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“Hello,” my best friend Lexie answered the phone.
“Arrrgggghhhhh,” I wailed in response.
“What is it this time,” Lexie asked. She was accustomed to my phone calls. “Did you lock your keys in your car? Break your toe trying on heels again? Run out of chocolate?”
She gets me.
“No, no and yes but that’s not the problem. At least it won’t be a problem until the four p.m. sugar craving kicks in,” I said making a mental note to pick up a candy bar on the way home.
“This arrgggghhhhh is about work,” I continued. “I’m giving a speech in twenty minutes and I dripped café mocha on my white blouse. I don’t have time to go home and change and the stain removing pen I keep in the car melted in last week’s heat wave.”
“I bet no one will notice,” she said encouragingly.
“Ha! Not likely,” I retorted. “There’s a big brown splot dead center on my right boob. They’re going to notice.”
“I’m sure it won’t be as bad as my last presentation to vendors.”
“What happened,” I asked.
“The presentation was really important. I was afraid I wouldn’t sleep well the night before so I took a sleeping pill but it only helped a little because Buster kept waking me up.”
Buster is Lexie’s eighty-pound Boxer mix who never grew up. He’s big, goofy and totally lovable.
“He was asleep next to my bed and he was dreaming. He was drumming his claws on the hardwood floor like he was running. The constant clicking kept waking me up. Then, he began barking in his sleep. You know the kind of muffled bark that they do?”
“I do,” I replied, “I’m never sure if they’re having a good dream or a bad dream.”
“That’s it,” she agreed. “He started barking and drumming his nails on the floor and I kept waking slightly but not all the way. Suddenly, he squealed.”
“It startled me fully awake,” she said. “I jumped to comfort him, spun and did a face plant on the headboard. I broke my nose.”
“No,” I gasped.
“Yes,” she retorted. “I woke with two black eyes. When I did my presentation, no one said a word. Feel better?”
“No, but you did solve one problem.”
“I didn’t know how I was going to open my speech,” I said. “Now I have a funny story to tell.”
“Glad I could help,” she replied dryly.
I hobbled to the physical therapist’s exam room.
I had a ruptured disc in my low back. It was painfully pressing on my sciatic nerve. I had not been able to sit upright for a month and movement was impossible without the aid of a walker.
I ate all my meals lying down and drinking required a straw since I could neither sit up nor turn my glass sideways without spilling.
The therapist was sympathetic. She too had coped with a similar back injury. Her empathy showed as she patiently talked me through her exam and explained what to expect from physical therapy.
When her exam was finished, she carefully explained her findings. She talked at length about my options, she detailed different options and she concluded with her recommendation. She prescribed a course of aquatic physical therapy.
I heard, “I have to shave my legs.”
Now I had a real problem.
I hadn’t shaved since my back went out four weeks before.
If I’m candid, it was four weeks and a few days. After all prior to my ruptured disc, we had that rainy spell when I’d worn jeans.
I considered my situation. I couldn’t sit, walk, drive or drink without a straw. The only time I looked at my legs was when I lay on my back, stuck them straight up in the air and pulled on a clean pair of pajama pants, usually with assistance.
Even that brief encounter with my appendages assured me that I badly needed a shave. If that weren’t enough, I would have noticed the length of the hairs once my cat started grooming them.
I don’t mind shaving on occasion and enough time had passed since I last picked up my razor to warrant a shave without complaints. The problem was that because of the back injury, I couldn’t reach my own legs.
Not only could I not reach my legs, I had no idea where I could shave. I couldn’t stand so the shower was out. I was able to crawl into the bathtub on a near daily basis but the tub caused me great pain. My baths lasted only as long as it took to wash my hair and scrub my armpits. Then I crawled back out to rest on the floor and let the pain subside.
The inevitable truth stared me in the prickly calves. I was going to have to ask for help.
I only had two choices: my husband or my mother.
“Mom,” I said as sweetly as possible. “I need a favor.”
Because only a mother loves you enough to shave your legs for aquatic physical therapy.
“Put on clean underwear before you go out,” my grandmother Maxine said “That way if you have a wreck you’ll be wearing clean underwear.” It was an adage she lived by.
My grandmother was a diminutive woman. By my ninth year, I towered over her. Yet her shortness of stature never slowed her down.
She often told me of the years she spent playing softball and she beamed with pride when she told me of the time she won a jitterbug contest. She was the church pianist and banged out up-tempo hymns on her home piano for my sister and I to dance to.
Of all the things she told me though, the charge to put on clean underwear was the one she repeated the most.
After she passed away we cleaned out her things. We found package after package of unopened underwear, fresh and ready for my grandmother to put on before going out.
In her lifetime, she never once had a wreck bad enough to require hospitalization but she and her underwear were ready for one, just in case.
Besides being spunky and cleanly dressed, my grandmother was very organized; so organized in fact that she planned her own funeral ten years in advance.
She asked her pastor to lead the service. When she out lived him, she enlisted his replacement instead. A friend from her gospel trio was to sing and she mailed sheet music of her selected hymn to a fellow pianist.
My mother and aunt drew clothing delivery and makeup duty. I was too young to be assigned a part when her funeral plans were first drafted though by the time the funeral actually happened I was in my early twenties.
My mother and my aunt were understandably nervous about their role in the funeral arrangements, a chore made no less daunting by my grandmother’s makeup routine.
Years before my birth, my grandmother shaved her eyebrows off. They never grew back. My whole life I knew her eyebrows as two thin lines, drawn onto her forehead with brown eyeliner.
Mom and Aunt Christie rallied together bravely to do their part. It helped that my grandmother made a list of what she was to wear upon her death.
They found her blue pantsuit, her leather flats, her favorite gold-plated watch and her “good” pearls, packed them up and drove to the funeral home.
It was at the service when my aunt leaned over to my mother and said, “Did you pack any underwear for her?”
“No,” my mother replied. “Did you?”
And so it was that the woman who had enough underwear to cloth a small nation met her maker while going commando.
Working from home has its pros and cons.
The best part, naturally, are the pros: I can do laundry while meeting a deadline, I don’t have to pack a lunch and if the weather is rainy, sunny or wintery I pour another cup of coffee, fluff the pillows and get back to work.
Everyone should enjoy the thrill of answering an important business call in their footy pajamas at least once.
The downside is that I never feel entitled to a day off. Through throes of flu or nasty winter colds, I rationalize that if I can work in my bed when I feel lazy I can also work in my bed when I feel crummy.
Being a writer is not a physically taxing job but it does strain the mental muscles. That makes working through illness difficult. When my brain is throttled back to naptime and chicken soup it doesn’t deliver my best work.
Add medication and there’s no telling what I might write.
Take last pollen season for example. My red-rimmed eyes burned and I chugged grape flavored syrupy medicine. I had exactly two hours left to meet my deadline and the only words I had on paper were “my head hurts.”
Look out, Hemingway; here comes Nora Blithe.
It was time to buckle down. I soaked in a hot tub, sipped a toddy and put on a fresh pair of footy pajamas. Forty-five minutes left until the deadline. I powered up my laptop.
Suddenly, words exploded on the page. My fingers flew across the keyboard like Jerry Lee Lewis banging out his most energetic performance of “Great Balls of Fire.”
I was on a roll.
With fifteen minutes to spare, I read my work and groaned.
There once was a train wreck in Nebraska that wasn’t as messy.
I sighed. If ever I needed a dog to eat my homework it was then. Sadly, we’d invested hundreds of dollars in training to teach our dog not to eat our things. Figures.
It was a crisis time. I did what any great writer would do. I poured a cocktail and republished an old column.
If my head wasn’t hurting so much I would have enjoyed the irony. I could have taken the whole day off if only I had resubmitted an old column right away instead of trying to work from home on a sick day.
Things were bad.
I first ruptured a disc in my back three years ago. Surgery, acupuncture, physical therapy, chiropractic care, massage and even a pain specialist have improved me greatly over the years but once a back goes out it’s all too willing to repeat its past mistakes.
Mine was no exception and a pinched nerve landed me in bed for over a week. Two trips to the doctor, a steroid injection and muscle relaxers had done little to ease my pain. In fact, it was getting worse. I was only comfortable flat on my back. As the days progressed I found it harder and harder to leave the bed.
Fortunately, my back went out on a holiday weekend and my husband Brian was off work to help me. Unfortunately, he had to return to work when the holiday was over and I was unable to walk to get myself a drink or lunch.
“What are we going to do,” I asked in all seriousness.
“I don’t know,” he replied gravely.
“I can’t ask my mother or sister to come. Their families are on vacation together. I can’t ask them to leave their vacation.”
It doesn’t matter how old I get when something hurts I want my mom.
“You can’t miss work,” I continued, “but I can’t lay in bed all day without lunch or water.”
Brian sighed deeply, “We need to get you set up in one of those assisted living homes.”
I would have burst out laughing if laughing didn’t make my back hurt so much. Then I realized he wasn’t smiling.
“You’re serious,” I gasped in disbelief.
“Those people know how to help you,” he said.
“Oh my gosh you are serious,” I said.
“They can get your lunch and help you roll over.”
I rolled my eyes. “I’m thirty-five! I’d be surrounded by eighty-five year olds!”
“And they all get around better than you.”
“I wonder if your doctor can help us get you set up,” he said.
“No assisted living home is going to move me in because of a pinched nerve. By the time a bed opens up my back will be normal again. Well, normal for me which isn’t that great but you know what I mean. Besides, you’re making me feel old and decrepit,” I pouted.
He suddenly brightened.
“I have an idea,” he announced, “it will help you get around better and won’t make you feel so bad. I’ll be right back.”
He grabbed his keys and left the house. An hour later, he returned and presented me with my very own – walker. He bought me a walker.
He was right on one count. I did get around much better and could be left to fend for myself. As far as not feeling old, well, I’ll say this, getting out of bed without help made me feel fifty years younger.
It’s amazing how two people can grow up in the same house with the same parents and end up being such different people.
Take my nieces for example.
I recall when Callie, the oldest, was learning to swim. I took her swimming at my aunt’s pool. My sister ensconced my niece in plastic inflatables: there was an inner tube that covered her midsection from armpits to thighs and her arms were invisible beneath bright blue plastic tubes.
She wouldn’t have sunk if she’d struck an iceberg.
In spite of the inner tube and swimmies, Callie was terrified. She only agreed to be in the pool if I held on to her with both hands.
After roughly two hours of a small, clingy, inflated child grasping my neck, I decided to pry her off and let her discover for herself that she was in no danger of sinking. I wriggled free of her clutch and let her bob in the shallow end a foot and a half from the steps.
Callie screamed loud enough to set off two car alarms and send the police by on a wellness check. I didn’t take her swimming again for three years.
Callie’s younger sister, Nicole, turned four last month and is now learning to swim. She wanted to join me, my sister and Callie in the hot tub recently but was a bit unsure. Now a swimming pro, Callie coaxed her sister Nicole to join us in the warm bubbling water.
There were no blow up rings around Nicole’s waist or arms, no way of preventing sinking. If she went under it was up to Aunt Nora to fish her out.
After a few minutes adjusting to the temperature and sound, Nicole began to relax and enjoy the water.
“Have you learned to put your face in the water yet,” I asked Nicole.
“No,” she told me but that didn’t stop her from trying. She leaned her face toward the water and dipped her chin in.
Suddenly, her feet slipped and she plunged face first into the water. She was completely submerged. I grabbed her, pulled her to the surface and braced for screaming.
She didn’t make a peep.
Then she grinned, flung her arms over her head and announced, “I did it,” in the singsong voice of one who has won a board game or found a lost penny.
I glanced at my own sister shrugged who shrugged, “They’re as different as you and I.”
It made perfect sense.
It was 1987. I was nine that summer. My parents took my sister and I on our annual camping trip.
We were camping pros. We had pitched more tents than a Boy Scout troupe but nothing could have prepared us for what happened that summer.
It started with a noise, a low hum like heavy equipment. The sound was out of place in the forest. It grew ever louder as we drove deeper into the woods.
Then, we saw it: a giant ungainly bug with garish red and green markings. It had enormous, bulging eyes, paper-thin wings and was bigger than my hand.
It was a cicada and it wasn’t alone.
Millions of the grasshopper-like creatures crawled from the earth. Their constant droning buzzed in our ears and the top of our tent sagged with the weight of hundreds of bodies.
Cicadas come out only once every seven years and we had the misfortune of timing a camping trip with their arrival.
In true outdoor spirit, my family persevered, determined to have a campout in spite of the creatures. They were harmless after all. What could go wrong?
We slept through the night in relative peace. It was the next morning when disaster struck.
My mother suddenly clutched her leg. Her eyes wide and her body rigid. She looked like she was suffering from a sudden and major medical condition.
“What’s wrong,” my dad asked concerned.
“One crawled up my pants leg,” my mother said in a strangled voice.
“What,” my dad asked.
“A cicada! It crawled up my pants leg,” my mother screamed. “Ahhh! It’s going higher!” She desperately pressed her hands against her thigh to stop the cicada from continuing its upward journey.
“Pull your pants off,” Dad suggested.
“No,” my mother screamed back, “what if someone sees me?”
“I know,” Dad said, “I’ll squish it.”
He started toward Mom with his hand raised ready to swat.
“No,” Mom shrieked! She began hopping away from him. “Don’t you dare squish that bug on my leg!”
She hopped some more.
“I think it’s going down,” she said with some relief.
She leapt up and down vigorously shaking the uninvited guest down her leg and onto the ground.
“Aww,” Dad said in mock disappointment. “I wanted to squish it.”
Mom shot him a nasty look.
“Pack up,” she said. “We’re leaving! We’ll come back next year when these things are gone!”
We never went camping again. Some scars take a lifetime to heal.