Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Good Leg

"Looking at me and grunting in sympathy doesn't help me any!"

I can appreciate that my dad feels bad when I lift his mobility scooter to hump it into the back of my van. He snorts audibly as I lift the base of that scooter and in one motion land it heavily into my trunk, sort of like the snatch motion in weightlifting. "Careful with that," Dad says.

"Dad, there are two options when it comes to your scooter," I tell him. "Getting it in there, or staying home."

I take it apart into its components, but the main part is still heavy, and that battery is darn heavy, too. And sometimes I break a nail.

I'm glad my dad has a scooter, and I'm glad it enables him to get about. I'm glad he still wants to get about, as he was never the social butterfly. That was Mom's department, and Dad followed along because it made her happy.

Dad had Polio as a child, which paralyzed his right leg from the knee down. The ramifications and surgeries followed him throughout much of his teen years and his twenties. He was hale and hearty otherwise, and nice-looking and smart, so while one can't say the Polio didn't affect his young adult life much at all, one could say that Dad adapted plenty well, and while he was limited in speed, he was limited in little else.

The pronounced limp Dad walked with from the first day I knew him, didn't hinder him too much. He couldn't run, but that was about the only physical difference I could make out between my dad and anyone else's. My dad could go to work, my dad could build furniture, my dad could mow a lawn, my dad could climb a ladder, and my dad could swim in the ocean better than anyone else's dad I knew. He didn't drive; he couldn't flex his ankle to control the foot pedals. He could have had a car rigged to accommodate his special needs, but Mom drove, he reasoned, and "I have no desire to go anywhere without your mother, anyway."

My dad was on TV. I would never in a million years have said that to anyone, because it didn't make him better or more special than anyone else's dad, and I knew that from he get-go. I'd only tell anyone if they happened to ask, "What does your dad do?" But it was cool, and I was proud of him every time I heard him hawking Tide, or Ivory Liquid, or Nissan.

"I'm just selling stuff," he'd say.

We moved out of the city to P'son, and Dad had a whole large-ish yard complete with brook and two waterfalls and an aging farmhouse to deal with. Dad kept the unruly grounds in order, while Mom embraced her inner garden goddess and provided us with all manner of tomatoes, lettuce, zucchini and even okra, which you weren't even supposed to be able to grow outside of the temperate climate.

Dad tamed the unruly banks of our river with only a shovel--the river which overflowed alarmingly into our yard whenever we had a heavy rainfall, or our up-the-hill neighbors opened their dam without notice. He mowed our hilly lawn, first on foot, then a rider mower at my mother's insistence, without fail every week. He had a specific pattern that had to be followed, and no one, he said, could follow that pattern as well as it needed to be, hence, no one ever mowed the lawn but Dad. I always wanted to take that rider mower a few turns around the yard. But no.

"It needs to be done this way, and you don't take it seriously enough."

"You'll tip it over and get hurt."

Dad's lower right leg was missing muscle. It was spindly and lifeless. It was made up for in his left leg which was the leg of a football tackle. All the extra weight, all the extra work that leg had to do to make up for the sick one. The balls of that foot were hard like billiard balls. At one point, the knee of that left leg started to give him trouble. Without wasting time, Dad went straight to the orthopedist and straight into physical therapy. He'd sit on the kitchen counter every afternoon and do his exercises, the lifts and the flexes. "This is the only leg I have," Dad said. "If I lose this one, I'm sunk."

The occasional use of a cane was the first small sign. He downplayed it, and indeed only used it occasionally at first, on a longish walk or if the terrain was uneven. "I don't catch my balance as quickly as I used to," said Dad.

But soon enough, he was using it all the time. Not to worry, I told myself, lots of Dads used canes. And grandpas too, certainly...even more grandpas used canes, and Dad was a grandpa now.

The next transition took place at some point during the the surreal and disorienting period Mom was diagnosed with brain cancer--the surgery, the temporary "recovery," and a few blessed good months before the ultimate recurrence and of course, the ultimate...

All I remember is Dad went into it with a cane, and came out the other side with a walker. And a decidedly slower step.

He moved near us, Dad. He had to. You couldn't live in P'son without a car. There was no car rigged for him to drive, and he was too old to start now. And he had never wanted to go anywhere without Mom, anyway. I would have to do. And it was OK, after a spell.

There was nothing else for it to be but OK.

Dad began joining us on our summer vacations, and it worked out well. We all went to Cape Cod that next summer. In spite of my trepidation that it would be hard to return to the same place where only the previous summer, Dad had called to report that Mom's cancer had returned, it was all right. Dad took that walker and plunked his straw fedora on his head and walked out and sat by Long Pond and did his crossword puzzles and watched the kids swim and admonished me for not using enough sun block. It was business as usual, or as close as it was going to get.

"You know, my knee's not working right," Dad reported a couple of years later, another summer back at The Cape. I asked what he meant. The bad leg?

No. It was the good leg. The good knee. It had served valiantly, taking on lots of extra work, lots of overtime, for its weaker partner. And now it had decided to retire. Overnight, though not really.

Those strong arms of Dad's were called into extra service to take on even more than they had already. The good leg could still prop up Dad's weight, if he planted it carefully. He had to teach himself to to do this, to establish a new walking rhythm, though in an even slower tempo.

"I'm calling the doctor, Dad, he'll refer us to an orthopedist, and we'll..."

"No. No. Let's not" Dad said.

"What? What do you mean? You can barely walk. You can't go on like this, we have to see what can be done to..."

"No. No. I don't think the knee's going to get better. I think I'm damn lucky it's taken me this far."

I wondered what to do. "There's nothing to do," Dad said. "I'll just do what I have to, what else is there to do?"

And he did. If it took him fifteen minutes to get from point A to point B when it took the rest of us fifteen seconds, so be it. If it bothered anybody, it was their problem, not his.

I started paying attention to those Scooter Store commercials. Low-budget commercials, but to the point, and featuring the always-earnest owner of the company as the spokesman, an approach Mom had always liked. "He looks honest, and it looks like a good product," she'd say when one would appear on TV.

Indeed, it did. I contacted the company, and they put me in touch with their local rep. We made an appointment, and he came to our apartment, where I had brought Dad over and we were all eagerly waiting. The rep buzzed the buzzer and I came down, as we'd agreed upon. I had to drive one of the scooters up. He was an outgoing fellow, with a ready smile and handshake and, of course, patter, as all salesmen should be. He and I drove the scooters around the building and into the basement service entrance to the bemusement of all neighbors passing by.

We selected the proper scooter in short order...the right model, the right seat, the right payment plan ("I'll just pay for it now and be done with it," Dad proclaimed) and after Ian took a salesman-sanctioned turn on one model up and down our fourth-floor hallway, the salesman was gone. Within a few days the spanking-new red scooter arrived, with the deluxe padded seat with the arm rests. Perfect.

It sat for a while in Dad's living room. We were all a little stand-offish. Dad wasn't too sure he'd be able to maneuver it properly. I wasn't so sure I'd be able to take it apart and put it back together as easily as they did on TV and as easily as I did it with the salesman. "Oh let's just go somewhere, what's the big deal??" my sister Kat demanded with the certainty and confidence of someone who only addressed these issues occasionally, from afar, and totally at her will.

But we did. Dad and Kat and I went to Cape May. It was the off-season, but we weren't there for sun or sand or boardwalks. We were there to be together for a couple of days and try out this goddamned new contraption and get used to the idea that this thing, this thing that no one wants to have to acknowledge, was in our lives.

Kat, she needed to realized that Dad grows feeble. She sees him less frequently, and it's more of a tiny shock every time, the thinness, the slowness. She doesn't get over as much as she'd like to, and she does feel bad. She built her life elsewhere; I built it closer to "home." And it's OK. My bile rises once in a while, and when it does, I remind myself that when Dad's mom grew old, it was Aunt Babs', Dad's sister, who took on the lion's share of care. And Aunt Babs' bile rose up once in a while, too. It's normal. It's the way life happens.

I take Dad on his rounds, bring him over to dinner, check in. Kat comes up when she can and we take Dad to dinner. We take the occasional weekend somewhere, the three of us. And when we do, she always humps the scooter into my van. I think it makes us both feel better.


Dad once told me that he wanted a pony when he was a little boy. He told me his dad would always respond, "Wiggle those toes, and I'll get you a pony." When I think about my dad, always stuggling to wiggle those toes, it makes me cry.

No comments:

Post a Comment