Monday, September 06, 2004

Beeting Pain
The call came at work during a transcendently superficial moment, a moment so shallow that it could only happen during work: I was smiling politely at a co-worker and feigning interest in her lunch plans when my pants began to ring. Normally when my pants ring it's because there's a phone in them and this was no exception. "I beg your pardon," I said. "My pants appear to be ringing. Good luck with that cheese sandwich." This was one time I was willing to make an exception to my rule about not letting technology interrupt the flow of life, an exception I punctuated by making air-high-fives and power salutes and signs of the cross and -- for some reason -- "we're number one," once I'd turned the corner.

I punched the key with a little picture of a phone on my phone and said "Hey."

It was Mary, which I already knew because the display said "Mary." Actually it said my secret pet name for her, which I'm not willing to divulge here, so let's call her "Mary," which is her real name.

This was the Mary who is my wife. Not the Mary who is my sister. Or the Mary who is my aunt. Or the Mary who is my mother-in-law. Or the Mary who was my grandmother. What can I say? We are a Catholic family. (Well, I'm a recovering Catholic. But that's a different story.)

I sensed something was wrong so I only did two or three more "we're number ones" once I'd said hello. I was right. "It's your mom," she said.

"You're not my mom," I thought. "You're Mary." Thinking, of course, the secret pet name, not "Mary;" I never call her Mary. But I said, "What is it?"

She nobly resisted the urge to speak a line from Airplane!, so I knew something was amiss. She said, "She fell last night. Berdean called. She's at the hospital. She said not to come until they know what's going on. But it's her back. She's in a lot of pain."

Immediately I blamed myself. Somewhere along the way, despite my constant vigilance, I must've stepped on a crack.

"How did she get to the hospital?" I asked.

"Berdean called 911."

"It must be bad. I should go."

"Berdean said she'd call after they take X-rays."

Mom lives alone. Berdean is her best friend, the kind of best friend who comes over and rescues you when you fall in the middle of the night. They live 80 miles from me and my sister Mary, in a mythical little village in Indiana called Huntingburg. It's the kind of place you slip into, like a pair of old tennis shoes. It's also the kind of place you discard, like a pair of old tennis shoes.

"I gave her your cell phone number," said Mary. "She'll call you as soon as she knows more."

So for a couple of hours I racked my brain, trying to think of when I stepped on a crack. Finally I talked to Berdean, who told me it was a "compression fracture" in two of Mom's vertebrae. She said I could talk to Mom.

"Mom, what happened?" I said.

"Zhi zell zyah zallzhay," Mom said. They'd given her quite a lot of morphine, which left her loopy and me jealous. "Zhym zheeing the zyorthopedic zhurjun zhoon."

I took this to mean, "I fell in the hallway" and "I'm seeing the orthopedic surgeon soon." Or perhaps, "How about those Cubs?" Either way, it was disturbing. I said I could be there in a few hours.

"Don't do that," she said, or quite possibly, "Please come." Then she said, "There's nothing you can do. They've got me stabilized. Hey, look! It's Topo Gigio! And he's spinning plates!" Again, I felt a pang of envy.

We agreed to wait to hear what the doctor said and that she'd look the other way if I swiped a couple of whatever prescription drugs they gave her. (Well, excuse me. It just seemed like a good time to get a commitment.) Over the next 24 hours, her morphine wore off and the picture of what happened began to emerge: Mom fell in the hallway for no reason at all. She didn't slip or stumble or swoon or trip or step on a banana peel or get tripped by al Qaeda. In her words, "I just fell on me arse." (Morphine tends to bring out the Celtic in her.) She suffered two compression fractures. She's looking at 6-8 weeks of physical therapy and three years of aggressive anti-osteoporosis treatments. All without Topo Gigio because they switched her to Vioxx, which has no pleasant side effects.

At the hospital, I watched while Mom did her physical therapy. She was very brave. Theresa, the physical therapist who missed her calling as a Gestapo officer, instructed Mom to pretend she was a log and then to roll over. Apparently, becoming stiff and log-like makes it less painful to roll over. Mom pointed out that logs don't roll themselves and asked Theresa to do it. "Nein!" snapped Theresa. Mom rolled brilliantly. She's always responded well to nazi tactics.

Bravely, Mom sat up and eventually stood up, with Theresa's help. The next day she walked down the hall, which was a major step toward eventual dismissal from the hospital because not only did it demonstrate progress in her healing but it reminded her how creepy hospitals can be. After a couple of meals of hospital food, I figured Mom would be doing cartwheels in order to prove she was well enough to go home. God help the hospital worker serving food to a former dietician.

In the meantime, Mary (the sister) brought her books on tape and supplies from home and some movies to make Mom's stay less tedious. She even smuggled in some decent food.

Mom's doing fine now. She's back home and with continuing physical therapy, she'll be good as new in a few weeks. But the whole episode is a stark reminder of how fragile life is. How you can get hurt badly just walking down the hall. How mortality can be lurking around every corner. How aging is as inevitable as overcooked beets on a hospital dining tray.

To her credit, Mom never complained about aging or life's fragile nature. She never whined about fear or pain or mortality. She's been a trooper through and through. Just don't get her started on the beets.

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