There’s a new sound in my life — the click, click of my sexy French crutches — as I learn to walk normally again after two years of 24/7 pain and a gait so altered I started to look like Quasimodo, that ruined my shoes and swelled my right foot and increased the diameter of my right calf by an inch from overcompensation.
It’s been almost a month since my hip replacement, and I’m learning to trust my body again. It feels really good to stretch, to break a sweat and (yay!) to reach my toes.
“Patient” — the adjective, not the noun — is not my most obvious quality. This recovery, from full hip replacement, includes dire warnings about doing too much too soon and how not to push it. More is not better. But you don’t know you’ve done too much until…
Daily, I circumambulate our apartment building and garage in warm, dry weather and our apartment building hallway, where 12.5 laps equals a mile, when it’s wet or really cold. My goal is a daily mile, only after which do I get to shed my $38/pair white surgical stockings I wear 23 hours a day to prevent blood clots.
Physical therapy, three times a week, (and $60 week in copays), is slow, incremental, dull, repetitive — and utterly essential to a full recovery.
When I met my surgeon, I handed him a list of a few of my many sports, and asked how soon I would be back at them. My softball team, having missed me for two years, keeps asking when I’ll return. I’m hoping within six months; friends my age (and much older) who’ve had this procedure have since climbed the Great Wall, hiked Guatemala and climbed four flights of stairs without trouble.
I’ve had to recuse myself from real life for a while, missing a friend’s book party, unable to get to my regular hairstylist in Manhattan, a 45-minute drive or train/cab away, closed off from movies, concerts and anything that would require me to sit more than than 60 minutes at a time I’m allowed.
Maybe because I did a silent 8-day retreat last summer, I’ve really appreciated a time of peace and quiet, of reflection and withdrawal. For weeks, I had to rely fully on my husband for the simplest of tasks, from helping scrub me in the shower, (after an 18-day wait!), to putting on my left sock and shoe, counting out my 10 pills a day, cooking.
I miss his companionship since he returned to work this week, leaving home at 7:30 and only returning 12 long hours later after his commute.
This morning, while it’s still dark here, we’re driving north up the road to my local community hospital to have my left hip replaced.
My husband, Jose, is taking three weeks off to stay home with me, (blessedly able to have that much paid time off and willing to nursemaid me), and a friend from our church has offered to coordinate meals and drives when he needs a break.
She, too, will be with us as she recently had bypass surgery and knows the drill all too well.
I’ve tried for weeks to wrap my head around the idea that a foreign object — the ceramic head made (je suis ravie!) in France, the rest in Warsaw, Indiana — will become part of my body.
In the United States, where 47 million people suffer (as I do) from arthritis and millions are obese or overweight (guilty), 200,000 of these procedures are done every year. It’s hardly unusual. But that doesn’t make it any less scary. My hip was destroyed, ironically, by the drug given to me in May 2010 to reduce severe inflammation, producing AVN. Beware!
I’ve been facing this sudden reality for about the past two months. My divorced mother, 76, who lives in a very far away city in Canada — I am just north of New York City — now must move into a nursing home. I have someone there sharing power of attorney with me, but even so it has become an unpaid, draining, overwhelming, full-time job demanding almost daily decisions, all of them with major consequences.
None of which are anything I have ever faced before or have a frame of reference for.
I’m the only child.
If you have not yet entered this specific obstacle course, a few things you need to think about:
Does your parent have a will? Do you know where it is and who is the executor?
Have they, in advance, designated a power of attorney?
Do they, or you, have a written inventory of all their belongings and which they might want to keep when they have to trade a home for one room?
What do they want to do with all ephemera — photos, letters, documents? Have you or they sorted through it and identified what is important or of sentimental value? Identified who’s who in the photos?
Who will handle your parent’s affairs financially?
Do they have long-term care insurance? (Do you?)
Have you discussed any of this with your parent?
Do you have anyone, like a geriatric care manager, to help you if you are trying to deal with all of this from a distance?
Here’s what we’ve faced:
She fell in the hospital, breaking her hip in the emergency room
Surgery to repair her hip and months of rehab and physical therapy to regain strength and mobility
Another fall in the hospital, which protested there was no way they could prevent yet another one
Bowel surgery and a colostomy
She has COPD and heart problems as a result
She has early, for now, mild dementia and trouble with short-term memory
The learning curve is vertical!
These are just some of the many people I’ve spoken to in the past three months:
Two nurses, doctors (at least four, so far), physical therapist, occupational therapist, nursing home staff at four homes while seeking a suitable and available bed, hospital social worker, hospital risk manager, attorney, realtor, notary for the buyers for her apartment; auction house coming to appraise and sell her things; Salvation army for picking up the rest, movers to move her into the nursing home, airline (for my flight); car rental (for my visit), UPS (for packing and shipping back here whatever I can take or keep), bank staff to try and arrange handling of her finances…
The only thing keeping me sane is knowing many other women also going through this hell or who have already gone through it, and who kindly offer compassion, humor and advice.
It is a maelstrom of grief, fear, sadness, confusion, anger, frustration, loss. And the cost is staggering — $6,000 a month for one room. Yes, a nursing home room is definitely much cheaper elsewhere, but she is not physically able to move and emotionally would not want to as her friends are in this city.
Imagine a television show on a major American network in which AIDS victims were paraded in front of the cameras and hectored by ultra-conservative evangelical ministers. The ministers inform the victims that they are being punished for their “decadence” and “hedonism.” Or perhaps a different program – one centered on people dying an agonizing death from lung cancer. They’d have cameras shoved in their faces as anti-smoking campaigners told them that if they wanted sympathy, well, tough. After all, they should never have smoked in the first place! Or, best of all, how about a show concerned with fat people. A chef from a foreign country would come stateside and lecture the citizens of America’s “most obese city” about how their unhealthy eating habits are going to consign them and their children to an early grave. This infantalizing message would be accompanied by lots and lots of camera shots lingering on the fatties’ rolls of flesh.
This week, kicking and screaming like a three-year-old who really needed a nap, I went to see a dietitian who put me on a severely restricted diet, on doctor’s orders. I don’t look obsese to most people. Curvy, yes. Definitely a candidate to shed some weight. I’ve gone into surgery more eagerly.
As Jamie Oliver is learning with his ABC television show, getting anyone to change what they eat — size, portions, taste, fat, salt, sugar — is a task far more complex than it appears. Set aside his show and the drama of battling school bureaucrats. Our emotional relationship to food and drink is like some tenacious desert plant, its wiry, tough roots buried deep in our psyches.
We eat what we eat, whether sipping, swallowing or gulping, for many many reasons, some unconscious.
Here’s what happened today at lunch. I ordered a small Caesar salad with grilled no-sauce chicken and a Diet Coke. I’m allowed, for that meal, two cups of salad and 2 tablespoons of oil and vinegar and 6 ounces of lean protein. No starches. I brought (hidden beside me, I ate alone) a measuring cup and set of measuring spoons. Waiters stared. I didn’t care.
The small salad, in our local Greek restaurant, was four cups of lettuce. It also had croutons that looked fried. A huge plate of fresh pita bread — I love warm pita! — dropped onto the table. A thick dish of creamy sauce. I had both taken away.
Were I my usual weary, distracted self, reading a newspaper or magazine or deep in conversation with a friend, I could easily have eaten both, inhaling a delicious 500 extra calories, all while eating “healthy” food. In only one meal.
My diet, for now, is about 1700 calories a day. Sounds like a lot to me. Hah! Hunger is now a constant companion. It’s like a little dog gnawing on my ankles, day and night. I’d like to drop-kick it across the room, (not a dog, the discomfort), and have two more weeks to go.
Millions of people today would be desperately thrilled to have access to half these calories.
We need to acknowledge to ourselves — our kids, our doctors, our mirrors, our fridges and grocery carts — that food is not simply fuel. We cling to it, and savor it and gobble it and gorge on it, for many reasons:
Culture: For many people, certain foods mean “home”, whether the fat-marbled smoked meat sandwiches Montreal is famous for; the creamy hummus of the Middle East; the flaky delight of a burek or baklava or croissant. It brings us, with every bite, closer to our country or culture of origin, in a nation of immigrants, no small thing.
Family: Feeding your family is the most primal act we commit, from the moment the baby latches onto the breast to deathbed purees.
Love: There are few easier, quicker, more affordable ways to show your love for someone than to cook them a meal, whether chicken soup or a birthday cake. “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” women are told. And it is.
Memory: For my friend Dalina, it’s her Nana’s spaghetti sauce. For others, their mother’s pie or uncle’s barbecue. For my partner, who grew up in the Southwest, his late Mom’s posole. My Dad always adds fresh apple to his salads so when I do it I think of him. (I also do it when I sip a great glass of Scotch.)
Pleasure: In a time of terrible financial difficulty for millions of Americans, food and drink remain, for the fortunate, a ready and cheap source of refuge and comfort. If the fridge or cupboards are full, so, too will be our belly, if not our gas tank or bank account. The salty crunch of a fresh potato chip or the creamy smoothness of a rice pudding — bad for you!!! –– carry tremendous allure when everything else is simply too damn expensive right now.
For low-income families, “right now” can be a lifetime.
Yes, I know and I agree — everyone needs to make wise(r) choices, eat small(er) portions, stop choosing to consume fried crap crammed with chemicals and color and sugar and salt. Have you tried to buy a loaf of commercially made bread withno added sugar or high fructose corn syrup? Good luck!
The United States — unlike France, Germany, Canada, Japan — was founded by Puritans. People not, perhaps, wild about the sensual pleasures of the flesh. Consider this in the finger-wagging culture that mistakenly and punitively conflates the size of your ass with the value of your soul.
I am now doing physical therapy for my arthritic hip at an upscale health club. The parking lot, at 9:00 a.m, is so packed I can hardly find a space, jammed with Range Rovers and Mercedes and BMWs as dozens of lean, ropy women head inside for yoga or a class or a workout. They are not, clearly, distracted from their goals by a long commute or a job. It’s a lot easier to be skinny and nauseated by fatties when you’ve got hours to burn off every calorie that goes into your mouth.
The cheap easy rush — sort of an addictive sugar high, really — of loathing fat people needs to be moderated by compassion.
Some fat people have no money. Some work three jobs and have little time to find and cook fresh foods with the lowest calories. Their local stores or bodegas may not stock the right foods and drinks. They work weird hours and/or it may be dark, cold or too dangerous in their neighborhood before or after work to even go out for a healthy, vigorous walk. A gym or health club can cost a shocking amount; our small, crowded, worn suburban Y charges more than $80/month for a family membership. That’s not cheap.
And who will watch your kids?
Too many people are forced to gulp (!) meals at their desks, shoveling food into their faces as fast as possible to avoid looking slack or weak — someone who can be fired. Many are constrained by physical pain or injury — I haven’t been able to exercise since January. To the ignorant and judgmental observer, I’m PiggyGirl — clearly someone with zero awareness of how she eats, obviously overweight from (not), snarfing Twinkies and double cheeseburgers.
When some of us can’t even cross a room without agony, and 46 million Americans suffer from some form of athritis, (only aggravated by obesity), it’s time for the skinnies to lay down their self-righteous whips.
The next time you feel like sneering at a fat person, whether their flesh is jammed up against yours on a bus or airplane, or on TV or at the gym, ask yourself why.
Sort of a board of directors, but better. I met two young men today, my two new physical therapists. It’s a little weird having a handsome young man twisting you like a Gumby doll, sort of pleasant. But, hey, medically required.
There’s Tony, the massage therapist; Alex, the hairdresser; Mike, the shoe repairman; Jose, the drycleaning guy; Hassan, who runs the gourmet store; Gregg, who owns the hardware store; Aqueel, the local pharmacist who sat me down to actually explain the effects of various medications, John, the X-ray tech at my doctor’s who’s always got a smile, a bunch of orthopedic surgeons dealing with my latest tear, sprain or fracture and Bill, my irascible mechanic of 15+ years.
If it were not for their skill, good humor, warmth and concern, the world would be a much colder place. I can barter with Tony, know I can rely on Alex to give me a haircut that gives me enough confidence to appear on TV, try some amazing new cheese that Hassan will slice off and offer, as he does to all his customers, with a gentle smile. One of my doctors, an avid shooter, keeps giving people copies of my book and another loves art as much as I do. I value the humanity behind our commercial or medical transactions.
I grew up an only child with my Dad gone a lot traveling on business and was living on my own at 19. Taught to be independent, expected to fend for myself and figure most things out without coaching or instruction, I really appreciate these smart, competent men and the way they generously and good-naturedly help me navigate my challenges, whether getting my arthritic hip into good enough shape to hit the softball diamond this summer or making sure the battered old Subaru keeps running smoothly.
I don’t know what I’d do without them.
Is there a team of guys (or women) like this in your life? Whose skills do you rely on beyond yourself or your immediate family?
Latest headcount: four MDs: orthopedic surgeon (hip specialist); GP (acpuncturist); GP and neurologist. Five, if you include the ER doctor who saw my back spasm at midnight. Three Xrays, one MRI. One walker and a cane.
My most recent MRI — I’ve lost track how many I’ve had over the past decade — was the weirdest I’ve had as the machine focused on my lower back.
If you’ve never had one, they are extremely challenging if you are the slightest bit (and who isn’t?) claustrophobic: you lie on an extremely narrow platform that slides into a round machine — you’re the center of its donut. The smooth gray plastic interior is no more than six or eight inches from your face and I was in it for only 20 minutes — it can be 40 or more. Our MRI usually gives us headphones to listen to music but I could only use earplugs. (There are such things as open MRIs for those who just can’t do one of these.)
The noise alternated between: jackhammer/a hammer tapping on my butt/a knocking noise, staccato/a low, deep buzzing that — reframe! stay calm! — sounded like being inside a not very interesting Philip Glass or Steve Reich composition.
Meds: Flexeril, Prednisone, Advil, codeine, Tramadol. Only Advil and codeine work well in my system; the others produce nasty side effects and I stopped taking two of them right away. About to start Voltaren and Prevacid.
I’ve been to my orthopods — a group practice (now on specialist number four there) — since 2000, when I had my first knee arthroscopy. I know their phone number off by heart and have been next door to the physical therapists, or PTs, who I wrote about, with gratitude, for The New York Times, since then many, many times.
I am not 80!
But, which is deeply, frustratingly painful and annoying, my left hip, when it acts up, behaves like I’m about 106. I have osteoarthritis there — like 2 million other Americans — which means either painful inflammation (which rest and drugs can help) or thinning cartilage (which they cannot.)
As someone who lives to move athletically: softball, jazz dance, walking, biking, hiking — I am losing cartilage — and trying not to panic because my life’s core identity, my social life, my stress relief — are all through sports, activity and motion.
Jane Brody, longtime New York Times health writer, recently wrote about how essential exercise — and its social joys — are to her and her readers:
So many nonhealth benefits keep me exercising every day that I’m sure my life would be greatly diminished without them.
Shortly after 6 the other morning, a stunning full moon hugging the horizon enhanced our walk around our local park, and I remarked, “Look what the stay-a-beds are missing.” Soon after came a picture-postcard scene of two Siberian huskies trotting through the snow-covered woods. The week before, we were treated to glorious snow-laden trees as we trudged through the falling snow.
Note that I said “we.” Two to five of us walk for an hour every morning. We chat about our days, share our thoughts and problems, seek and offer advice, bolster sagging spirits, provide logistical support, alert one another to coming cultural events, discuss the news, books, articles and what-have-you. No matter how awful I may feel when I get up in the morning, I always feel better after that walk. And so I always do it, come rain, shine or blizzard.
The members of this walking group, which I joined (admittedly reluctantly) about 15 years ago, have become more than dear friends. They are a sounding board for any and all problems, providing both emotional and practical support when needed. They have introduced me to wonderful activities — museum and gallery shows, concerts and operas, movies and books — I might have otherwise missed.
I miss my jazz dance class, my softball buddies and the fellow walkers on our reservoir, all off limits until I am pain-free and stronger.
I clicked around four Manhattan blocks with my cane today. It helped me stay erect — and visually warned self-absorbed, fast-walking New Yorkers to not bump into me!
I am am very grateful for: having something that is treatable and not life-threatening; excellent, compassionate doctors and the insurance that allows me to see them; warm spring sunshine so I can rest, as ordered, on a park bench outdoors.
I hope your 2010, and the decade to come, is filled with good things.
Here are a few of the life lessons that hit me upside the head these past few years, some more gently than others:
1) Young ‘uns rule. If you’re older than 35, 45, let alone 50, it’s a good time to get to know, and understand the thinking and relationships and behaviors of, people unrelated to you who are smart, talented, ambitious — and under 30.Maybe not if you’re a civil servant or tenured professor, but in the media, I think so. Even as a manager, it’s your job now to figure out how differently they think and deal effectively with it, whether the use of technology or some radically different ideas of what work is.
My two best professional opportunities arose this past year thanks to meeting two young women, both of them barely out of graduate school, who were working with high-level people they introduced me to. Had I been dismissive or skeptical of their interest, which many older, experienced workers can be, or could have been pre-recession, I’d have missed out.
One of them is fellow Canadian-jock-in-NY, T/S’s Katie Drummond, who heard me speak to her grad school class at NYU, snagged me, and is now one of my under-30 bosses. Reporting to people so much younger than is a little funky at times, but work — now more than ever — is less about titles and degrees and what you’ve done for the past 20 or 30 years, but about collegiality, mutual respect, enthusiasm, shared values.
Some of us older folk also share the “new” values of Gen Y, such as a way to make a living that also allows us the time and energy to enjoy our life. And there’s no way past the ugly truth that age discrimination is thriving. If you’re out of work, sneak in under the skirts of someone fresh(er)-faced.
2) Techno-sabbaths will keep you and your relationships healthy. I’m not an Orthodox Jew, but I admire their strict Sabbath. In an era of cool, sexy, portable toys that buzz, beep, blink, ring, whine and suck us into their orbits 24/7, turn ’em all off!One full day every single week. Very, very few of us need to be available 24/7, to anyone. It’s ego, addiction, boredom. Your kids, partner, co-workers and others — like wait-staff and retail associates trying to serve lots of other people at the same time — will like you more.
Read the fantastic book on this issue, “Distracted” by Maggie Jackson. Then go stare into the sky or at nature, night or day, uninterrupted, for 20 minutes. We are not meant to spend all our days reacting and responding to machinery, no matter how alluring its form.
3) Take gentle, consistent, grateful care of your body. In January 2000, mine started teaching me a lesson I had no interest in learning — it has limits. Excuse me? I’m not invulnerable?
That’s when I had a right knee arthroscopy to remove torn cartilage (the result of playing three squash games a week). December 2001, I had left knee arthroscopy for the same problem. May 2008 offered right shoulder surgery. By December 2009, the left shoulder needed months of physical therapy to avoid another surgery. November 2009, stress fracture of my left foot.
In the past decade, I’ve also watched more than a dozen people I cared for die, one at 17 of cancer, another at 49, of cancer, one murdered the day after he retired. Life and health are to be treasured.
If you’re young — under 30, say — you’re certain you’ve got your whole life, probably 80+ years’ worth, to eat junk, sleep 4 hours a night, ride a bike without a helmet, binge-drink, have weird/complicated relationships with food, smoke, take all kinds of drugs or share prescription medications with friends. All you need is one bad accident, surgery or months-long injury to get it and get smart(er.)
Women, especially, are socialized to care for everyone but themselves and to focus endless, tedious, narcissistic attention on the size and shape of their bodies. Focus instead on your blood sugar/pressure, heart health, cancer risks, mental health, wearing a facial moisturizer with SPF every single day.
We live, in the U.S. in one of the most brutal and bare-knuckled of capitalist countries: no paid sick leave, little or no paid vacation, 1/3 of the workforce now working freelance or temp or contract — i.e. no paid sick days or vacation, people terrified to disappoint their boss(es) and get fired. Don’t let this larger world shorten your life, as it can and will.
I worked myself, in March 2007, into three days on an IV in a hospital bed with pneumonia. Don’t ever be(come) that person. Save several months’ expenses so when you are ill you can take enough time off, in most cases, to fully recover.
Respect your body for its strengths and be gentle with its weak(er) bits.
4) Mentor and volunteer, wisely. Everyone needs help, at 17, 28, 39, 54. Whenever. Don’t be a doormat and beware of users, but make it a point to help others trying to achieve a goal you admire and share. It’s fun and it builds good karma.
I answered an email about six years ago from a younger writer in D.C. asking advice. Unlike most people who shamelessly ask to “pick my brain”, he immediately offered several extremely valuable, hard-t0-get editor contacts. Which was kind, classy and made me reply right away. He wasn’t, as so many hungry wannabe’s, out to grab and run.
We have since — still never having met face to face — become good friends and colleagues, acting as valuable sounding boards for one another. The book he was then trying to sell became a best-seller. Cool!
Find a cause, or several, that matter deeply to you and make a commitment to giving back.
5) Publishing a book will not, despite people’s fantasies to the contrary, change your life. Everyone thinks it will. They want it to. You want it to. Your agent or publisher, maybe less so. They’re been around that block many times before. Don’t assume you’ll get on “Oprah” or even get reviewed anywhere.
If you’re lucky, and/or persistent, and the book has some lasting value, you will find a community of its fans. That’s a lovely thing. Nurture them.
If it does change your life in any significant way, say a huge thank you to whatever deity — or non-deity — you pray to. You are extremely fortunate. Now, go help someone else achieve this; see Lesson Number Four.
6) You can find a decent guy/woman on the Internet. In March 2000, a man in Brooklyn saw my profile on aol.com and wrote me a letter. Like me, he was a workaholic, ambitious career news journalist, someone who lives to eat, drink, listen to music, take photos, travel. We would never ever have met otherwise, even though we both worked for the Times, he staff, me freelance.
I was, officially, writing a story about on-line dating — then declasse, secret, scary — for the now-defunct women’s magazine, Mademoiselle. We’ve been together ever since.
7) Taking risks is essential to growth. The most terrifying choice — of man/woman, job/career, pet(s), kid(s), re-training, new city, town or country, the fellowship or grant you’re sure you’ll never win, leaving the man or woman or boss who abuses you, the athletic challenge that looks impossible — go for it!Be selective and smart about it, but if nothing you’re working on or with ever makes you a little nervous or anxious, in a good way, you’re stagnant.
8) Your dream job/man/woman/home may prove to be a nightmare. You’ll survive.
9) Being broke, (short of losing your home and health), is annoying as hell but it won’t kill you. I am not talking about severe, chronic poverty, but the nasty fiscal dive so many of us have taken in the past two years — and in the recessions of 2003 and 1990. I’ve watched my income plummet by three-quarters on a few occasions. Not fun!
I live near New York City, where simply driving my Mom to the airport in the summer of 2008 snapped my last nerve after paying an insane $13 in tolls and parking for 15 minutes. Not including gas. Enough already!
Live as far below your means as you can tolerate, adding luxury and pleasures when and where they are affordable; read The Millionaire Next Door, published in 1998, for advice and inspiration on avoiding dangerous peer or family pressure to “keep up”. Health insurance, safe housing and healthy food are necessities. Cable TV, cellphones, a gym membership, new clothes (short of underwear or socks) are not.
Being broke, even for a few weeks or months, offers a powerful, unavoidable opportunity to sort out your priorities and values, let alone prompt a come-to-Jesus conversation with your partner/spouse/family of origin/kids.
Don’t attach your entire ego to your job title, profession or career. If you have to leave them behind, what (else) will provide you with your sense of self-worth and value?
10) A balanced life includes nurturing your mind, body, soul, heart, friends, family and community. It’s not a zero-sum game. Think of yourself not as a two-sided scale, but a multi-faceted gemstone like a diamond, one that needs to gleam.
I weary to nausea of “balance” conversations. It’s life. It’s your life. It’s your only life. If you need someone to do more of, (even some of), their share of the cleaning, grocery shopping, housework, picking up their dirty laundry — delegate. Insist. Insist again.
Little kids, let alone teens, need to learn that Mom (or, less frequently, Dad) doesn’t mean “slave” in some foreign tongue. If you do always feel like a weary slave to your domestic environment, job or location, consider quitting, moving, downscaling and buying/owning fewer things that need care, feeding, dusting, polishing. Your only life is getting shorter by the minute.
Even if you don’t have kids, you likely have a kajillion other commitments, certainly in a lousy economy with little relief in sight. The word “no” is useful, short, easily said. You can still be a generous and giving person and carve out time for yourself. Do you really need everyone to rely on you being indispensable all the time — or could you, even a few nights a week, instead flop into bed at 9:00 pm. and enjoy a full eight hours’ sleep?
If you don’t take deliberate and consistent care of your own needs, whether for privacy, silence, worship, dawdling, doodling, canoodling, doing nothing, you’ll burn out and become a monster. No one likes a martyr.
Make a list, today, of 10 affordable, accessible activities (no, not Paris) that make you really, really happy. How often do you do them?