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
It’s your turn to join Flashback Friday. Directions are here.
It didn’t just promise Happy Hours – it delivered, affording mothers throughout the Tiny Kingdom five hours of peace and giving three, four and five-year-olds days of kindergarten bliss.
Here’s the graduating class of Happy Hours kindergarten in 1973.
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We learned all sorts of important life skills at Happy Hours. We learned how to cut with pointy scissors, how to stop eating the jar of paste, how to go all the way across the monkey bars without stopping and not to hang on them upside-down on the days you wore a dress.
See the clock in the background? We probably couldn’t read that. We didn’t focus so much on letters and numbers and real school stuff. The teachers at Happy Hours wanted to make sure we knew how to share, how to get to the bathroom on time, to say please , thank you, yes ma’am and no ma’am. That’s what everyone learned in kindergarten back then.
When you were five, Mrs. Sillaman, who owned the school, was your teacher, and she ensured you were ready to make your way in the world. Everyone graduated well-versed in a variety of songs and dances, including “Way Down Yonder in The Paw-Paw Patch,” “Skip To My Lou,” and the Hokey-Pokey. We memorized and recited the 100th Psalm every Thanksgiving after we’d made hand-turkeys.
There was one kid in my class who said everything like it was a question? And Mrs. Sillaman made him repeat every sentence without the inflection on the end? And even at that young age I thought I might be capable of murder? And I cannot for the life of me remember which child that was to identify him, which is probably best for all concerned.
I remember plenty of the others, though.
I suppose everyone who moves back home experiences this– the people from your past pop up in unexpected places. Today’s Flashback Friday has shown me just how much our lives are interwoven.
The boy on the end of the front row is Archie, and he and I went to school together through high school. You know the kid who could fix the film projector when it broke down and then grew up to be a computer genius? That’s him. He also married a gorgeous blond-haired, blue-eyed girl who was several years younger than we are. She Jazzercises with me, and has the tight ass and firm thighs that come along with that activity.
Now that I’ve complimented her I suppose it’s a convenient time to confess that I remember a certain boy-girl party in the 7th grade where Archie and I flirted and danced. I don’t think I kissed him, but I sure thought about it. I actually had a crush on his older brother, Charles, but figured that any male from that family (and there were several) would do.
Despite growing up with brothers, Archie now has three blond, blue-eyed daughters and is hugely outnumbered in his household. Dude, I feel your pain. Sometime we need to trade: you can come to my house and play the Doorknob/Fart game with my boys and I’ll go to your house and braid hair and sprinkle glitter.
The red-head on the other end is now a judge. Happily, he’s not the judge who has a daughter that Finn decked in the face in second grade. He has a boy Finn’s age and they are great friends. He also has twin boys who look exactly like he does in this picture.
In the second row, the boy in the red and white stripes (which are probably meant to be crimson, for all the Bama fans out there) is now a successful insurance salesman with a lovely wife and children. I cannot believe I don’t have any dirt on him, as we ran in the same circles. Thank God I showed some restraint with someone.
I’m in the middle in the blue dress, and next to me is Katie Stroud. I played with her a lot. Her mom looked a lot older than my mom and wore her hair piled in a bun on top of her head, and long skirts, like a German hausfrau. I couldn’t picture her wearing the flashy bikini my mom sported. Hairstyles aside, I thought Katie’s mom was great because she let Katie have an E-Z Bake Oven, while my mom told me I could use the real oven and be happy about it. Katie and I probably made 1000 saucer-sized chocolate cakes at her house through the years.
John is next to her. He played football at Alabama. Several of my friends kissed him in high school, but I didn’t. Today he owns Greek restaurants and sushi restaurants which both rock. Bill and I had a wonderful dinner at his fancy sushi restaurant, Ginsei, and sat next to a guy who was wooing a Greek medical student. She was hot, his lines were witty, the rock shrimp were luscious and we drank two bottles of wine while we eavesdropped on their date. Space between tables is not the restaurant’s strong point. The wooer is now engaged to someone else, which is a whole ‘nother story, but I hear that the med student is the most eligible Greek in town so she’ll be totally fine.
The first guy on the last row is Steven, and we had one date in high school. (Just to show you the connectedness of the Tiny Kingdom, he’s now married to the sister of someone I practice law with, his mother lives around the corner, and his brother’s mother-in-law lives down the street.)
Steven and I went on a double date with his mother and Fred, her now husband. At that point they had been dating five years or so, and my parents knew that we were at the movies with Steven’s parents. Fred had some sort of car trouble, and I got home five minutes after curfew. My parents were way uptight about the curfew, and I intend to be the same way. There were no cell phones back then, and Steven had the pleasure, which he assures me he has never forgotten, of walking me to the door, where he was met by my dad, clad only in his boxers.
My dad was unforgiving, Steven and I were horrified, and his mom and Fred were in the driveway waiting on Steven, either laughing or making out. I should ask her.
The next guy, Brad, was your typical Bad Boy. Not the sexy kind of Bad Boy, just Bad. We carpooled with Brad. His mom had pale skin and blonde hair and the look on her face when we picked him up for school was one of pure relief. I sympathized; that’s the look I had on my face when we dropped him off. He kicked girls and teachers, threw tantrums, refused to color when it was time to color and he was the worst dancing partner.
I couldn’t remember the name of the next girl, but Paige, in white, says her name was Arden Ripple. My God! What an awesome name! It’s my personal belief that she changed her name to Angelina Jolie and became obsessed with children, but if not, I hope the real Arden Ripple will let us know what she’s been up to.
Paige gets the award for least changed, despite birthing five boys. Oddly, she looks even more like herself today in the 3 year-old class picture than she does here. Sigh.
The boy in the brown and white stripes is Lee and he has a great recollection of the Happy Hours gang. In fact, he wrote that he painted the tree on the far right and Archie did the apple tree next to his, which he felt was inferior. He knows that a girl created the tree on the left hand side and remembers thinking it was awful. Archie commented that the girls were totally responsible for painting all the bunnies.
The boy in blue is named Duvergne. You pronounce it “Doo-vern.” Clearly that’s a French name, but I remember my mom insisting it was Spanish. Whatever. Foreign languages were not her thing. In 6th grade all the kids in the Tiny Kingdom take ballroom dancing lessons at Steeple Arts. I did it, our parents did it, and Finn did,too, though Bill was unsure when he would ever use them, as he grew up in Auburn and has never had to do an impromptu foxtrot himself.
Duvergne has not lost his love of the dance; he was one of the ballroom aids during Finn’s class. When I told Finn that I’d known Duvergne for 35 years he about fainted, because I’d been telling him I was thirty for quite a while.
Here we are at four:
(click to enlarge)
I’m in the middle again, with pink and white. The boy in blue by my knee was named Blair, and he had the longest eyelashes ever. I’m sitting next to Dana Goldblatt, who has disappeared. It’s a shame, because I went to her house after school a lot.
Dana told me that if we touched the tips of our tongues together a fairy would appear and we could boss her around. We tried it several times but we never got a fairy. You might think it’s gross to touch your tongue to someone else’s, but the great thing about Dana was that she was also a big fan of eating Gleem toothpaste, so the tongue-touching was a minty experience. Generally we’d get home, have a snack, eat some Gleem (I didn’t swallow), go outside and touch tongues, and spend the rest of the afternoon on the swings.
Here we are at three:
(click to enlarge)
Archie’s on the second row, and he’s whooped. Paige, John, Russell, me and Katie make up a happy back row. It looks like we couldn’t draw trees, but we were able to cut out Easter Eggs with our safety scissors at that young age. Even then we were headed for great things.
I’m not sure how the girl in the green and red in the middle row got to be in this class. Kathryn lived behind us, and her mom was in my mom’s wedding. I know for a fact that she was only two-and-a-half. She must have been a toilet-trained prodigy to have been at Happy Hours.
My family did a lot with her family. They had a poodle named Celia, and Kathryn had two little brothers who were always climbing on furniture and bleeding. I thought they were gross. I was too young to see an omen when it was right in front of me.
To her right is Allen, in the Peter Pan collar. We carpooled with him, too, and he was always late. Their maid would walk him out to the car with his lunchbox and make sure he got in the Chrysler safely. In high school, his sister and I were hookers. I don’t mean the kind of girl who sleeps with an older married man with children, hoping he’ll buy her a fancy new Lexus. We were Dorians together, on the dance team, and we hooked arms when it was time for us to do high kicks. I’d go to her house to change between the football game and the party afterward, and one time Allen walked by the room where we were changing and saw me in nothing but my fishnets and my bra. I screamed, he screamed, and we didn’t talk again for years.
I’m sure if I sat here longer I could bore you with more kindergarten tales, but really I’d like to encourage the other graduates of Happy Hours to click on “comments” and let us know where you are and what you remember. In particular, if you know what a paw-paw is and why you put it in the basket, please chime in.
Join in with your own Flashback Friday! Directions are here.
Today I wanted to write about our recent adventures in Costa Rica or post pictures of the anatomically correct chalk drawings Drew and Porter decorated our driveway with recently.
Instead I’m writing about pain– physical pain– as it’s had me in its jaws for the better part of three weeks.
Longtime readers know that I’ve had two spine surgeries, one for scoliosis and a second to address complications caused by the first. My spine is fused with a combination of rods, hooks and screws. Here’s a diagram of a spine.
The spine is divided into the cervical, thoracic and lumbar regions, and each vertebra within a region is given a number. The green line shows where I am fused, from the fourth thoracic to the fourth lumbar vertebra. Those of us in the know call this T4 to L4. The red area shows the vertebrae and discs that are not fused: L4-5 and L5-S1. Because these two discs handle all the movement of my upper torso, while the spine is designed to spread all the pressure evenly across the back, my bottom two vertebrae are in bad shape and are the source of most of my back pain.
During the last thirty years, back pain has been a fact of life for me. It’s been worse at times and better at times, but it always lurks nearby. I’ve used back braces, pain patches, physical therapists, chiropractors, medications, a muscle stimulator and gin and tonics in my fight against pain. I visited my trusty brace man to fashion a brace to support my belly during my pregnancies and relieve the pressure on my spine, but I still had to take painkillers during pregnancy to make it through some days.
Generally I’m a rockstar at handling lower back pain. If your lower back felt the way mine feels on a normal day, you’d be shooting tequila and hollering for your mama.
Sometimes, however, there’s pain that no medicine can touch, and that’s what I’ve been fighting most recently.
It originated near the blue dot on the top diagram, which, coincidentally, is right by the top hook under my right shoulder.
This upper back pain is a new kind of pain for me, and I haven’t been managing it well. It radiates up into my neck, down my shoulder, and makes my arm and fingers numb. The muscles on the left side of my lower back are burning, perhaps because they are compensating for the fact that I’m trying to move my right side as little as possible.
I hurt when I stand and when I sit, but I hurt the most lying down. I’m beginning to dread night time.
Pain affects me physically, but it also gets inside my head. I’ve been yelling at the boys. Around 5:30, when it’s really throbbing, I feel like I’m seeing my family through a haze, and I fear that I’m losing my grasp on reality. I tell Porter to sweep up his cookie crumbs, but impatiently, because I think I’ve already told him once.
“Yes, ma’am,” Porter says, and he sweeps and then goes outside to write “Porter is cool” in Morse code on the driveway.
I ask Drew if he’s finished his homework.
“You already asked me that,” he says. I don’t remember.
Dinner is agonizingly slow, but no one else seems to notice.
“Finn, eat or don’t eat, but let’s get this over with,” I hiss.
“Honey, I’ll deal with the kitchen. You go lie down,” Bill says.
It’s a kind offer, and he means well, but it doesn’t help. Alone in our room, I cry. I’m frustrated. I’ve had a shot in my back and I’m scheduled for an MRI. My doctor has prescribed a different type of pain pill, but I still can’t sleep. I wonder if my boys will remember me as a bedridden mom, alternately weeping and shouting orders.
As the hours stretch on and everyone sleeps but me, my pity party is in full swing. I cry over the years I’ve spent recuperating from surgeries and liver disease. I sob about the things I can’t do, like turning cartwheels and somersaults. When I get good and worked up, I weep about my big feet, my small breasts and the paint peeling in the bathroom.
I know this season will pass. Tonight I’ll try not to scream and be impatient with the boys; to keep my hurt hidden until they’re tucked in.
I’ll try to remember what my mom told me: “My feet might be big, but they sure do hold me up.”
To be honest, I never was that good at cartwheels, either.
Three years ago in My Tiny Kingdom: Get Me Out Of Here!
The theme for this week’s Flashback Friday is OOPS! Feel free to join in– we’re having a marvelous time digging through old photos and blogging about the past. Instructions are here.
My therapist has been paying me all sorts of compliments lately, telling me that I’m a strong woman with a well-defined sense of right and wrong. I figured that was just good business sense on her part. With the economy in free fall, a therapist who makes her patients feel good about themselves, (but not too good), will ensure herself a decent income in the coming months.
But then she asked me where my strength came from, and I realized she wasn’t just buttering me up. She was truly curious.
I was diagnosed with scoliosis, or curvature of the spine, on the first day of sixth grade. Within a couple of weeks I’d seen an orthopedist and was being fitted with a Milwaukee brace for my back. Over the course of the next eighteen months my doctor tried another type of brace and put me on a strict exercise regime. My mom woke me up at five each morning to help me go through a workout designed to strengthen certain muscles and prevent my back from curving further.
I did all the exercises. I never took the brace off for more than the allotted hour a day. I suffered through the hurtful comments my classmates made. I had a crush on a guy a grade ahead of me, and one day his sister told me he thought I was an ugly dog. It was one of the only times I remember crying, but I sobbed all afternoon over his cutting remark.
My mom wasn’t impressed. “It’s just words. Ignore him.”
I tried to tell her that it was impossible to just ignore someone you’d been fantasizing about kissing, but she wasn’t listening.
I thought I couldn’t endure any more, but I was wrong. The curvature progressed, and I had spine surgery during seventh grade.
My doctors inserted rods on either side of my spine, and took chunks of bone from my hip to graft the rods into the vertebrae. My scar runs from the bottom of my neck to the top of my butt. I was in the hospital and then home for weeks, captive in yet another brace I’d have to wear twenty-four hours a day for nine months.
My surgery was in January. The brace would come off in November. Most importantly, tryouts for the high school dance team, known for its high kick line, were in March.
I spent those months catching up on school work and learning how to walk and move in a strange body that was anchored by a stiff spine. My physical therapist assigned me exercises to do once a day. I did them all, and sometimes I went through them again, hoping I could achieve greater flexibility. I could bend from the waist and the neck, but not in between. When I reached over to touch my toes, my back looked like a tabletop. Arching my back was out of the question.
Some of my most wonderful high school memories involve the years I spent on the dance team. Twenty-nine years and another spine surgery later, several of my former teammates are now sweating with me at Jazzercise. Sometimes I close my eyes when I’m dancing and pretend I’m in a stadium during half-time.
The other night I was at a restaurant and I saw the guy who’d called me an ugly dog. I ignored him.
I told my therapist that my strength comes from the fact that I’m a bit like a superhero, a woman equipped with a titanium spine reinforced with screws and bolts. You can’t see them, but in my mind I’m wearing bright gold boots, and I’m confident that they can kick anything that gets in my way.
One year ago in My Tiny Kingdom: Prank O’ The Day