I can’t manage my back problems by myself anymore. My physical therapist stated the obvious as we were going through a pattern of exercises designed to stretch out my hip flexors and prevent them from over-rotating, which is one way my body compensates for its limited motion between my shoulders and my hips.
“You’ve done a fabulous job of staying fit and flexible,” he said, as he pushed his fingers around my hip bone and held the muscle in place while I slid my leg slowly up and down the table.
I turned on my left side and relaxed my right shoulder so he could reach under my shoulder blade and pin down the muscle under my scapula. I raised my arm from the elbow up and down, slowly, as if it were a new part of my anatomy I was testing. I started sweating as the muscle throbbed through the rotation.
“I’ve seen a lot of patients in much more pain who’ve had considerably less surgery. You’ve got a lot going on in that back, with all that hardware and the muscles that haven’t moved on their own for years. I think you’d benefit from being stretched out this way several times a week,” he said, burrowing his fist deeper into my shoulder. “You’re contracted across your upper back, and by having someone help you lengthen the muscles several times a week you can counteract that effect.”
I was silent, remembering the last time I had to rely on someone to help me with physical therapy. Before my first spine surgery, my mom and I got up early every morning to do a series of exercises intended to stave off the need for surgery. My mom handled it perfectly. She’d wake me up and we’d head to the den, with my mom clapping and singing all the way, like the only thing she had to do or wanted to do all day long was hold my feet and arms in various awkward positions while I twisted and turned, trying to strengthen the muscles on either side of my stubborn spine.
I’ve known this time would come. For the past several months I’ve had to lie down each afternoon to rest my burning muscles. At night it’s difficult to sleep when the nerves in my arms and legs tingle and my fingers and toes get numb. And I know it could be worse. I remember thinking before that second surgery that I’d be in a wheelchair by the time I was 40 if I didn’t do something drastic. The surgery was drastic, certainly, but since my recovery I’ve been able to resume most of my activities and Jazzercise without falling on my face or crying in agony. I’m much better off physically than I have any right to be.
All the same, it was a humbling afternoon when Jon, Bill and I met at therapy so Bill could learn how to work my hips and upper back. Jon stretched my left hip flexor, then showed Bill how to do it. Bill’s hands felt familiar, of course, but less certain than Jon’s.
I had to close my eyes and concentrate on the muscles Bill was holding, telling him to pin deeper, or higher, and I reminded myself that while I felt helpless, he was feeling the pressure to get it right. He had on his “Bucy face,” his look of greatest concentration. I named this look after a favorite, challenging law professor of ours twenty years ago. He wore that face every minute of her class, as if he thought that relaxing his jaw and eyebrows would make every bit of criminal law he’d retained magically disappear.
We’re embarking on a new era, one in which I’ll have to depend on him to help me manage this body, with all its frailties and kinks. Our plan is to try the exercises at night, and to look around for a massage table so that we won’t have to get on the floor to work out. I have a hard time getting up and down from the floor, and it’s easier for the therapist (or husband) to perform the maneuvers in a standing position.
I’ve talked with the boys and told them my back just isn’t as strong as it used to be. I might lie down more often in the afternoons, or need a bit more help around the house, particularly with lifting laundry and groceries. I explained to them that Daddy and I would be working on my back so I could stay strong, and that if they wanted to watch or to learn how to help with the exercises, I’d love it. I grew teary when I talked to them. I’m used to being the savior, not the saved.
Finn was sympathetic, hugging me, telling me it would be fine, pointing out all the activities I could do. Drew listened and reminded me that he loves to chop ingredients for dinner as long as he has a good knife. Porter assured me he’d still snuggle with me every morning while we listen to NPR.
And so this Flashback Friday, I’m looking back at our family as it was , and how we are now. And I’m wondering how the future will be. But I suppose that’s true for all of us.
Family Portrait 2000
Me and the guys, 2009
Me and my new therapist
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I never saw it, so I can’t be sure, but I suspect that my mom’s hamburger recipe went something like this:
NO MORE COMPANY HAMBURGERS:
Take 2 pounds of hamburger meat and leave it on the counter all day. Make sure the meat is segregated from all available seasonings so the cardboard flavor of the ultimate product is preserved. Form thick patties and grill the hell out of them for one minute. Serve.
I remember taking a bite of one of her hamburgers. It was protesting cow flesh encased in crunchy carbon, pressed between two buns from the day-old bakery. I ran outside and spit it into the bushes and earned a spanking for my efforts.
While I’ll happily cook Thai Chicken, Shrimp with Angel Hair Pasta and Feta Cheese, Bowties with Peas and Prosciutto and Korean barbecue, I’ve never made hamburgers for my kids. I don’t believe in torture.
Bill, on the other hand, can make a burger. We’d been married for years before I agreed to try one, but it was delicious. He pats the meat as if sculpting a masterpiece, marinates it in a combination of Dale’s sauce and exotic spices, and tends the grill while I prepare pillowy buns, sliced red onion, several kinds of mustard, cheese, bacon, lettuce, and tomatoes. It’s a fabulous family meal, but Bill is the key ingredient.
Every Sunday I sit my Type A butt down and plan all my meals for the week. Last week the boys requested Bill’s hamburgers and I penciled them in for Thursday, thrilled to get a night off.
Thursday I was home from work and watching Messer and Montana flirt on CSI when Bill called to say he’d forgotten that the baseball draft was that night. He wouldn’t be home until after eight.
“Honey, your boys will starve. I need you to come home and make dinner before you go,” I said.
“Can you say that again? I think my Blackberry is on the fritz. I thought you said you needed me to fix dinner.”
“I do. It’s hamburger night. I haven’t made hamburgers in my life, and you know the story about my mom. She–”
“I remember. Live cow inside a carbon crust.”
“Well, it clearly gave me emotional scars, and I don’t want to do that to the boys. I’d rather feed them cereal,” I said.
“I’ll see if I can run home before the meeting and get them started,” Bill said.
On CSI, Stella had subjected the mysterious substance on the debutante’s dress to an array of scientific tests before identifying it as Cheese Doodle dust. Then I heard Bill dash in and call Drew. They puttered for a few minutes and Bill left. The charcoal was lit, the patties were marinating, and I didn’t have the vaguest idea of what to do next.
I called Bill.
“When do I know the fire is ready?”
“The charcoal will be white around the edges. Then you put the hamburgers on and cook them until they’re done.”
“Roger. How long is that?” I asked.
Bill sighed. “You just cut into one and look at it.”
“Dude, give me an estimate. Is it more like five minutes or thirty?”
“I’d say fifteen,” he said. “But that’s just a guess. I can’t believe you cook these fancy dinners and don’t know a grill from your ass.”
“I can buy a grill. I’m from the Tiny Kingdom. I just can’t use one,” I said.
We hung up and I headed outside to face my nemesis.
Drew was at the grill, tongs in hand, carefully spreading out the charcoal.
“I think it will be at least five more minutes before the fire is ready,” he said.
“Hey, do you know what you’re doing with the fire?” I asked.
“Yes ma’am. I watch Daddy. I know how to grill the hamburgers, too. Can you reach a cookie sheet for me to put them on? It’s too high for me.”
I returned with a cookie sheet, tongs, an oven mitt and the patties. I hovered over Drew for a bit, feeling like it would be child neglect to leave him with a sizzling fire and a plate of raw meat.
“Hey Mom, I can do this myself. If you want to finish your show you can,” Drew offered.
I took him up on it.
The hamburgers were the best ever.
The look on Drew’s face as we applauded his culinary skills wasn’t bad either.
One year ago in My Tiny Kingdom: The Mysterious Disappearance of Feathers
The theme for this week’s Flashback Friday is “What I Was Doing X Years Ago, Where “X” = Any Positive Integer”