“Well, hello there!” she beamed, “What are YOU doing back here?”

I’m back at The Fortress, the rehab center where I spent the first six weeks or so of the fight to save Elmo. To be honest, I didn’t expect to see this place again, but at the moment it’s a welcome respite.

And I gotta admit, it’s a bit of a hoot being wheeled down the hall to employees’ dawning recognition…“Cynthia…? Is that you?”

I certainly didn’t INTEND to wind up at The Fortress. For some reason I’d gotten the notion that a bone marrow graft was easy-peasy, in-and-out surgery. Outpatient, with a restful overnight stay.

I had it all planned: Surgery on Friday, back at Mom’s by Saturday, Sunday at the latest. Back to work on Wednesday.

“Newsflash: Any procedure that includes the words ‘bone marrow graft’ is major surgery” said one of the docs later, kindly, “Major surgery isn’t over in a couple of days.”

Somehow I missed that part.

Early Friday morning I breezed down to the hospital by myself (I took Lyft–no point in making the whole family get up for such a minor procedure), checked in with aplomb, surrendered my overnight case to the surgical locker, and allowed myself to be wheeled into the prep cubicle.

The anesthesiologist gave me a choice of anesthetics, like a waitress enumerating salad dressings. I picked the spinal. “Excellent choice,” he said.

The Doc came in–we’re old buddies by now–and signed his name on my leg and hip. They’d take bone marrow from my pelvis, mix it with donor bone, and pack it into the gap above Elmo.

“You can still choose to have bone marrow taken from your other leg,” he warned, “There’s less pain associated with that than cutting the abdominal muscles.”

“Nope,” I confirmed, “Pelvis is better-quality stuff. We go for the best.”

Never underestimate a doctor who uses the word “pain” in a sentence involving your body parts

The nerve block wore off Sunday morning, and suddenly, things weren’t so easy. Think dozens of deep-sea fishing hooks embedded in your stomach and thigh, attached to wild horses galloping across a gravel road.

It hurt more than that. Ouch.

“You can’t go home yet,” they said.

No sh..fooling, Sherlock.

Instead, I made the hour-long trek to The Fortress on Sunday afternoon, in the same wheelchair transport I took there last fall but with a lot more wincing. Vancouver really needs to work on its potholes.

The caregivers at the Fortress are as nice and helpful as ever, gently easing me into bed, checking my wounds, scurrying to bring me whatever I need.

Down the hall Frank, the retired lawyer, is negotiating going to lunch. He’s so far refused to get out of bed, but the caregivers know he’s simply holding out for the best deal and indulge him.

“I want a shot of Glenlivet after dinner,” he demands, knowing he won’t get it. He settles for an extra helping of dessert–cherry cheesecake tonight–and allows himself to be trundled down the hall.

Across the hall, Gina is in the doorway, head hanging down. “I’m so depressed,” she moans, “Please, can someone talk with me?”

I obligingly wheel over. “Hi,” I say, “Wanna go down the hall and play cards?”

She glares at me. “I’m so constipated. I’m so depressed, and my back hurts.”

A caregiver hurries up. “Let’s look at your back, Gina, and we’ll see what we can do.”

Gina gives her a grateful look. “I’m so depressed,” she says, “and no one will talk to me.”

I heal fast; it’s a point of pride now. On Monday morning, it took two people, massive doses of Dilaudid, and a half hour to transfer me from bed to wheelchair.

By Friday, I was doing it by myself in about five minutes. I’ve figured out how to move without straining my abs–quite a trick–and things are looking up.

What pain is there, I understand, and that’s the key to dealing with pain: If you understand it, know what’s going on in your body, you don’t have to be afraid of it. You win.

My pain is the pain of bone growth. Like Harry Potter with his Skelegrow, it’s rough when it’s your bone that’s growing, but it’s growing, and that’s the endgame.

“They need to lose this Democrat status and this Republican status, and just have People status. I haven’t heard in any of this how they’re about the people, they’re just out for themselves,” says the guy two doors down.

He watches CNN and Fox News equally, morning to night. When I’ve heard Donald Trump proclaiming his innocence for the fifth time in a row, I usually shut my door.

I give myself tasks: Write 500 words, twice daily. Wheel down the halls five times a day, as fast as I can without bowling over some fragile resident.

I’m the only one in here under 85, it seems. “I’m 98,” says the lady three doors down and across, “I can do whatever the hell I want.”

The residents like to be wheeled to the doorways of their rooms where they sit, looking out, and maybe wave to passersby. Most wind up asleep, grey heads drooping onto their chests, but as I pass them, I wave back.

I’ve found a cache of Readers Digest Condensed Books dating back to the 1950s, sitting in a little bookcase at the far end of the building. With each trip, I take back one book, grab another.

I meditate the way my friend Michelle instructed: Visualize little construction guys rushing all over the construction site at my femur, bringing in fresh bone, and building it back up.

My little guys have biceps like watermelons, washboard abs, and the tightest, roundest glutes you’ve ever seen. Strangely, they refuse to wear shirts, but it’s 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit in there so I cut them some slack.

Go for it, guys. I work on imagining their jeans, a size smaller.

I wonder if The Fortress would object to bringing over my little portable kiln, setting up some metal claymaking in my room…probably not.

I’m nearly independent now, say the therapists, watching me transition–with painful ease–from bed to wheelchair to toilet and back on my own. I’ll probably go home midweek, and things will get back to normal with one important exception:

The bone around Elmo is growing. Yeah. Has to be. Please. Hold that thought.

Go for it, guys.

The Saving Elmo series covers my adventures after crashing to the ground on Elmo, my replacement knee, sustaining an “open, comminuted fracture of the left femoral shaft.” It’s a tad more dire than it sounds; if my bone doesn’t grow completely back and return me to normal function, there’s a new, more painful, less effective femoral replacement in my future…with eventual amputation.

If you want to follow along on the journey, try these posts: