It’s May 23, D Day. Your mother who is as mercurial as the Midwestern weather has gone to work, your little brothers have gone off to school and Mrs. Carolyn Olive has just rung the doorbell. Your father leaves off packing your little bag in anticipation of the ambulance’s arrival to answer the door. Mrs. Carolyn Olive is here to help your father clean me up and prepare me for the ride to the hospital. Your waist-length hair is washed and dried and freshly braided; your father does that for you most mornings, a laborious process requiring buckets and pitchers, but one which he gladly undertakes for you, his favorite/only daughter. Mrs. Carolyn Olive greets you with a cheery smile, “How you doin’ today, Missy?” Ordinarily, you loathe that substitute name, Missy, but somehow, when it oozes out of her mouth, it’s comforting and welcome. She gently removes the top of your cast, covers you from stomach to toes and hands you the washcloth, full of soap and water wrung out so as not to get your cast wet. You wash up, reaching down as far as you can. She takes the cloth, plunges it back into the bucket of hot water and soaps up again. She finishes your “frontal bath” as she calls it, dries and powders you, closes the cast and calls for your father. The straps go on; 1-2-3 and you’re on your stomach.
Bath time is over, you are wearing a fresh, new backless t-shirt and a pair of new, sparkly white undies and some bleached clean, soft white socks. Your father has worked your legs every day, massaging and exercising them to keep the muscle tone up, just as Dr. K.R. Manning has instructed, and you are almost able to dress the part of yourself that isn’t in a cast. You have one last swig of coffee through your glass straw as the doorbell rings again. The ambulance is here and it’s time to go. You are so excited to be out of your cast, but you are also a bit sad. Today is Mrs. Carolyn Olive’s last day. You will miss her stories about her grandbabies and her daughters, mere children themselves. As the ambulance attendants are sliding you from your hospital bed onto the gurney, you hear your father in the kitchen talking with her, explaining that they are planning sell the house and to move to an apartment once you’re back down at school, and they have an extra refrigerator they need to get rid off and would she be interested in it. She just has to arrange to have it picked up. “Thank you kindly. I could shore use a newer Frigidaire than what I got now. My sister’s husband have him a pickup truck an’ I’m sure he can get it for me.”
The ambulance attendants are very careful, asking if you’re OK, and if there is anything they can do to make you more comfortable on the ride. You’ve said your tearful goodbyes, made sure your father has your little overnight bag and everything you’ll need for the next few days, and you’re off. He will bring your bag with him when he comes up to see you later in the afternoon. Halfway to the hospital, you remember that your glass straw is still in your coffee cup in the sink and you think about that and it dawns on you that you won’t need that glass straw anymore! (You keep it anyway and 50 years later it’s still in your silverware drawer, right where it belongs.) The driver pulls up into the emergency room bay, the ambulance doors open, and you’re out! They wheel you in through the ER to the holding area, where you will be processed and assigned a room. You wait and you wait. Hours pass as you doze, waiting. You have no idea what time it is when you awaken, but you are hungry, thirsty and you have to pee and you are still in the hallway. You ask a passing nurse for help; she tells you she will have someone tend to you. No one comes. You ask another person passing by for help. He ignores you. You ask a friendly looking housekeeping attendant for the time; you are shocked to find that you have been lying there on that gurney for five hours. You ask her to please find someone to help you because you think they’ve forgotten you’re here. She asks what floor you’re supposed to be on and when you tell her ortho, she nods and says she’ll get somebody. Nobody comes and you know you are going to soil yourself; your anger has reached dangerous levels and you feel yourself letting go. You close your eyes and cry, quietly at first, then loud sobs.
“Hey, beautiful, you’re back.” Cute Orderly is wheeling the gurney into the broom closet down the hall. He tells you to try to hold it just one more second while he arranges the bedpan under you. Finally, relief. And embarrassment. And anger at having been abandoned. Cute Orderly explains that he got here as fast as he could, that a nice housekeeping lady came all the way up to floor to find someone to help you. We were expecting you today and wondering where you were. Let’s get you up to your room.” You are so incredibly angry at being abandoned that you have nothing nice to say, so you simply say, “Thank you.” He gets you checked in and up to your room, brings you a sandwich and a glass of iced tea with a bendy straw, and says, “I’m going off shift for today, but I’ll be back tomorrow morning. I expect you to be up and walking when by the time I get here.” You can’t imagine that you will be walking, but you say you will do your best. You will miss Cute Orderly.
The surgeon is here explaining what you must do. “See that bar all the way around over the bed? You’re going to grab that bar as soon as you sit up. Then you will turn yourself around, very slowly as you step down to the floor. You will not be able to feel your legs right away. Are you ready to get out of that cast?” You nod, concentrating on what he has just said. The nurse on shift is a large, soft, smiling woman who you know from your last stay. “Come on, sweetheart, your daddy will be here soon and you want to show him you can get up, don’t you?” You nod again, and ever so slowly, she helps you to sit up. You feel dizzy, so you just sit there a moment. When the dizziness subsides, you nod again and reach upward for the bar. The bar will very quickly become your best buddy. Somehow, you manage to raise yourself up so she can take the cast away. You want to lie down, but Marie, your nurse, won’t allow it. You very tentatively turn yourself at the waist as you extend your legs to the floor, leaning against the bed and hanging on to that bar for dear life. At first, you cannot feel your legs. Before long, though, the pins and needles start. You feel faint, but you are determined to be up and walking and out of this place as soon as humanly possible. You are scheduled for four days, which will include a bit of physical therapy before you are released. You can feel your legs now, but they are lead weights and they are not moving much. Marie has gone and Cute Orderly’s replacement is here. His name is Mark. As he helps you inch around the bed, he chats with you, and you discover that he went to high school with your boyfriend, who is planning to come up over the weekend for a visit. He tells you that he had English class with your boyfriend’s mother. She is a real piece of work, and you tell him you are sorry. He grins and replies that he’s lived through worse. Your future mother in law is not a nice woman and not only does she not like you, she does not like her son, either. As you talk, you continue to move around the bed, holding on to the bar. Your legs are very slowly coming to life. You keep going and as your back is to the door, you hear a familiar voice. “Look at you, sweetheart! You’re walking already!” Your father sets your bag down, Mark explains what you are doing and how to help, and he leaves you with your father. For the next hour until dinnertime, you circle the bed.
You hear the the dining cart in the hallway, but it passes by your room without stopping. Your father goes out to the nurses’ station to find out why you didn’t get any dinner. The nurse looks on the schedule. Because they forgot about you this morning, you are not on it. She calls down to the cafeteria to have them bring your meal. Your father returns and asks you, just in case you don’t like what they bring, would you like him to go down to the cafeteria and get you a salad and some fruit? Your dinner arrives. You open the cover; it’s mystery meat, mashed potatoes with gluey gravy and canned peas, with tapioca for dessert. Before you have time to express your distaste and replace the cover, your father is off to forage for something more to your liking.
Dinner is over, your father has gone home and you have become an expert at getting up and out of bed. You are now able to walk sideways around the bed, and you are experimenting with walking forward, holding on with just one hand, instead of walking sideways holding with both hands. You silently thank your father for working your legs for those last 2 ½ months, and before you know it, you are walking without holding on. When Marie comes to help you to the potty, you ask her to find your shoes in the bag your father has left. She helps you into them and ties them for you. You got back to walking around the bed, but that has become old hat. You walk back and forth in your room steadying yourself on the chair, the table, the wall. The other bed is empty, thankfully. No moaning or crying tonight. After a while, you are walking without having to hold on, slowly, but steadily. You make sure your gown is tied and you venture out into the hallway. Mark sees you as you trundle off down the hall and comes from behind to make sure you are all right. “You can walk all night in this hallway, but do NOT, NOT, NOT leave to where we cannot see you.” The nurses station is abuzz with quiet talking; they are pointing at you and nodding their heads, with grins from ear to ear. You ask Mark why. He explains that most of the spinal fusion patients are much older than you are, and it usually takes a few days of physical therapy before they can walk well enough to be released.
You walk and walk and walk, even though your shoes pinch and your feet hurt. You walk most of the night. You visit with the night nurses and drink hot coffee out of a mug. You realize that you feel like a normal person again. it’s time now for the shift change, so you walk back to your room, kick off your shoes and lie down to sleep for a little while. You doze for half an hour and awaken when the breakfast cart creaks in the hallway and stops at your room. You pull yourself up in the bed, swing your legs around and open the cover on your breakfast. YES. They have brought you coffee with milk, OJ and a box of Life cereal, which you will eat dry. Just as you had ordered. You are working on your OJ when your mother comes in with a little brown sack. Silently, you look inside and a smile breaks out on your face. She has stopped at the deli and brought you a bagel, lightly toasted with lox, cream cheese, a slice each of onion and red, ripe tomato. “Thank you. Want some coffee? I’ll get it for you.” You get up from the bed, adjust your gown and make your way to the coffee pot at the nurses’ station. You tell them that it’s for your mom, and they smile and nod.
Your mother has a look of complete surprise on her face when you come back with her coffee. You tell her that you walked the halls all night, and that you are ready to go home, but what you would really like is a long, hot shower, to wash your hair yourself, and dress in real clothes. She’s dressed for work, but she helps you into the shower and hands you the soap. When you are ready, she hands you the Herbal Essence shampoo and conditioner. You take too long in the shower, but you don’t care. You finally turn off the water and as you step out of the shower, your mother wraps you in a towel and hands you another for your hair. You feel like a completely new and different person. Your back is stiff, but it feels so good to be free of that cast. Your mother who is as mercurial as the Midwestern weather smiles, gives you a hug and a kiss, and goes off to work. She’ll be back this evening. But she doesn’t come back this evening.
It’s 9am. The surgeon has just left. Your incisions have healed completely and well, he is delighted with your ability to walk and admonishes you to be very careful until you’ve regained your strength. “Hi. Dr. Manning says I can go home any time.” Because you’re supposed to be there four days, he is not ready. He promises he will be there as soon as he can and your excitement levels build. You pack your little bag and then you walk and walk and walk. By 11:00, your patience is wearing thin. You call the house again, but no one answers. You wait a few minutes, call again, no one answers. As you are hanging up the second time, you hear your father and Cute Orderly in the hallway, crowing about you. You go out to meet him and give him a hug. His eyes light up. His favorite/only daughter is walking already!
He goes to sign all the papers, and by lunchtime, you are on your way home. The car, a Cougar, has bucket seats that are truly uncomfortable, but you don’t care. The window is open and fresh air is blowing through your hair. No braids necessary, you’re done with all that. Once you get home, you fix a pot of coffee while your father puts your bag in your bedroom. Your corset, which you will wear for two months, chafes, but you are determined to get through this. You enjoy a cup of coffee with your father, who makes lunch, and then, you call your mom’s work. You wait while they go to get her. “Hi, Mom. You don’t have to come to the hospital after work. I’m home. Just come home, but on your way, could you please stop and get me some daiquiri ice?”