Tonight I’m contemplating my relationship with gravity, trying to reconcile my gratitude, anger and fear.
Years ago, before I understood its special hold on me, I loved the poster my colleague had on her office door: a picture of an apple in mid-air, with the caption, “Gravity. It’s not just a good idea. It’s the law.” So despite the havoc it’s wreaked on my life, I have a grudging respect for gravity, an uncertain gratitude. It does, after all, keep me pinned to this earth, so I don’t go flying off the planet.
But in some ways it weighs on me, so to speak, more than on most people. That’s the nature of degenerative disc disease. If it weren’t for gravity, the accelerated pace of my discs’ desiccation wouldn’t matter. But gravity pushes down, pressing together disc material, bone, nerve root.
And yes, last month gravity did keep all those nice shiny surgical instruments right there on the instrument tray where they belonged, until they were used to cut into me, pry apart three more vertebrae, wedge between them the tiny carbon fiber cages filled with a mixture of a special bone protein and my own ground up bone – parts of my vertebrae rendered redundant by my new hardware. Once all that was in place to my surgeon’s satisfaction, he positioned two rods to span the hardware and vertebrae, then screwed it all into place. This was my 15th surgery, the eighth on my spine. It was my fourth spinal fusion, bringing the total of my fused vertebrae to 18. This is how my surgeon, Dr. Gorek, and I combat gravity’s effect on my body. I love my hardware.
For months post-op, I’m forbidden the “BLT:” bend, lift, twist. So if I’m alone for any period of time, the floor begins to look like we suffered our own private gravity attack. Anything that falls to the floor, stays on the floor — especially if it’s the reacher-grabber — until I can teach Zephyr, my service-puppy-in-training, to pick it up. So far, I’ve only taught him to pick up and bring me his toys. But I can’t expect more yet; after all, he’s still just a puppy: a joyous, affectionate, exuberant 55-pound puppy.
He’s getting it – I don’t bend – so now he puts his toys in my hand, only to be frustrated that I don’t play tug anymore, either.
But I have great plans for him: he is my future Room Service Dog. Just one tap of the paw to turn on the coffee pot!
Today, Zephyr hoovered off the floor a sharp piece of plastic, and I was trying to get to him before he swallowed it, when he nimbly turned back toward me and I went tumbling over him, landing in a heap on the kitchen floor, not quite a month after my surgery.
I landed on my side, up against a kitchen cabinet, one bedroom slipper on the counter. Zephyr, always eager and now a little worried, brought me the other slipper; a new skill!
I hate falling. Peripheral neuropathy has left me with limited sensation and motor control in my legs and feet, so I fall often. There’s always this suspended moment when I’m in mid-air, panicking about what the impact will be – literally and figuratively. How much of a setback will this fall be? What will be the long-term repercussions? And once I’ve landed with a thud and an explosion of pain: Is all my hardware still in place, or did I dislodge it? How bad is this injury? How will I manage this one?
It’s bad enough that I’m in pain so often, and that I’m so limited and dependent. But on top of that, just when I least expect it, gravity — damn invisible gravity — dumps me unceremoniously onto the nearest flat surface.
I hate being at gravity’s mercy. I hate the feeling that more pain is lurking, that the other shoe is waiting to drop. It makes me scared and hypervigilant and tentative and vulnerable and did I mention scared? all at once. All those feelings bubble and churn underneath my determined coping. But fear is the big one, suffusing everything, roaring out of me looking and sounding just like anger.
There I was on the kitchen floor with Zephyr, with him nudging me, and pawing me, and licking my ears and face and glasses so they became as smeared on the outside as they were on the inside from my tears. Finally he stretched out on the floor next to me and we snuggled for a few minutes. I had just washed him, so his fur was silky and smooth. He did that cute thing he does when he’s reveling in being petted, stretching his whole body out, pawing the air as if he’s swimming, then rolling onto his back and folding his paws in the air, grinning.
Whenever I fall, I stay down until I’m sure the shock has passed; Zephyr seemed to understand, and stayed down with me. But because I’m not fused into a single, flat plane, it hurts to be on a completely flat, hard surface for very long. After 20 minutes or so I was crawling across the kitchen floor to my recliner, when Britta, our Friendly Neighborhood Godsend With A House Key showed up and got me water, pain meds and ice packs, and let Zephyr out.
It’s not like Britta was just hanging around, waiting for my call. She was out at the big July 4th sale at Annie’s Annuals, the huge plant nursery, in the check-out line. She apologetically skipped ahead of the long holiday line, threw the plants in her car, and practically galloped over to my house.
Britta is a tall, big-boned, garrulous woman who exudes pragmatic competence. She started working for me when I had pneumonia in 2016, and as often happens, we gradually blurred the line between personal care assistant and friend. My all-time favorite kind of person to pick me up off the floor; I’m a lucky woman.
I also get to be grateful that today I was wearing pants with a pocket, so I had my phone with me and could even call her. The most reliable person in the world can’t help me if I can’t call her. It makes me want to ditch all my pocketless yoga pants.
Every day, I’ve hated my back brace with a passion. My skin gets so clammy under the brace, my t-shirts all have sweat stains at the back where they get sandwiched between skin and brace. I hate being so soggy all day. But today, my brace-hate has turned to unbounded gratitude, because the damn thing did protect me when I fell.
Still, there I was, down on the floor. Clearly I need to figure out how to make a truce with gravity. My anger is beyond ridiculous, and my fear, while justifiable, is a counter-productive distraction from the moment-to-moment work of staying on my feet.
Obviously, gravity laughs last. I will not contain, much less control, such a persistent, ubiquitous, powerful force.
Zephyr will help: when he is fully grown, he’ll be gravity’s intermediary: his job will be to brace on command to keep me from losing my balance, and to be a strong, stable entity to break my fall when gravity wins; he’ll be a help, rather than a trip hazard.
I find it impossible to feel gratitude when I’m scared or angry. Gratitude has more to offer me, and I feel deeply my gratitude for my brace, my dog, Britta, my surgeon. I understand that my relationship with gravity is volatile, and when she again slaps me to the ground hard, I will land with 100% recidivism back in fear and anger.
But for now, I’ll stick with gratitude, for as long as I can.