(For Andre Dubus)
I am fourteen years old. I am not a good skier. And yet there I am facing a nameless closed trail that snakes along a ski path named Devil’s Playground. The trail runs through a forest and I know it’s closed because there is a row of ski poles blocking the entrance to the path. If you want to ski on this trail you must push by these poles, something you do not have to do when a trail is open. There is also a sign by the entrance to the trail that says, “closed.”
I ski down the trail with my friend Aaron and my inability to turn well, much less with confidence is immediately exposed. There are an endless number of trees to get around and as it is not something I am able to with any ease, I ski real slow, I loop as widely as I can around the trees before me, and I focus on one thing, and one thing only – staying on my feet during each poorly executed turn.
Falling seems inevitable, but I do not fall during the run and flush with success and windburn, I decide to join Aaron for one more run. We slide off the ski lift and easily part the wall of ski poles blocking our path. Aaron is off like a shot and immediately out of sight. I begin my lumbering run around the trees, leaning left, then right, breathing hard and feeling anxious. I fall into a semi-rhythm and hope for the best.
My rental skis give a little with each turn, the clamps that connect the boots to the skis straining as I throw my weight around. The clerk at the rental shop never tightens my ski clamps as much as he could. He tells me that a guy who falls as much as I do should keep them loose.
“Too tight,” he says, “and they’ll never pop off when you fall.
“So what,” I say, “what difference does that make?”
“You don’t want to get tangled up in your skis,” he says, “you’ll break your leg, man, or worse.”
I don’t ask him what worse is.
I am getting too close to the tree before me, it looms there, dark and gray, its leafless branches envelope me, blocking out sun and sky. I bang a hard turn to the left. I am already moving slowly, but the turn is even slower. I watch, as my left ski turns parallel to the tree even as my right ski does not. The right ski is suspended for a moment in the snow, and so am I, the ski pops loose and I am now sliding on just the left ski alone. I try to stay upright and as I do I head straight for the tree. My left leg clears it, but my right leg, which is now aloft does not. I slam thigh first into the trunk.
The tree does not give, and I fall into a heap at its base. I contemplate whether I should get-up and walk down the hill or just lie there in the snow. I feel so tired suddenly, and I’m so comfortable there, the snow like a brand new mattress.
I lay there taking in the cold air, the silence only occasionally disturbed by a skier flying by on Devil’s Playground. I start to doze-off, but realize that Aaron may not know that I failed to finish the run. I start to yell his name, but there is no response. I keep yelling and begin to get cold, shivering violently and uncontrollably. My right leg is lifeless, and it lies before me like a sack of potatoes. I scream “help” over and over again, but no one comes. More time passes. I panic. I wonder if anyone will ever come. The trail is closed, who else would even think to ski down it?
As I begin to doze-off again I find myself surrounded by the bearded and red-jacketed members of the ski patrol. They don’t say a word and begin to slide me onto a wooden sled. As they do my right leg begins to spasm. I no longer seem to have any control over the muscles on that leg and I scream in pain as they begin to look elsewhere for a new home.
“His thigh muscles have detached themselves from the bone,” I hear someone say. The voice is cold and clinical, the person sounds far away. Someone gives me a shot at the bottom of the mountain. The pain slowly starts to recede leaving me with something more akin to a charley horse.
They load me into an ambulance, and I finally drift off to sleep.
I awake in the hospital and I’m not sure what’s going on. My parents are standing over me and watching as a doctor shaves my right shin with a disposable razor. He is methodical and quick. He picks up a hand drill and starts drilling through my shin about three inches below my knee. He does not say a word, nor does he waste a single motion. When he works his way to the other side of my leg he slides a thin metal rod through the hole. He pauses for a moment, measures the length of the rod now jutting out of the left side of my leg, and cuts off a section with a pair of wire cutters. The doctor surveys his work and looks pleased. He has yet to say a word.
I find out that I have snapped my femur, or thighbone, in half. One half of the bone has slipped under the other and they need to pull it back, re-connect the two halves, and allow it to set and heal. They could perform surgery and place a larger rod in the bone that would hold it in place until my femur is healed, but given my age, and concerns about stunting my growth, they have decided to put me in traction.
What they are proposing is attaching a clamp to the rod just inserted into my leg and then connecting the clamp to a series of weights and pulleys that will slowly draw the bone together and hold it in place. The healing process will take three months and I will be on my back in traction the whole time.
I am placed in a bed, which is covered by a metal frame that extends from one end of the bed to the other. My right leg is placed in a sling held aloft by the top of the frame and then connected to a pulley that is attached to the part of the frame that is fastened to the foot of my bed. Every time I move the series of weights and pulleys move with me, allowing for a false, but welcome sense of mobility.
After I am fully secured my parents leave for the night. My father comes back the next day with exercise equipment in hand. A friend of his has lent him a taut, perfectly straight, coiled metal bar with red handgrips on either end. You grasp the handgrips with each hand and then slowly try to bring them together forming an upside “u.” The bar fights you every step of the way and the resulting resistance builds muscle in the pectorals, triceps, and lats.
After a couple of half-hearted practice efforts I try to bend the bar into full “u” mode. As I do the right hand grip immediately flies out of my hand and smacks me in the chin as it straightens out. Blood sprays across my face and gown and for a moment everything goes black. When I am able to focus again, my jaw is screaming and my dad looks sick. A doctor is brought in to patch me up. No stitches are required. I have only been in the hospital for twenty-four hours.
I cannot leave my bed or get off my back. I do not go to the mall, I do not go out to McDonald’s, and I do not go to the movies. I cannot go to the parties my friends are attending or go to school. I live in the hospital now and I am no longer a member of the world as I have come to know it. I am in hospital world, and it is all about constants and sameness.
Every day I am awoken at 7:30am so my temperature and pulse can be taken and every day at 7:45am just as I am falling back to sleep I am given my pills – one for constipation and some aspirin for circulation. I brush my teeth on the tray that folds out of the table next to my bed and the nurses wash my hair for me every day or so, some times less if they are busy.
At some point mid-morning Donna the cleaning woman comes by. She has long dark hair and wears a lot of blush. She arranges her schedule to be in my room every day at 11:00am so we can watch Young and Restless together. We don’t talk all that much, but to comment on the inanity of the story lines, the subterfuge of the various characters, and the prospects of Victor and Nickie ever being happy together.
Just after lunch my tutor Chuck comes by. He has a thick black beard, a receding hairline, and wears an army jacket at all times. He never gives me any assignments to work on, and though at one point he does ask me to read a book of essays by Vietnam Veterans, we mostly spend our time together hanging out and talking about hospital life. Chuck is a nice guy and I like him, but I never do any schoolwork and no one seems to notice.
As early afternoon blurs into late afternoon, my friend Richie stops in for a visit. He’s got a bowl haircut and freckles on his nose. He tells me about what’s going on at school, who’s hooking-up with who, and what’s been happening at the parties I’ve been missing.
“So, Steve and Sue are going at it in the front yard of Tonya’s house, right, and he tries to get down her pants,” Richie says.
“Yeah,” I say, “and then what?”
“She says she doesn’t go to third with a guy unless she’s going out with him,” he says.
“All right,” I say, “I can dig it, so then what?”
“Steve says, well, do you want to go out with me then?”
“Yeah?” I say.
“And Sue’s like okay,” Richie says.
“Cool,” I say, “and?”
“And what,” he says, “he gets to the third with her.”
“Just like that,” I say.
“Just like that,” he says.
“That’s beautiful,” I say.
“Yes, it is,” Richie says, “yes it is.”
Throughout the day, I have to use a bedpan for bowel movements and a plastic bottle to urinate, and while it is not as bad as it sounds, no one rushes to empty them either. On the one hand even this isn’t terrible, because I quickly adjust to the smell. Hospitals are filled with smells, urine of course, and bowels, but hand creams, salves, soaps, and cleaning products as well. Soon enough it’s all one smell, hospital smell, and part of the background, like white noise.
On the other hand, I eventually have to use the bedpan and bottle again, and when that happens I have a problem. For the most part, the nurses somehow always make it back before there is an accident, but I wait and I wonder, and on occasion I weigh just how much room really remains in the bedpan or bottle lying before me.
On this day, as my calls are ignored and the hours drone on I am forced to urinate into a handful of toilet paper. This is much messier then I expect it to be and as the toilet paper starts to shred and meld itself to my hand I throw it against the wall in a fit of frustration. When the nurse finally comes in I point to the overflowing bottle and the toilet paper on the wall. He takes both without saying a word.
As evening sets-in, my mom comes by to hang out with me. She has long dark hair which she pulls back with a beret, and she brings me Chinese food from the House of Yu – won ton soup, spare ribs, sweet and sour pork, egg rolls – and bags of Haribo gummy Coke bottles. Except for Upstairs/Downstairs my mother never watches television in the real world, but the hospital world is a different and parallel one, and here she watches Hill Street Blues with me on Thursday nights, North Carolina State’s improbable run to the NCAA title, and maybe most important the Thornbirds mini-series with its illicit, yet tantalizing love affair between Richard Chamberlain’s wayward priest and Rachel Ward, his sexy, but married paramour.
My mom has to leave at some point, and when she does I have to face the biggest obstacle of the day, trying to fall asleep. I’ve never slept all that well anyway, and after the visitors have all gone, the street noise has dissipated, and the hustle and bustle of the hospital has slowed down to crawl, it’s just me and my bed, my television, and my books.
Soon enough, there is nothing to watch, and eventually I don’t want to read any more either. At this point I can turn off the light, but that doesn’t mean I will sleep. Having been in bed all-day to begin with, I’m both rested and wired. It might be different if I could move around and find a comfortable position, but I am in traction, which means no squirming, no adjustments, and no real movement of any kind. I am on my back and I will stay on my back, tonight, tomorrow, and every day until I leave.
And so it goes most of the time, though tonight I am offered a break from the monotony. They bring in a loud guy with greasy hair and a day’s growth. He’s been in a car accident and he’s accompanied by not only a doctor, but by a police officer as well. The cop asks him what he’s been drinking and the guy says “motor oil.” The cop looks at him quizzically and replies in-kind “motor oil?” “Yeah,” he says. The doctor and the cop leave the room muttering to themselves and the guy looks over at me and says “can you believe they fell for that shit?”
A nurse comes in moments later.
“Do you give back rubs?” the guy asks her.
“I do,” she says.
“Do you rub anything else?” he asks.
The nurse leaves without saying a word and the guy starts to laugh. He then looks over at me again and says, “I thought it was worth a try.” I sleep like a baby that night. He’s gone the next day.
Before I entered the hospital I ran like the wind, endlessly flying up and down the hills around my parent’s home. I took flight out there, and could run forever, effortlessly and breathlessly, with wings on my heels and a never-ending reserve of stamina at my disposal. When my mind wanders here in the hospital I fantasize about running again, and it never occurs to me that it won’t be the same when I leave. No one has told me otherwise, and so it’s my belief that when I get out of traction, I will be healed and as good as new, ready to run again.
They don’t tell me though that the tendons in my right knee have shrunk from lack of use, or that as strong and mobile as I might feel after three months in traction, my leg can still snap at any time when I first get out. Nor do they tell me just how much the muscles on my legs have atrophied, or that the blood has barely been circulating through my feet because I have been horizontal and not vertical all this time.
They also don’t tell me that when the clamp is taken off and the pin is removed from my leg I will only be able to bend my knee a few degrees, and that when I try to stand for the first time the blood suddenly rushing to my feet will make it feel like I have been hit with a sledgehammer. Nor does anyone tell me that after three months in traction I will need to re-learn how to walk and that using crutches will leave me breathless and exhausted after merely cruising back and forth down the hall outside my hospital room.
It may be that someone was supposed to tell me all this sooner and forgot, or maybe they just want to protect me. It may also be that people just assume I ought to know all this. It is never quite clear to me. Then again, I learn it all soon enough. I also learn that it’s not forever. After no time, I feel stronger, no longer so exhausted, and easily moving from two crutches to one. I walk again too, slowly, and tentatively at first, but I do walk. My feet stop hurting as well, and though my right knee will be perpetually prone to soreness and pain after this, it does bend again.
One night just months after I leave the hospital, I try to go for a run, though just to the corner and back. It’s dark and cool out, damp, and kind of beautiful, stars everywhere in the clear night sky. At first I awkwardly plod along and within minutes I’m sweating profusely. Soon I am lumbering from one step to the next, practically dragging my right leg behind me.
I’m not swift or graceful and will not be for months. It takes me forever to get to the corner and back, but I do it, and I keep doing it, and somewhere along the way as I learn to run again, the path, the crash, and even my time in the hospital, all slowly become memories of sometime in the past, all parts of an event I participated in long ago.
Ben Tanzer is the author of Lucky Man, a novel released in 2007 by Manx Media. His work has appeared in numerous publications including Opium, THE2NDHAND, Monkey Bicycle, Wonka Vision, The Truth Magazine, Thieves Jargon, decomP, Cake Train, Chicago Parent, Abroad View, Zygote in my Coffee, and 20dissidents.