missed seeing him. Really seeing him. Though he clearly sees me. He, in blindness, sees I can finish my degree. He sees what I cannot, though I didn’t understand this at the time. At the time, I’m consumed by my injury, everything feels as if I’m on a steep climb.
On the outside, I’ve my game face, pretending I’ve got this.
Inside—though I won’t know this until years later—I’m afraid.
I wake in pain. I know this pain. Sad with its familiarity. I wake with ache—two in the morning, four in the morning. I’m roused, night after night, not with any new injury, just more of the same. If you’ve experienced a dentist nerve-nipping, you know this zing. It never lets up. It never lets go.
A month before my second spine surgery, before meeting with Mick and re-learning to color, my pain pulses higher—near the base of my skull. Beyond the pain I’ve grown accustomed to over the last thirty years. Thirty years since my car accident.
I rode passenger in my pilot-boyfriend’s boat-of-a-car, a 1970’s Ford LTD. We—my boyfriend, Joe, and I—were stationed in England with the USAF. This is mid-1980’s and I’m 20.
We drove from the base to Bicester. We drove to our favorite pub, The Shakespeare, I think. We played darts, sipped pints of dark ale, walked a block for fish and chips. These were our dates outside of our military obligations. This night, we drove those unlit streets, headlights puncturing velvet black, and most likely, fat raindrops splatting windshield.
Buckled in, Americans riding in an American car on the wrong side of the road, the British side. Another car, stopped at the corner, pulled into oncoming traffic.
We were that oncoming traffic.
Time slowed as I watched my purse pour contents to my feet. Lipstick. Birth Control Pills. Brush. Wallet. Mascara. British coins—half-pences and pounds. I reached for the dash to brace myself. I can’t remember if I reached with my right or my left. I do remember my chest—strapped, secured—as my head whipped, first forward, then back and into the headrest. Glass shattered, clinking, clattering around me.
At the base hospital, the attending physician placed me on low-level-physical duty for seventy-two hours, noting bruising from my nape to my shoulder blades. I returned to the medical center a few days later and, again in two weeks, spasms searing to my fingertips. They placed me on minimal duty for a few months—no lifting over twenty pounds, no marching over a mile. Within six months, my right foot flopped, slapping the ground with every step. I shook it, as if to wake it, as I walked.
Peroneal Nerve Dysfunction. That’s what they called it.
A few weeks following my floppy-foot, new pain emerged from my right shoulder to my pinky. MRI’s indicated herniated discs bulging into my spinal cord. Within another month, I couldn’t turn a doorknob, couldn’t open a jar. I didn’t report this. I didn’t update the doctors. I didn’t complain. Military culture encouraged us to remain unbroken. And if you found yourself broken, you remained quiet.
After my military service, I spent three decades in and out of physical therapy.
In and out of traction.
That month before meeting with Steve and Mick, I rise with that dentist-drill zapping—beginning at my skull-base and wrapping round my right shoulder, beneath my armpit. My tricep jumps, flexing by itself while I’m still in bed. I roll to my left and watch my right arm spasm, like a dance. Except it hurts.
I try to lift my right arm, try to stretch. My arm lays limp.
I try to wiggle my fingers—no response.
Try to make a fist—nothing.
My arm’s asleep, I tell myself.
The year before, 2014, they rebuilt my neck with sternum grafts and titanium. I rehabbed with Steve back then. Steve, my one and only long-term situationship.
In bed now, 2015, I lift my right hand with my left and drop it. A hushed puff.
I close my eyes. I do it again, as if conducting a test.
Can I feel my left hand touch my right?
Give it a minute, it’ll wear off.
Staying in bed is not recommended for any single mom with three boys. My sons will soon rumble into my room with empty bellies and howls as though they’d been food-deprived for a week.
I move slow, careful, as if wading water, walking on reef or shelled-ocean floor. I inspect my reflection—no drooping eye, no drool slipping down my chin, no twitch. I rule out stroke, rule out heart attack. I skip brushing my teeth, which feels dangerous. I comb my hair with my left hand. Lip liner, eye liner, curling iron—these seem perilous. I omit these.
I’m not worried.
I’m just in pain.
I can do pain.
Pain is my usual.
I move through my day. Wash dishes. Make beds. Fold underwear. Every movement shoots jolts. I tell myself that I’m participating in shock-therapy.
Pretend to quit a bad habit, like smoking.
You can quit pain.
You can quit any time.
By noon the next day, my right leg numbs and drags. I ask a friend to stay with my boys. I steer to the Emergency Room with my left hand.
At triage the nurse says, “You may have suffered a heart attack. These show different for women than men.”
They EKG my heart, which seems sturdy, at least from a medical perspective.
I remind them, “I underwent cervical spine surgery the previous year,” and now, they move. They move faster. They strap me to a board. Strap my head in place.
I pretend I’m floating face-up on a surfboard.
I pretend the sun shines on me.
“It looks like your vertebrae collapsed at the surgery site and a few vertebrae above,” the ER doctor says, reading the MRI. “I’ve called your neurosurgeon.”
They tell me that my body rejected my bone graft.
They tell me that my neck fell.
They tell me I can drive myself or take an ambulance.
They tell me the cost of the ambulance.
I could let them take me, but I insist. It’s too much money, too complicated.
They tell me to drive careful.
They tell me to report to my neurosurgeon, who’s waiting.
They tell me to drive straight there.
I drive, left foot for gas and brake.
When I reach a stoplight, I realize, I can’t turn my head left.
Surgery, scheduled in two days, forces me to tread with minimal movement.
I pretend I’m walking on fire.
I pretend I’m a tight-rope walker.
I pretend someone strapped a bomb on me.
To my sons, I seem normal.
Despite this, I’m happy, glad my body hadn’t fallen asleep and refused to wake.
Surgery means my hand and foot will return.
Surgery means pain may subside.
I’m excited to have a problem they can fix.
I want my neck sliced open again. Maybe this time it will heal right. And by this time, 2015, I’ve endured ten or twelve surgeries. Through them, I’ve maintained my schedule: work, school, writing, parenting. Busy means avoidance. Busy means little time to dwell on my circumstances. I’m realizing this now, today, as I write this narrative.
Busy means not resting.
My body, this body, feels a foreign nation. The idea of taking a break feels like another language. I never learned how to recover. Physically. Emotionally. I’m still a student when it comes to rest.
I believed if I stopped, stopped moving, stopped doing, I’d unglue completely, fall apart and break, break for good. Maybe I believed if I stopped, everything else might stop too, like my heart.
This second surgery offered an opportunity: rebuild my spine, rebuild a relationship with my body. No. Begin a relationship with my body.
This time, I will be nice to myself while healing.
My grandmother used to say, “The way in which you heal determines the quality of your future.”
I should have listened to grandma more.
I’m not nervous. I’ve done this before. And I remind myself that while I recoup, I’ve only got one English course for my summer semester. A sixteen-week Lit lecture crammed into five weeks. My neck collapsed on week three.
When the surgeon arrives, I feel both exposed and comfortable in a gown. Here, I’m part of a number, I disappear, my identity blurring with rows of other bodies behind neighboring curtains, all waiting.
A reminder of my uniformed military days.
A reminder of cheerleading competitions, track meets, fitness shows.
Now I wonder if I’ve ever worn my own identity? I wonder if I’ve chameleoned into a crowd, a wheatfield, a refrigerator. I wonder the cost of continuous game facing.
“Remember the risks?” the surgeon asks.
Before I respond, he lists them. Hemorrhage. Hematoma. Artery damage, which could mean excessive bleeding, even a stroke. And though unlikely, there’s that risk of death.
“You could lose your voice if there’s damage to the laryngeal nerve,” he adds.
I think of the times I kept quiet or said No too softly to be heard.
The surgeon hands me the clipboard and I sign the waiver with my left.
When he asks, “Any questions?” he’s already swishing past the curtain before I respond, barely audibly, “Who will care for my children if I die?”
I whisper this a second time. My airway closes, my diaphragm contracts. As my body spasms, I vomit air and spit and worry. I wipe dampness from my forehead, my lips. My IV drips—saline, antibiotics, sedatives—all designed to keep me numb and alive. The way I’m used to living.
Except for this moment.
I feel it all.
The sting of a bee in the sole of my foot, the brush of my fallen arches against asphalt, the wind pushing my eyes to slits as I sprint, the G-suit squeezing my thighs to press blood back to my brain on that F111 incentive flight, my babies pushing through my womb and tearing cartilage and flesh, my stepfather pushing into me, tearing me.
My last thought and then I remember telling myself, Don’t be a Weenie. And, Don’t die. The IV waters take over and I drift into the ocean.
My first neck surgery, a year before this one, occurred over Pesach, the exodus of my ancestors out of slavery. Unable to work and with zero child support, my sons and I lived in Section Eight housing, supported with food stamps and hope.
Back then, 2014, two days following that surgery, I laid in bed braced-up, thinking of the first Jew who walked into waters before the sea parted. Most people credit Moses. I don’t see the story this way.
The Israelites divided into four camps, one believing they’d return to slavery, another that they’d engage in war, a third suggested suicide, and the fourth yearned for prayer. Nachshon ben Aminadav stepped—no jumped—into the sea. He waded up to his nostrils, believing—Perish in the sea or nothing. Only after his act, Moses lifted his staff, spread his hands, split the waters, creating safe passage for my ancestors.
I felt those waters as I laid in my borrowed bed in government housing, up to my neck, nearly drowning, fearing I couldn’t feed my children, living hand-to-mouth, and day-after-day, begging for something to give way. If only the sea would part.
I felt like Nachshon. Not in a brave way. In a drowning-way.
And here I am again, up to nasal passages breathing water, suffocating, yet drowning is no longer an option. I have one choice. Walk in the ocean. Reefs and shells and all.
Following the second surgery, 2015, they tell me my new limits. No heavy lifting, no repetitive movement, no jumping, no impact.
“This is solid, mostly titanium,” the surgeon says while I’m still groggy in recovery. “You can’t pull it apart if you tried.,” and, almost as an afterthought, “Don’t try.”
I’m home within a day, and after a week, I’m pushing food around my plate with chopsticks, guiding my right hand with my left.
“Mom, it’s a salad. Chopsticks?” my middle son, Daniel, asks. He’s big for a twelve-year-old: nearly six feet, two hundred, size eleven shoe. I hope he grows into his feet. His hair, straight and brown, falls into his eyes. I eat eggs and bagels with chopsticks too. He knows I suffer. I know he knows because he toasted my bagel, spread the cream cheese, placed the dish and chopsticks in front of me. I know he knows because he asked if I needed help wiping my mouth.
“You’re ambidextrous. Just use your left hand,” he says as he toasts and pours. I know he wishes I’d just be normal.
I wonder if I’ve ever been normal.
Then I wonder if he knows normal.
I want to nod.
I want to complain, but can’t bear that either. I can’t listen to my words spill over the way I want to grab something without thinking, hold my steering wheel with mindless effort, spread my fingers into gloves, each digit finding its home even though it’s summer.
A week after surgery, my final in Lit is due. Before my neck cascaded, I’d read Oroonoko, drafting notes in margins. I didn’t tell my instructor about my surgery. I didn’t want to ask for leniency, for time, for anything extra.
“Behn’s brilliant angle of placing Oroonoko in a female setting, such as sipping tea, helped remove the disadvantage of women’s limitations and increase the odds of reception and credibility,” I say this aloud to my computer.
My computer-generated-voice fires back words onto the page, “Been’s brilliant ankle of spacing…”
I correct my computer, “Quotation mark. Capitalize, Behn apostrophe s.”
“Been’s,” my computer remarks.
“No,” I say.
“Been’s no,” my computer talks back like a disruptive toddler.
I voice out my paragraph, return to my document holding my right hand with my left, poking keys one letter at a time. I hate not typing. I hate not holding a pen. I hate my neurons misfiring, no longer connecting my hand and head to the page, reaching my thoughts, sorting my shit.
Did I ever sort my shit?
I cry. I cry for losing the one thing that has seen me through all things—my ability to write. Not my ability to write well, just the ability to write at all. Those tears hit like waves, like a tsunami, and suddenly, I’m up to my nostrils, now flaring with rage. There’s a heavy pulsing at my temples as my face heats and I want to hit something, I want to smash my keyboard, I want to stomp, and scream. I can’t. And even if I could, I’m afraid I’ll bring more damage to my neck. Instead, like a defeated child, my head drops, chin on chest. My shoulders sag, and I become small as I sit in midnight hours, unable to type.
I hold my breath.
I stifle myself.
I sit and hold and stifle.
I sit until the tears dry.
I sit until I muster a semblance of strength to do one small act: tap. I tap. I tap out 3455 words. Twelve pages.
Afterwards, I’ll receive an A. It takes all my energy to pen those pages, though later, I’ll barely remember a word. The words didn’t matter. The work, the effort, the eraser side of a pencil pushing keys to form lines. That’s what I’ll remember.
After six more months of working with Steve, I can feel that colored pencil on the now-uncalloused pads of my fingers. I appreciate the weight of this thin stick and the cramp in the small adductor muscle in the center of my palm. Though unstable, I keep between the lines. As my skills slowly return, they’re not the same—I hold a coffee mug fully with both hands, I steer my car with my fingers hooked on the wheel. I use a mobility aid to twist jars. My door handles are hooks, replacing knobs. Sometimes, I catch myself massaging my uncooperative hand wondering when it might give in, much the way I catch a glance of myself in the mirror and wonder the same.
“Keep going,” I say out loud to both my hand and my reflection.
Along with a neck brace, I’m prescribed a new brace for my right leg. It holds my foot at 90-degrees, preventing tripping. I’m good at concealing it, veiling it beneath loose trousers, or tucked into boots.
At one of my last appointments with Steve, I arrive with my neck brace decorated, covered with bling and butterflies and glitzy buttons. He grins and says, “Nice jewels.”
“My boys helped,” I say. And they did, they really did.
Rumpus original art by Briana Finegan