Arthritis? The Alps? August in April? Let’s Just Call It Aging

 

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for Flo Hart

Arthritis

I remember watching my dear friend Jimmy’s mother, Flo, scoot, literally, or squiggle, like a fish out of water, across the kitchen floor to travel from one cabinet to the next gathering what she needed to put dinner together. I offered to help, and she thanked me with her always beautiful demeanor, and said, “No, Anne, I’ve got it.”

She clubbed each item–a can, a bag, a pot, a pan–and then steadied  it between her two stiff hands, hustled her bum across the floor, and when she arrived near the kitchen chair, her destination, she set her treasure down, and scuttled to the next treasure trove.

I thought of mermaids as I watched her swish her way across the linoleum. But arthritis had drowned her fingers, wrists, her upper extremities, and mermaids get to keep those parts. She was lovely, near mythical in this teen-aged girl’s eyes. She smiled up at me.

When her cache was accumulated, she stationed herself close enough to the table to move, clubbing again, everything from chair to table top. Then, again with clubs, she heaved herself up, pushed her tightly wound fingers against the cushion. And once vertical? –well, sort of–she was ready to make dinner.

I will never forget the scene of this  mother of seven–all dear friends of my own siblings–move through this kitchen that I knew so well. It was a place where I had often sat to play cards, share a  sandwich, listen to music, laugh. Laugh! And now I watched Flo smile as she moved into a new, and foreign, stage of her life. And she did it with grace, not grimace. There was an acceptance there that stunned and humbled me.

As a young person watching such a life evolution occur before my eyes, I decided I would bear such fate, should it befall me–which was likely as my own mother had osteoarthritis, her sister had rheumotoid, etc.–with similar poise. I would be a mermaid.

mermaid

Mermaids

Well, one replaced hip later, I don’t recall the word “grace” ever being used as I limped my way through my early fifties. Toward the end of that four-year fiasco, before getting a brand new joint, thank you Affordable Care Act, I was in so much pain at night that I did my best to induce the mermaid spirit. To be like Flo. I finally succeeded. Let me explain.

I typically sleep with my right leg bent, so my legs make a number ‘4’, kind of.  However, my right hip joint was so deteriorated by hereditary osteoarthritis, that it would, unfortunately, get stuck in this position. Trying to release it from the apparent lock usually involved a bit more than a grimace, after it woke me up, and turned into an outright shriek, with a lot of non-sex-related heavy breathing I might add. I recovered and repositioned, and I don’t remember smiling. The ache accompanied me back to sleep.

Oh, bone spurs. That is what interrupted the simple movement in sleep, it was one of many that decorated the poor ragged top ball of my femur. “You should have seen them,” the surgeon’s assistant said post surgery. “No, thanks, I’m good,” I said. (But I do still have the bone they removed….ahhhhh, fodder for another post).

Surgery was still months away at this point, and I had to find comfort. I had to sleep. I’m an 8er. Eight hours a night, thank you very much.

The doctor prescribed a leg brace. This god-awful, awful contraption–certainly from a Medieval torture chamber–that covered my leg from ankle to thigh in heavy fabric and enough Velcro latches to keep a raging dog in place when facing a bloody rabbit was . . . well . . . awful! Yeah, so that ended up noisier and more uncomfortable than a locked hip joint and a moaning middle-aged woman.

And then I had an idea. Being one to wear pajama bottoms designed with an abundance of fabric–I like loose-fitting clothing–I realized that if I slipped both legs into one pajama leg, thereby still having room enough to move a bit, but within the confines of the pajama leg’s circumference, and with cloth of my preference (silk, satin, or at least cotton), and not the wretched prescribed sandpaper of the brace, I might be golden.

Voila! Mermaid AMM was born. Flo would have been proud. She probably watched from the heavenly above applauding. I slept peacefully right up until the day of surgery, doing my mermaid impersonation perfectly. Sans water or song. Just my eight hours.

Flo came to mind often as I worked toward grace and poise in the face of joint pain and discomfort. I know that surgery ultimately gave her relief in her later years. And me, too. Now, I hike like a goat!

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The Alps

Okay, I am not a mountain goat, nor do I hike like one, at all. But I do find myself engaging, new hip or not, in activities that require skills beyond my norm. In fact, I headed to the Swiss Alps on a group hiking trip last year, and people raised their eyebrows at me as if to say, “But what about your hip?” Or “As in hiking the Alps, Anne Marie?”

“Yes, yes,” I said. Dang, the hip is brand new! And it’s the least of my worries. I was going to be staying in dormitory-style lodging. With people. A lot of them! That took courage. Believe me.

“Yes, yes,” I said, I know I’m not a mountain goat, I’ll be fine.

And I was, and I hiked, or walked, long, steep (relatively), gorgeous trails and paths and roads, up and down and around the Alps greeting cows and late summer wildflower blooms like a Bernese Highland fairy goddess. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but I was smiling! And when the trails promised to be too narrow for two hikers to pass each other without one taking a deep dive into the never of never-never land, I took the lower route. With aplomb.

And when the “hike” required a bit of bouldering? Nah, I left that to the true mountain goat-style hikers, and there were several on the trip. What amazing, courageous athletes, they were, who all found that kind of personal, physical, and life, challenge very exciting.

As my friend Anne said, “I live for physical challenge.” And I cringed as I watched her and another hiker hug, with sheer 2,000 foot drops on either side of them, so they could pass each other on the trail. And not die.

Not me, I’m a dancer. I like studios. I like falling on purpose, and only as low as the floor. I like jumping and only as high as my leg is long. I’ve never been woo’ed by speed or height or steep; roller coasters or sky jumping or even horror flicks are definitely not my thing. I am such a wimp. But I’m a likeable wimp, damn it.

And I owe it all to Flo, who taught me to grimace with grace. Fix dinner with club hands if that is what the task required. Smile with generosity and couarge. Be who you are. And hug hard that person you’re passing, and make sure neither of you fall. Thanks, woman, here’s to you.

And as this post was supposed to have been posted months ago, here’s an already old poem.

Late Summer

Come August, and Sun grows tired.
An elder star who
just wants to go home now.
“Don’t forget my teeth,”
Sun calls to the caretaker
who goes back to the room
to grab the bags and sundries.
“I need my teeth,” Sun mumbles.

“Uh, there’s been a mistake,”
the caretaker reports suddenly
coming up behind Sun, taking
it by the elbow, the old star
has sweat across its forehead
and upper lip, so red
in the face. “What
now?”

“They need you for another—“
“Need me?” They don’t need
me, mumbles Sun shuffling
back to its sky-blue room,
stars and galaxies, moons
and movie stars painted
on the walls.

They don’t need me, Sun murmurs
and takes its place at the plate
glass window letting its tattered
robe, full of burn holes,
fall to its feet and showing
off light like fireworks
and incandescence
radiating from weary
but wily shoulders
and ear lobes.

“One more month,
that is it!” Sun grumbles.

“Grumpy,” the caretaker
says, lighting a cigarette
from the tips of Sun’s
crooked knuckles.
“That’s what you said
last month.”

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Photo of hands by ian dooley on Unsplash; photo of the goat by wolfgang-hasselmann on Unsplash; photo of mermaid building art and sunset in Cottonwood by me.

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