pushing mobility limits on places like a path to the river

A month ago, traversing this sandy path down to the river would have been unthinkable. Yet here I am.

“SHE,” said the guard, pointing to me, “is what we call S.T.U.B.B.O.R.N.”

“Absolutely,” I grinned, and continued to climb the courthouse steps with my grannywalker.

“Ma’am, we HAVE a wheelchair lift,” the guard repeated, patiently, “Wouldn’t you feel…safer…not climbing those stairs?”

“Nope. I just need to know I can do this.”

That’s becoming the mantra: Can I do this? Let’s find out.

Take chances, push boundaries, keep seeing just how much The Leg can do with minimal assistance. I clamber down sandy inclines, walk a little farther each day, try my hand at outdoor activities I haven’t been able to touch in years.

Whether I succeed or not, each time I’m restoring muscle memory, getting stronger, edging ever so slightly closer to normal.

plum tree alley at work

Change of pace yesterday: Instead of driving down the plum trees to work, I headed for jury duty.

This morning, though, I took a huge chance: I reported for jury duty at an unfamiliar courthouse with ONLY my grannywalker. No Tyrone Spiffy the wheelchair for backup, no idea how far I’d be walking, or what obstacles I’d encounter, just the certainty that if I couldn’t do it on the walker, I wouldn’t be doing it.

On Friday night, Sept. 16, 2016, I fractured my left femur just above Elmo, my replacement knee. I lived in a wheelchair, facing hip-high amputation of my left leg, for about two years while I fought health care bureaucracy, cost-conscious HMOs, and myself to figure out a way to walk again. (Spoiler alert: Elmo won!)

I documented my adventures in remobilization in 49 blogposts. They’re awfully self-indulgent, occasionally icky, and probably only of interest to me, but on the off-chance that they help someone else with a catastrophic injury, I’m keeping them together here. If you don’t want to read them, that’s OK; I still love you. If you do, you might want to start from the beginning, on the archive page that lists all 49 posts.

It’s all part of getting back to “unconscious mobility,” and it requires undoing all the logistics planning regimens I’ve carefully built for my non-walking self.

It’s tough to understand this if you’ve never had severely limiting mobility issues, but wheelchaired folk spend a LOT of time prepping for outside excursions. A couple of very scary experiences made me realize I couldn’t just head out my front door without planning. At the very least, I had to consider:

  • How (and when) would I get there? The logistics of getting a wheelchair (and me) in and out of a car add extra travel time, and carry their own requirements: A level handicap space with a reasonable ramp onto the curb (harder to find in downtown PDX than you’d think) and enough space beside the space to assemble a wheelchair. Frequently, it’s just easier to take Lyft.
  • Where do I put the car? PDX has a bad habit of putting the nearest handicap space about six blocks from where I need to be, and there are a LOT of hills. Sometimes the only thing I can do is take Lyft.
  • What must I carry and how? The problem with Tyrone Spiffy–incredibly mobile as he is–is he has almost no cargo space. I become an expert at stowing small things under my thighs, sticking my mobile in the little provided pocket, and in backpacks slung across the wheelchair handles…as long as I can reach them by myself. If I can’t…someone will need to be there to help.
  • How accessible is my destination? Are there stairs? Busted sidewalks from overgrown tree roots? Narrow doors or passageways? (there was the time in the Japanese restaurant that half the staff had to help me shakily stand so they could LIFT the entire wheelchair assembly over a planterbox to get me into the restaurant) Gravel or sand paths where my wheels will bog down? Can I see images online? Do I have a plan for dealing with each obstacle type?
  • Is there a bathroom I can actually use? In commercial buildings you EXPECT handicap accessibility in the bathrooms, but apparently architects leave a lot of it open to interpretation. I’ve been in handicap stalls where the wheelchair didn’t fit inside; the only way I could use it was to leave the door wide open. Or the stall would be wide enough but have grab bar(s) in the wrong spot, making it difficult to get up and down. Or–the worst time–a beautifully accessible ladies room sat at the top of a flight of rickety stairs–no elevator.
  • Is there a place for me to sit? You’d be surprised at the number of meeting rooms, auditoriums, restaurants, stores that are so well-space-planned that they have no room for the relatively large footprint of a wheelchair. Can’t say how many times I’ve wound up blocking a doorway because I simply couldn’t get past the furniture in the room.
  • Is there a buffet? Buffets are awful in a wheelchair–how do you simultaneously push your wheelchair (with both hands), hold a plate of food, utensils, napkins, a drink, and carry on a conversation? Sit down dinners in a restaurant are fine–but I started avoiding buffets like the plague.
  • What’s the weather like? Much as I love PDX rain, trying to self-propel a wheelchair in the rain is miserable. My hands slip on the rims, I’m soaked to the skin (I never figured out how to get an umbrella to stay put), and I may not actually be able to get up steeper ramps. If it’s raining, I may just stay home. Ditto for ice; I don’t even want to THINK about what it’s like to try and wheel across slick.
  • Is there a number/person I can call if I get in trouble? I’ve gone into buildings where the elevator is only used for freight and left turned off most of the time. No one seems to ever know how to reach the person with a key, leaving me stuck on the ground floor until it’s resolved.
  • Will I ever be completely on my own, with no other resources? Do I have my paper emergency call list instead of just the one in the phone? Extra battery charge (if you’re dependent on using your phone for Lyft, a dead battery is a disaster)? Backup pen, paper, reachy magnet stick thing, flashlight, string, safety pins, etc…it’s amazing the stuff you need in an emergency.
  • Will I have time? Schedules are greatly extended when you’re wheelchaired (slightly less so in a walker). If I need to be there at 10:00 AM, when do I actually have to start? I typically added at least an hour for wheelchair logistics, adding more for every known obstacle. Then I’d tack on maybe another 30 minutes for surprises. I was still late far too often.

Those lessons were hard-won, and now I’m undoing them. I’m challenging myself to GO SOMEWHERE, DO SOMETHING…without forward planning. So far, it’s working well and I haven’t gotten myself into any trouble. (To be fair, I always make sure I’m either traveling with someone I trust or that it’s a popular area during normal business hours.)

So…I headed for the courthouse at 6:45AM, arriving to discover that the nearest parking garage was about three blocks away.

Nope. Found a handicap space next to the courthouse and walked the bit more than a block on the grannywalker to the steps. Tired, but still going strong.

Waited patiently in line for my turn at the metal detector, clambered those steps (much to the dismay of the cops and security guards: “Ma’am could you PLEASE wait while we get a transport chair for you?” Nope.) and wound up called into a jury panel about an hour later.

The case was, er, unexpected: The meanest-looking very old lady I’ve ever set eyes on was accused of assault, battery, harassment, and stalking, which I took to mean she does NOT play well with others. And the questions the defense attorney–a youngish guy with a startling resemblance to Dana Carvey–asked were intriguing:

  • “As a juror, do you think someone you don’t like at all can still be innocent of a crime?”
  • “If you were to hear evidence that the defendant wasn’t always the nicest person, would that sway your presumption of innocence?”
  • “Do you believe that a person can do unfriendly or unacceptable things but not be guilty of an actual crime?”

OK, this I GOTTA hear…but it wasn’t to be. After hours of voix dire (which is mostly the lawyers talk while prospective jurors make like bobblehead dolls, nodding and smiling), the court decided I was superfluous and let me go home. I suppose I’ll never hear the story behind this one.

Drat. But I survived with just a grannywalker and my own two feet, and didn’t hold the line up once. I counted it as a big victory, even though it had nothing to do with serving justice.

I headed home to find the Resident Carpenter toiling away in the backyard, planting trees. “I decided,” he said, a bit sheepishly, “To get naked.”

Thank heavens his definition of naked includes a pair of baggy cargo shorts.

my little seed greenhouse started out as these flat brown pellets

So you open up this little plastic box, pour water into these peat pellet things, and wait.

“AND I’ve set things up so YOU can help with the garden!”

Oh, joy. 

Sure enough, he’d set up little peat pot greenhouse things that needed to be filled with seeds. “You can sit here, right at the table under the umbrella, and get the seedlings sprouted for me.”

I dutifully filled the thing with water, let the peat pots expand, and stuck in seeds. Not exactly rocket science, but as I watched the little pots pop up high, I did kinda start getting into the spirit of things.

filled with water, the plant pots expand

In about five minutes, the pellets start to swell and turn into dirt for seeds.

“Maybe I can plant all the bulbs?” I offered–at this point I think I’ve purchased something like 300 different calla lilies, lily of the valley, stuff like that–and started making site plans.

We’ve got cedar boxes coming for raised-bed gardening, and a lot of vegetables and fruit and stuff to plant. The RC is in charge of all that, but I figured I could do the strictly aromatic stuff maybe…

“Sure,” he said enthusiastically, “Let’s get you a little cart you can sit on, and we need a hoe, some extra spades, that kind of stuff. I could only find an old shovel in your garage, you didn’t even have a wheelbarrow! You must have lost a lot of gardening tools in all the demolition on the house!”

Uhm…you can’t lose what you’ve never owned. I’m somehow not communicating a basic concept here: People who hate gardening don’t buy gardening tools.

backyard shed and all the plants to be planted

Until we can finish turning the new shed into a coldworking studio, it’s serving time as a gardening storage unit

Shortly after, I found myself equipped with a little green pushcart, suitable for sitting on and rolling down the rows of burgeoning crops. The cart holds my very own tools for grunnying in dirt.

“This is really good for your muscles,” Nathan said eagerly,” and you can show me where you plan to put ALL THESE PLANTS. Deep down, you’ve always wanted to garden or you wouldn’t have bought ALL THESE PLANTS…”

Buying plants and planting plants, my friend, are two different things. This is why we opened our home to The Resident Carpenter. But yeah, kinda see your point.

casting on sauvie island

Nathan (that’s Monty the dog beside him) casting into the river on Sauvie Island in Portland

Monday night, the RC packed his fishing gear in the Suburban, loaded up me and Monty-the-dog, and headed for Sauvie Island, to fish the wide sandbar for sturgeon and steelhead. He didn’t catch anything, and all I did was hobble down to the shore, sit on a big log and watch, but…it was kinda cool.

The river chuckled by as he cast his line, and the herons and geese gabbled noisily overhead. Downriver someone was singing happy birthday but, mostly, we had the river to ourselves. It was peaceful, and I found my thoughts turning away from favored salmon recipes and into new, quieter meditations.

OK, being outdoors is amazingly peaceful and kinda fun. My feelings will revert when I’m attacked by bears and cougars and giant biting bugs and stuff, but I can definitely see the attraction until then. So maybe camping isn’t completely out of the question…

It’s a new phase for me. Things are settling, life is slowly easing together in ways I couldn’t have imagined two years ago. Even Lola and Nikki–who over the last two years have become sworn enemies, barely able to stay in the same room together–are settling in and once again becoming sisters.

cats sitting together on bench

Holy cow! Even Lola and Nikki are (mostly) getting along

And the checkmarks on my bucket list grow.