My cousin Charlie, a Nashville musician, was in a new second marriage years ago when he was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The new wife, who I never met, packed and left. I thought that was as rotten as it gets. Now that Phil and I are dealing with the aftermath of his left leg’s amputation, I feel slightly more charitable toward that woman.
Phil and I have thirty years together, the last four in close companionship after our partial retirements. We still work. We’ll always work: it’s what we love, who we are. I write, he draws and does graphic design. We just don’t have to make a living from it now. Working at home, we meet for lunch, when I bring the writing I’ve been doing—he’s an excellent editor—or we discuss an illustration he’s restoring, or read each other bits from The New Yorker.
Events like brain tumors or amputations can collapse a relationship without a solid foundation. When we found out about Phil’s leg, I’d just started teaching a writing class, my first since retiring. I’d just contracted to translate a book, my first major paying translation project. This man I love had developed osteomyelitis—an incurable bone infection—in the congenitally compromised bone of his left leg. If our bond had been fragile, I might have walked out like my cousin’s wife did.
There were months of doctor rounds: infectious disease doctors, orthopedic surgeons, rehabilitation specialists, second opinions. I went to every appointment. After the first consultation, Phil started saying, “We are concerned that…” Damn straight, darling. This thing is happening to us.
Reaching a decision exhausted a small eternity. Phil wanted to tell no one, “until we know what we’re doing.” I understood, but nearly burst before that period ended. You don’t need people to do much in such situations. What you need is someone to tell. Plight, like jubilation, yearns to be shared.
When we did tell friends and family, many were shocked by the plan. It dawned on me that they didn’t know how bad the leg was, in spite of knowing Phil all these years. He generally put a good face on the pain, managed to sit although everyone else at the party was standing. People remained oblivious. How could any normal-footed person appreciate the misery of walking on an angled, flat foot with no ankle mobility and a lower leg missing a bone, whose tibia was significantly curved? They considered amputation an extreme solution. But as one of the surgeons said, “it’s not like you have a good ankle or foot to save.”
When Phil went into surgery, our community stepped up: at least four major religious groups prayed for him, including a wonderful Muslim woman, and in her case, that meant four times a day. It helped. Surgery went well, the infection cut out, the knee saved. Infinitely better prosthesis possibilities thereby reside in our future. The first day home, I acquired equipment—wheelchair, walker, crutches, shower chair, bedside table, hospital bed—rearranged furniture. No stairs. He’ll live downstairs for a month or two. Our old house has 30” doorways. The wheelchair barely clears them. Phil had scraped knuckles by day two.
A week later, I took a brief walk and realized it was the first one I’d taken since surgery. A breeze sent leaves tapping over the street. A golden batch of cottonwood leaves fell like bright rain. It’d been four days since I washed my hair, a week since I tended my nails, two weeks since I wrote anything but emails. I postpone myself, behavior learned from my mother. Service was her lot and serve she did, to the end. But from her I also learned the dire consequences of reserving nothing for yourself: her bitterness and resentment, her inability to enjoy herself without guilt.
On Sunday, from seven until one I was mostly on my feet, fixing breakfast and lunch, cleaning up the kitchen, washing hospital bedding, helping Phil do physical therapy exercises, record medications taken, bath and dress. In the bathing process, we splashed water all over the bathroom floor and laughed a lot. Service given joyfully is a fine thing. I know this man intimately. Assisting with his intimate needs doesn’t faze me, but it’s not something a flimsy relationship is likely to survive.
After that long Sunday morning, I was done and had the sense to know it. I took my own shower, washed my hair, and then spent two hours putting words on paper, the essential ingredient of my wellbeing.
Phil has barely complained, even when down or in discomfort, and has had little serious pain. He’s constantly tackling the issues of being able to function independently and becomes a bit more independent every day. Appreciative of all I do for him, he reminds me to take time for myself. It’s not him, but my mother I must resist to do that.
We have months to go before a prosthetic can even be discussed. Our friends have delivered food to us almost daily and kept their visits brief and made this first phase of our new life feel not only supported, but nourished. Although certainly life-changing, nothing about this has ever been life-threatening. We are blessed.