Friday, July 18, 2014


Iola and I have been reading an illustrated, abridged version of Alice in Wonderland. It misses out many of the weird hallucinatory sections I half-remember reading to Maya while she coasted on morphine during a long ambulance ride through the New Mexico desert, and it seems to linger instead upon details from Iola's own life: an older sister, a frustrated rabbit, a series of brightly colored mushrooms, a set of playing cards which are impossible to shuffle.

I'm probably not in the best position to give my children advice on staying safe, but I gave Iola a big talk on never eating mushrooms (she looked relieved, she doesn't even like mushrooms on pizza) or berries, or things she finds in the woods, or anything past it's sell-by date, or take-away chicken, or candy from strangers... Several minutes after her eyes started to glaze over I realized I'd fallen back into the rut I've occupied these past few weeks where everything seems to represent a risk. Iola's tactic is to quietly stop listening (you can tell she's not listening from the way her eyes become a slightly glassy shade of blue, and then close). Maya has developed a different strategy. A few evenings ago, I gave her a pep talk about walking down the lane to visit friends - 'Have fun, but keep to the left, and stop if cars come towards you... Don't walk on the verge because there might be poison ivy, and if you see a bear make lots of noise, and telephone me when you get there, and if you see any power cables down you absolutely must not touch them.. and you mustn't touch fallen branches in case they are attached to fallen power cables and ...'
'Mum', she interrupted, 'Do you know this song?' And she gave a fair rendition of Tom Petty's 'Learning to Fly': "I'm learning to fly, but I ain't got wings; coming down is the hardest thing." Damn right, Tom. Damn right.

So, after the warnings provided Iola with the excuse to never even try a cooked mushroom for the rest of her life, we went out for a walk in the woods to see how many types of mushroom we could find. For the record, I stopped counting at 16.


Hunting for mushrooms was good physical therapy because it made me have to try and look at my feet - not easy with several inches of metal sticking vertically through my neck. Iola wandered along in her own little Alice-in-Wonderland fantasy land and Maya found new routes through the trees. Scared of missing something, the dog tended to stand on each mushroom just after I'd photographed it; Nathan, I suspect, had a slight unspoken sense of disappointment that we didn't find chanterelles (the only kind of mushroom we felt able to safely recognize).

Afterwards, having found no March Hares, Dodos, Mad Hatters or Cheshire Cats, we collected up a large bag of trash left by day-trippers who had stopped on their way to or from the State Park and emptied their Dunkin' Donut coffee cups and beer bottles and yoghurt cartons onto the grass. If I saw them I would be all for chasing them with a rolling pin, but Iola prefers to be Queen. As she would say, 'Off with their heads!'

Friday, July 11, 2014


"It will take time to heal," they say - all of them. The therapists, the doctors and the nursing staff; the hospital rector, concerned relatives and wise friends. "Just give it time." And those who know me, already know that I'm not good at this.

On my 40th birthday, I went for a run around Central Park in New York City. I was feeling fit, feeling good. Nathan and I found our pace and loped around the reservoir. We started overtaking people: I'm not normally competitive and I'm not going to make false claims about overtaking 'proper' runners, but I started focusing on the person ahead and trying to run past them. It felt satisfying - I may have just turned 40, but watch me run! Just after overtaking an elderly man with lean sinewy legs and shiny running shorts, something popped in my left calf. There was no question of running through the pain: I couldn't walk a step without wincing in agony. With Nathan's support, I began hobbling back towards the hotel. The elderly man overtook us once, ran another circuit of the reservoir, and overtook us again. He smiled at me the second time, and I thought of Aesop's fable about the tortoise and the hare.

Now I'm 41, and the possibility of even hobbling around the reservoir in Central Park is far beyond me. Car journeys exhaust me, short walks exhaust me, sitting in a chair on the veranda exhausts me. Worried that something might be wrong, I telephoned my physical therapist. There was a long pause after I explained my concerns about my fitness:  did I understand the extent of my surgery, she asked. Did I comprehend that it would take at least 12 weeks for the bone to have healed 80%? This was not a straightforward fracture, but a complex fusing of 4 vertebrae. No, she said, she would not give me more exercises to do. I needed to give myself time to heal.

This morning, I took my usual stroll around our woods with Nathan and the dog. The cat decided to join us as well. Ed is a a large overweight cat, built more for comfort than speed. He likes food and belly rubs and sleeping. Refusing to hurry, Ed followed us; miaowing loudly if we moved too far ahead. We soon began to move at his pace, pausing now and again to look at the sun filtering through the trees, the light dancing on the river, the color of the different mushrooms growing on the forest floor. Slow and steady as the elderly man in the shiny running shorts, Ed seemed to be demanding that I take my time, that I slow down and notice the world around me. He's sitting on my bed now, watching me, and waiting for me to sit down beside him. I can't help thinking he's trying to teach me a lesson too!

Sunday, July 6, 2014


F. Scott Fitzgerald said, 'The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.' I make no claims to a first-rate intelligence but, since the accident, my life has been a complex balance of two opposing world views.

On the one hand, I am grateful. I am grateful in ways I have never previously experienced gratitude. I am grateful to be able to move, to get up by myself, to walk around the house and gardens; I am grateful to be able to switch on my computer and check my emails without being dependent upon someone else; I am grateful to feel the warmth of my daughters' hugs and the weight of my kittens when they curl, purring, in my lap. If ever there was a time for thanksgiving, these past few weeks have been it.

Slightly more than two weeks ago, I spent many hours strapped to a board in a trauma unit in Burlington, Vermont, as news of my injuries gradually filtered back from doctors. There had been endless x-rays and CT scans and, initially, discussions covered all my various injuries - the lacerations across my head, my possibly fractured left elbow, the pain across my right hip and pelvis. But the second CT scan of my upper spine changed the debate. Iola and Maya love playing a card game called 'Top Trumps'. The sets of cards might be animals from the rainforest, or characters from movies - say, Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings - or superheroes (and I can't write this without acknowledging the irony that the first result in my Google image search for Top Trumps produced Superman. Christopher Reeves broke his first and second vertebrae, whereas I only smashed my 6th and 7th. I was lucky). Each top trumps card has a quantified score for a range of categories. In terms of my injury, the spinal fractures top-trumped all my other injuries.

Being strapped to a board: for 18 hours is surreal: I stared upwards at the same small square of ceiling and, occasionally, faces appeared in the tiny square of my vision. One of those faces, in the early hours of Friday morning, was a youthful looking orthopedic surgeon with very blue eyes.
'You've broken two vertebrae in your neck,' he stated.
I knew this - a nurse had already told me. Vertebrae - little bones - not like breaking a femur, I thought. Not like breaking something big. I had imagined I would need to wear a collar for a few weeks and everything would fuse back where it should be. I tried to nod, realized I couldn't, and mouthed the word 'yes'.
'So, we're going to operate today. We need to stabilize things. We're going to fuse the 4 vertebrae - C5 to T1 - together, insert steel pins and screw these into the bone.'
I think I said something very foolish, such as 'Are you sure?' or 'Is that a good idea?' or 'Will I still be able to do yoga?' In fairness, I had been lying on my back hoping the pain would soon stop and I would be allowed to go home, while the surgeon had been looking at x-rays and CT scans and wondering how his team could put me back together without paralyzing me.
'What are the risks of the operation?' I asked, trying to sound grown-up, trying to sound in control of what was happening, as though this was all familiar to me, as though this discussion was nothing more than a confidence trick where, if I said the right thing, the prognosis would miraculously change. I expected the surgeon to say something about infection or the risks of general anesthetic.
'If the spinal cord is damaged,' the blue-eyed surgeon said, 'you'll probably retain some sensation and movement in your upper shoulders.'
'My shoulders?' The words dripped slowly into my consciousness as though a tap was leaking somewhere. 'I'd be quadraplegic?' And the words twisted around my mind so that I was thinking about The Who and Quadrophenia and wondering if I'd used the right word, while the doctor told me that was a real risk.

That day was harder on Nathan than me. When he visited later that morning, he had to sign the forms on my behalf because my hands didn't work. He had to acknowledge my awareness of the risk I might become paralyzed; he had to talk through every possible detail while we drafted a living will together. I only had to stare at my tiny square of ceiling, while he had to take in the entire picture and then live out the long hours of the operation later that day while I was unconscious.

And, I am grateful. Grateful in ways I never imagined, grateful for things I have previously always taken for granted. And, on the other hand, I am also frustrated and cross and in pain. I am unable to unpack the boxes in our new home, unable to climb the mountain, unable to throw the ball for the dog or split wood or knead bread. It is quite possible I will never be able to ride my bike again because of the stress it would put upon my neck. It is likely that I won't know for another year whether the nerve damage pain in my hands will resolve itself, or whether I will just have to learn to live with the pain.

But, to return to Fitzgerald, I don't have a first-rate intelligence, I am no genius, and the two perspectives can't successfully coexist in my mind. Writing this, I realize how small a thing my frustrations are, because really I am just very, very grateful. And that thought top-trumps everything else.