by Willem Lange
EAST MONTPELIER – The other day – a bluebird day if ever there was one: temperature in the seventies; bright blue sky, robins on the lawn, coltsfoot rioting along the driveway – I shuffled tentatively across the newly mud-free yard to the barnlike garage where the cars have been spending the winter. My son-in-law, Todd, showed up. We pulled the waterproof shroud off Helga and rolled it up. Todd stowed it away in the attic and hooked up her battery, while I removed the so-called Mouse Ball rodent repellers from the trunk, under the hood, and the cup holder between the seats.
The moment had arrived for three tests. The first – could I still manage to get into the low-to-the-ground car? – showed me no less nimble (which is not very) than last year. The second – would she start? – was easy. She’s German. After a few hiccups, she settled into her usual let’s-go rumble. The third – had my broken arm healed enough to shift gears? – was a little less certain. I had a horrible vision of stopping in front of a parking spot near Capitol Grounds on State Street, holding up cars behind me, and being unable to shift into reverse, which in that old roadster version of my car takes a little muscle. So I tried it in the garage, and it went right in. I’m a little German, too, I guess. Off we went for coffee.
During the short, dark days from late January to early March, I was able to keep up my weekly column from my bed in the hospital and then the nursing home through the kindness of my younger daughter, Martha, who took my dictation with her laptop open in front of her. Later I wore a cast that made it almost impossible to type; then a friendlier one. Finally the arm, or what’s left of it, is free.
I’ve been given to understand that we elderly folks heal more slowly from our injuries than do youngsters. I guess that’s true; so I’ve been sort of checking my progress against my normal expectations. I’ve got a trip in my near future, 12 days away, to host a tour of the Rhone Valley from Chamonix to the Camargue. You can do that sort of thing in a wheelchair if you have to (ask me how I know), but it’s a damn sight easier if you can ambulate along with your fellow tourists. So I’ve been working on it.
The biggest impediment to healing, I think, is often not the injury itself, but the enforced immobility afterward. Six weeks off my feet, even with the regular efforts of the physical therapist, pretty much ruined my legs. Even having been free to exercise at home for several weeks now, I still walk like a Hollywood zombie, and Herschel, my walker, has been a necessary pal to have around. It’s about time to start walking the hills of Hubbard Park again. There’s a little terrier right behind me as I write who’d like that a lot.
But the fascinating part for me has been the progress of my right arm – before its fracture, my cane arm. Trammeled since late January in a ninety-degree splint and then the fiberglass casts, and repaired a second time after the first surgery failed, it’s been a source of some anxiety. The cast finally came off at the end of March, replaced by an infernal orthopedic device that hurt most of the time, left bruises, seemed more trouble than it was worth, and, frankly, played hell with my social life.
In the absence of the brace, I’ve been carefully monitoring the arm’s expanding abilities. It’s been pretty much useless for tasks which have required it to bend more than ninety degrees: buttoning shirts above the sternum level, brushing my teeth, combing my hair, scratching my nose, putting in the right-side hearing aid, using a fork, or drinking from a cup. But every day is bringing new wonders. I’m one hole higher on the shirt buttons, back to brushing my teeth with my right hand (flossing still in the future), and this week, as Kiki and I were saying grace, which is our custom, over her evening meal, I discovered to my delight that I can once again cross myself like a high Episcopalian. Kiki has seemed quite unimpressed.
Common household tasks that once were only a pain in the neck become, with advancing age, challenges. Putting a fitted sheet on a queen-size bed, carrying the recyclables out to the garage and the compostables out to the tumbler, and tomorrow morning loading the summer tires into Hagar all require some prior thought and planning, noticeable effort, and considerable care to avoid stumbling and falling. Listening to young newscasters refer to our current crop of geriatric presidential candidates as over the hill at only 80 is painful. It’s a gift to be over 80 and in charge of most of your faculties, able to do laundry, and carry on a (shall we say) mature romance. The broken bones are just that – the breaks – and the time they require for healing are time well spent contemplating what gifts we’ve received and still preserve.