As the Xray professional emerged from behind his cabin, Paul questioned, “How bad is it?”
“The doctor will discuss that with you,” he replied placidly, helping me up. “All I can say,” he continued, addressing me, “is that you are an unfortunate woman.”
Until that moment, despite the excruciating pain, I had been trying to maintain a light, cheerful approach, but suddenly the words “unfortunate woman” traveled from my ears into every nerve of my body, flooding me with images of Defoe’s Moll Flanders, my first novel read and adored in high school English. Unfortunate Moll, scandalous Moll, repentant Moll Flanders. I had certainly never been described, nor considered myself, as unfortunate. Before the doctor could break the news of multiple fractures to both wrists and send me on to the orthopedic for casts, I deliriously rattled on to him about Defoe’s book, and the oddness of having been labelled “unfortunate woman.”
It was the opening to the story of my accident, repeated to curious empathizers over the following days and weeks. None of them knew Moll Flanders. But over the ensuing months I came to understand what the young technician had meant. Life became a lesson in humility as I failed miserably to perform the most mundane tasks without the manual assistance of others.
I was able for the first few days to maintain a somewhat jovial demeaner, although my body was less cooperative. It refused to void for a week, as it processed a heightened anxiety over the ability to wipe and cleanse itself. Groggy with painkillers, I was grateful for my strong legs and abdominal muscles which allowed my knees to hoist my body onto our high bed and roll down without the use of hands. Nights were spent sitting up propped on pillows in case of sleeplessness, as I knew I could not pick up and position the extra pillow. Elbows, knees, hips, shoulders and teeth became my best friends. I could pick up scraps of food and, by raising my right elbow and twisting my neck, could drop them into my mouth at an angle. Easier just to use my tongue and lick it off the plate. The human tongue, I discovered, is not so different from a cat’s, with the stickiness that allows it to pick up small bits. I lined up the pills on my bureau, letting my tongue pick them up individually and washing them down with the use of a straw. Paul gawked when he put a bowl of popcorn in front of me on movie night and watched me dive my face straight into it and scoff up the kernels handlessly. It was weeks before I could manage a spoon at first, then a fork, holding it with knuckles up the way a toddler does. The straw was handy for rinsing after brushing teeth, and for consuming large amounts of wine.
He grumbled with reluctance, sighed, cried out with exasperation “What now?”, but Paul dutifully substituted my hands with his own. He poured my wine, made sure the water glass at my pill center was always full, spread toothpaste on my toothbrush, brushed my hair, lowered and lifted my pants each time I had to pee, soaked hot washcloths so I could clumsily dab myself after defecating, cut my food, prepared our meals and cleaned up afterward, and drove me to my daughter’s house once a week to visit. Among my first achievements was the proud ability to help clear the table, transporting single items – only the light ones – with both hands to the kitchen sink. “I can DO this,” I insisted each time he questioned a new small accomplishment.
Paul’s belief in his abilities stopped when it came to hygiene. I did not dare have him remove my bra, for dread of the absurdity of putting it back on. Colleen and Savannah kindly came on Sundays, and while Colleen washed my hair in the kitchen sink and swept the floor, Savannah sharpened my pencils, filled my vitamin egg cups, and wound up my clock. A loose pair of sweatpants, Paul’s extra-large flannel shirt, and a wool cape clothed me for weeks, along with a pair of warm shoes I could easily slip off and on. It was all about finding ways around the handicap. As for nails, I rekindled a childhood habit of chewing them off, aware of the unthinkable challenge of squeezing a clipper. Three weeks after the fall, we managed to have an aide come to give me a shower. First bra removal. First flow of hot water on my back. Clean clothes. Toenails clipped. I must have blessed her a hundred times. She recommended I use baby wipes for arm pits and privates, and these became my next best friend.
Paul became less threatened as he saw even our granddaughter wash my hair in the sink, and he, too, joined in this task, first rubber banding the plastic bags over my casts so I could plug my ears against the rinsings. He eventually recognized that showering with me was not a threat but an occasion for closeness and acceded to it with pleasure.
It was several weeks before both hands laboring together could turn a doorknob. I had been trapped inside the house until that day. When the florist showed up to deliver flowers from Anna, I wildly gestured from the door window that she would have to let herself in. And when Paul and I ventured anywhere by car I waited patiently by the door to be let in, or in my seat to be let out. Like a pet, waiting for its owner’s beckoning.
“I may not have any hands,” I repeated the mantra to myself and others, “but I still have strong legs and abs.” Determined not to let my body atrophy, the second day after the accident I descended to my basement gym and began searching YouTube for lower body workouts using no equipment. Hands crossed over my chest, I walked, stepped, jumped, did ballet, rolled to the floor for abs, and discovered a plethora of ways to keep muscles vibrant and heart pumping, all while keeping the same heavy clothes and shoes, and dabbing away the sweat with baby wipes.
Success was measured by little steps in which I took silly pride, and for which those around me applauded. “Guess what I did today!” I’d gleam to Paul or text to my kids and sisters. The goal was two new accomplishments per week. Pulling down and back up my own pants, pulling the sheets up to cover our bed, using a dustpan and small broom. It was easier and less painful to squat and reach out than to pull a long broom vertically, and so I meandered around the house squatting every few feet to scoop bits off the floor. Uncorking a bottle of wine, brushing my teeth one-handed, throwing out the straw, carrying small items, washing my own hair and changing my clothes, swirling a long-handled brush over dishes to wash them, cutting my own meat.
The casts created a permanent rocklike, unfriendly bulk in my palm, like carrying around a small iron dumbbell. Although strength was beginning to return, I still could not grip my Chevy’s stick shift. After six weeks of wearing the casts, which by then stank of sweat and dirt, and having the technician saw through and crank them open, I gasped with tears as I saw the hideously deformed wrists emerge with no mercy. “The new you,” teased the doctor. I was no sooner home than on the internet ordering athletic wristbands to hide myself. As a young woman, my signature had been vivid fuchsia colored lipstick; now it would be colorful wristbands.
I was finally cleared for physical therapy and determined to be a diligent and successful patient. My therapist made me name three goals: to drive my Chevy stick shift, to pick up my granddaughter, and to make a bed from scratch. The exercises proved excruciating, and they increased in number and degree of difficulty with each visit. But when my PT added in hammer curls with two-pound dumbbells, and palm-down triceps extensions with a band, I asked at my next visit if this meant I could reintroduce a number of upper body exercises I had been forgoing for months. All within reason, of course, and with minimum weight at first. Determination was my driving force, and slowly, over the months, the strength and mobility returned almost back to normal. My first goal was met in time for the publication of a piece, “Ode to the Stick Shift.” And the day after I officially picked up, carried and controlled my two-year old granddaughter, as well as changed her diaper as she fought me, I ran to thank my therapist, even though my visits had ended.
Upward battles are not fought without defeats. I will spare the reader here details of the agonizing pain, waking in tears of stiffness, too petrified to move, the moments of despair and hopelessness, watching my granddaughter cry while useless to hold and console her, tears, tears, and more tears. Many of my lowest moments were met with the kindness and encouragement of those around me, and I thank them all. For the cards and emails, flowers, offers of assistance, patience at my ravings.
Lying in Newgate Prison and awaiting the gallows after her life of sin and wickedness, unfortunate Moll Flanders was granted a reprieve and instead transported to America. With a different set of circumstances I, too, am being granted a new beginning with my new hands.