Lessons from Three Months in a Wheelchair

chair-89156_1280Today I got my doctor’s blessing to do what I haven’t been able to do for three months: walk.

Being sidelined because of a cracked tibia – the result of a freakish accident in late July – has taught me a few things. One is a new appreciation and respect for what permanently disabled people go through every day, and a determination to never again take the gift of mobility for granted. The other is profound gratitude for my family and friends because I could not have survived this without them.

I’d gone 60 years without breaking anything, so I guess my turn had come. My husband Bob and I were doing nothing more daring than wading in the Pacific Ocean, on a rare jungle-humid day in California, where we were visiting family. The sea was a delightful 76 degrees, so delightful that we never noticed how rough it was. A rogue wave broke just where we were standing, knocking us both over. A white-hot blade of pain shot through my knee, and after Bob and our son John helped me out of the water I realized that I could not walk.

Paramedics carried my off the beach on a stretcher, and the emergency room diagnosed a plateau fracture on the top of the left tibia. As I lay in the curtained-off exam room, uncomfortable in my pain and in a clammy, sand-packed bathing suit, I had no idea what was ahead. The next 24 hours were spent in an oxycodone-induced fog, then nausea that guaranteed I’d never touch oxycodone again.

Flew home to Boston two days later in a splint and met with an orthopedist soon afterwards. A surgery date was set. But then, I lost my balance while standing on crutches and also fractured my left wrist. So my entire left side was knocked out, my useless arm was in a cast for six weeks.

Recovery from my August 6 tibial surgery required 12 non-weight-bearing weeks, nearly all of it spent in a very uncomfortable “Bledsoe” brace that I cursed every day. On those hot days in August and September, my left arm itched and my bandaged leg swelled angrily against its unyielding cage.

It was pretty miserable.

So was canceling a planned once-in-a-lifetime trip (a cooking class in Italy), giving away the Moody Blues concert tickets, postponing the trip to see Bob’s cousins in New York. Even visits to friends’ homes were ruled out because they were not accessible. I couldn’t take my daily walks, or go to Mass or to Wegman’s with my mom, drive my teenaged son John around. On hot days I could only watch while family members enjoyed the backyard pool. While I tried hard not to complain or take it out on anyone, at times I really felt sorry for myself.

Yet believe it or not there were unexpected blessings from being sidelined, and new insights that I won’t forget. So here are the things I’m grateful for:

Family. This injury was hard on my husband, children, mother and siblings, too. They had to be personal care assistants, cooks, housekeepers, drivers, psychologists. I probably made it worse by feeling angry that I had to lean on them so much and reluctant to ask for things. I always tended to be the one “in charge” of the house, but I had to learn to let go and let them help. My mom holding my hand as I lay in pain the day after the injury; the attention and care from my in-laws as we awaited our plane ride home; the surprise visit from my West Coast daughter Rachel on Labor Day; my sisters, brother, sister-in-law and stepchildren cheerfully preparing meals in the kitchen; my husband tenderly helping me hobble to the bathroom; my son pushing the wheelchair outside so I could get fresh air…I am in awe of what they did for me.

New friends. Donna, a woman who lives in my town, heard of my predicament and lent us a wheelchair and ramp. Despite being in pain from rheumatoid arthritis and other problems, my roommate Bev in the rehab center always cheered me up. I’ll always remember watching the Sox and passing candy and other goodies back and forth to each other from our hospital beds. My daughter’s friend Ramy, a gifted hairstylist, cut and colored my hair over the kitchen sink.

Old friends. I never realized how uplifting a simple visit or phone call could be. My friends brought meals, comfortable clothes, candy, books, gossip. They took me out to lunch, brought coffee, drove to doctor’s appointments, drove John home from school activities. When they couldn’t visit, they called, Facetimed, sent cards. They have inspired me to be a better friend.

Great Doctors and Nurses. The best ones made me laugh and feel hopeful, including my anesthesiologist, who sang me to sleep before surgery with the “Gilligan’s Island” theme song. In rehab, cheerful Liberian nurses and assistants brought me my morning coffee at 6:30 a.m., washed my hair, sang songs and doled out smiles.

A new ability to laugh at myself. Word traveled fast around social media about my troubles, and amusingly, so did the misconceptions. A few people commented, emailed or called to talk about my “surfing accident.” I had to laugh ruefully and set them straight: my injuries were not the result of any daredevil activities or extreme sports. In characteristic klutz fashion, I hurt my leg while wading and my wrist while standing. But being able to laugh at this absurdity was very freeing.

Thoughtful gestures. A business colleague and friend sent an “igloo” machine that coddled my bum knee with a flow of ice water. My sister-in-law Erica brought clothes to the ER to replace my ruined bathing suit;  sister-in-law Linda sent photos and souvenirs from  the trip to Italy that I never got to take. My friend Susan brought a long skirt to me in rehab, telling me from experience that it will be easier to wear than pants. She was right.

Small victories. Moving from the bedpan to the bathroom; weaning off the painkillers; being able to open a jar with my left hand again; showering by myself. All felt exhilarating.

Things look different now that I’m up from the wheelchair and hobbling around.  It will be a while before I’m back to where I was. Some people say it takes at least a year — but I was lucky that it was not worse.  Now, as I push a walker, my injured leg balking mightily at being pushed back into service, I know that I’ll never see things the same way. A freak accident handed me a three-month vacation from most of life’s demands, and being on the sidelines was painful and frustrating at times. Yet it provided breathing room to marvel at the capacity for human caring, to reflect on my blessings, to think about ways I can care more and help others heal. That’s not totally a bad thing.

Excuse Me While I Wine a Bit

I gave up wine more than a month ago, just before all those great studies that announced how great it is for you and how you should have at least a glass a day for optimum health. Red wine is just part of the alchemy – along with fruits, veggies, olive oil and fish – that is part of the Mediterranean diet. A glass each day promises to make you as sturdy, robust and long-lived as a Greek goatherd.

So why would I give it up? The reason is simple: it doesn’t do for me what it is supposed to. For starters, once a bottle is open it is very difficult to stick to just one glass like the Mediterranean diet recommends. The liquid left in the bottle beckons. My Italian grandfathers could drink anyone under the table and heartily indulged in heavily fortified homemade wine from unmarked bottles. The Velazquez painting here shows what I feel like after more than one glass.
Wine also toys cruelly with my sleeping patterns, making me sleepy enough to zonk out on the couch during Law and Order-SVU, then waking me at 2 a.m. It toys with my judgment…after a glass or two I feel invincible enough to attack the junk food cabinet, convinced that nothing I consume will matter and that my body will take pity on me since I am too buzzed to be responsible for myself. After a few weeks of daily wine drinking I feel like these gals.
Peter-Paul-Rubens-xx-The Three Graces-xx-Prado

Finally, wine toys with my moods, making me feel as sunny as the Sardinian coast, then stupid as a tottering mountain goat, and finally – after a few days – like this:
Van der Weyden_high
For all of the above reasons – plus the fact that my husband decided to go on a diet six weeks ago – I gave up my daily ritual of pouring a glass of wine (or more) just before dinner. Now I brew tea. It’s not the same. For Twilight fans, it’s the equivalent of the Cullen family preying on animals instead of humans. Or for carnivores, giving up animals for vegetables.

Tea is pinched and disciplined; wine is florid and impulsive. Tea is Downton Abbey’s dowager countess; wine is a young Sophia Loren in a peasant dress. The ritual of setting on the kettle and listening for the whistle is pleasant and relaxing, but can’t compare to uncorking a bottle of Viognier or Brunello. The Zen of Celestial Seasonings will never replace memories of wild nights spent with Robert Mondavi. Going without wine – especially when it’s one of the few vices that has been touted as so good for you – feels like missing the bus that took all your friends somewhere fun. Yet my moods are better and I think more clearly if it’s just an occasional treat rather than a lifestyle, and my husband feels the same.

So now I save wine for special occasions. Those include restaurant meals, dinner at a friend’s or relative’s house, dinners when friends and relatives come to our house, holidays like Christmas and Easter — and what the hell — the ramp-up days before and denouements after, Groundhog Day, Arbor Day, Martin Van Buren’s birthday, etc., etc.

Have any of you had to give up wine? How did it make you feel?

Dad’s New Bride: Companion or Gold-Digger?

It's natural to worry about an inheritance when an older parent remarries, even when the new spouse is closer in age than Anna Nicole Smith, 26, was to Howard Marshall, 89, who died a year after they wed. Smith tried for a hefty share of her late husband's estate.

Angela, a middle-aged owner of a small business, heard recently that her 89-year-old father Charles was getting married to Mary, his 78-year-old girlfriend.  Angela’s reaction? While genuinely happy for her dad, she also felt fear, because she was worried that her inheritance was in jeopardy.

A few weeks ago I asked Sandwich Lady readers to send in their stories about aging parents’ remarriages.  A few shared very frank thoughts about their mixed feelings.  It took years for Marilyn, one reader, to come to terms with her dad’s four marriages.  Another reader, VeggieSandwichGeneration, wrote that “There was a new woman in our space and she struggled to let us into what she didn’t realize, or didn’t care, had been our space prior to that.”

“I think in our heart of hearts we all want the best for our parents, just as parents want for their children,” wrote Amy, whose dad married her mother’s best friend. “It is when the things that our parents find to be best for them are different from that picture of the ideal, engrained into us from childhood, that it is difficult to know how to proceed with the new course of things.”

Along with gathering these insights from Sandwich Lady readers I also have spoken informally to some friends and acquaintances whose parents remarried at a late age. One is Angela, who was brave enough to wander into dangerous territory and talk about money if I disguised her name.  I suspect many other midlife children secretly worry about their inheritance  — and feel a lot of shame about it afterwards — when their parents take another spouse late in life.

Angela, who is childless and never married, said that Charles began dating his girlfriend Mary just five months after the death of his wife.  “Dad told me when Mom died that he was going to go downhill,” Angela recalled.  But less than half a year later, he was dating again.

Her octogenarian dad changed from dejected to dashing, and Angela was genuinely happy to see Charles have a new zest for life.  Charles and Mary moved in together, and the couple began traveling and socializing with friends. “I couldn’t have thought of anybody who was more perfect for my dad,” Angela said. “She even was a better companion to him than my mom in some ways.”

But when Charles announced in January he and Mary would be getting married (“I’m afraid of what the neighbors think about us living together,” he confided to his daughter), some unwelcome thoughts began to bubble up in Angela’s mind.  As she put it:  “I really do need an inheritance.  I’ve been single all my life.  Dad knows this and I am hoping he will still take care of me.”

Angela grew even more concerned when she asked her father when he and Mary would tie the knot, and he said, “I don’t know…I have to complete some legal work first.”  She was hoping that he was talking about a pre-nuptial agreement but can’t be sure.  To make matters worse, Charles refused to elaborate.

Charles has never been upfront about his finances, even when he was married to Angela’s mother.  The mother controlled most of the money and didn’t share much information either. “My parents would never discuss money when we were growing up,” Angela recalls.  “We didn’t know if we were poor or rich.  They held their cards so close to the chest.”

Mary has children of her own, as well as property that she acquired during her first marriage.  Angela is guessing that a pre-nup would benefit Mary as well.  But nobody is talking and she can’t be sure.

Many might argue that aging parents have the right to spend all of their money if they so choose, and nobody should rely on an inheritance as a financial lifeboat.  Even a few older people embrace this idea – look at the thousands of bumper stickers that announce, “I’m spending my children’s inheritance.” I remember one acquaintance who once told everyone that “When I die, I want to have just enough money to pay the guy who shovels the last shovel of dirt.”

Yet I can’t help but feel sad for Angela, who has struggled to build something for herself without a husband and was counting on an inheritance.  She is not unlike the aging spouse who gets jettisoned for a trophy wife, but without any divorce laws that provide for her.  I think that Charles should at least share his plans with her so she can know where she stands.

Many midlife people worry about leaving something to their children, especially in an era when young people are having such a hard time amassing wealth of their own.  Estate lawyers get very rich showing us how to preserve as much as our nest egg as possible for our heirs. And I suspect nearly every middle-aged person also wonders how much their parents are leaving them in their will, even if they never bring it up.

Of course, unforeseen circumstances can eat away at an inheritance:  a costly illness, a nursing home stay, tax code changes, a weakened Social Security system that requires that older people draw down more of their own savings just to get by.  And yes, a new spouse can be one of those unknowns as well.  So can an aging parent’s preference to enjoy more of their hard-earned money.

Angela says she is happy that Charles has found love again, and feels a lot of “shame and guilt” when she worries about her inheritance.  Still, she can’t help worrying and Charles’ silence is not helping.

I think that the baby boomers need to start the difficult conversation about inheritances.  We need to share our own estate plans with our kids (indeed, we need to HAVE a plan first..How many of us don’t?)  Aging parents need to be up-front about what their heirs can expect, even if it means being frank about their plans to spend all their money, as is their right.  And all parties should bear in mind that there are no guarantees.