When a bull gores you, you always lose. It doesn’t matter how tough you are, how hard you’ve worked all your life, or how independent you consider yourself to be. You’re screwed. You’re doubly screwed if you’re 80 years old, like my mom’s uncle was when the bull caught him looking the wrong way. He then spent the last three years of his life in a nursing home. Those places are called “skilled nursing facilities” now, but 30 years ago nobody felt like taking the “skilled” part for granted.
Over those three years my mom wore out a new car visiting her uncle every other day. She brought him all kinds of things he wasn’t supposed to have, like candy and a shaving razor and his pocket knife. Among my people, if you don’t have a pocket knife then you’re more crippled than if you can’t walk. He used his knife to take apart the TV remote one day, in order to see what made it work. He wasn’t able to get it back into working condition though. The nurses took his pocket knife away, along with his candy and razor and about every other thing that gave him a little pleasure. He was known to tell his nurses, “I know I’m going to hell. The only thing I regret is that all you god damn nurses are going to be there too.”
On to the next tenuously connected observation…
I grew up hearing the phrase “knocked on the head.” I never heard anyone but my family members say it. I gather that it’s used in some circles today, and it means things like to be smacked on the head so as to leave a bump, or even to have sex with the partner of your choice. In my family it meant only one thing: to kill someone. Actually, it meant to kill someone deader than hell. It’s not that my family killed indiscriminately, but knocking someone on the head is a mighty efficient way to kill a person, not to mention tidy. One of my uncles expired in short order after being whacked on the head with a beer bottle. And my father told me the story of his cousin who was put in a family way by a fellow who left town soon after. Her daddy then left town with his ball peen hammer and returned a few days later without the hammer, but with a satisfied expression.
When I was 24 I tore my knee up in a magnificent fashion. Well, the way I did it was as stupid as anyone can imagine, but the actual wreckage was spectacular. After completing his symphony of pins and sutures and blood, my surgeon gave me lots of warnings about a careful recovery. I ignored them all right away. I threw aside my crutches and just hopped on my good leg everywhere I wanted to go, and I only crashed into a wall two or three times a week. Since a gigantic cast encased my right leg, driving was impossible. So of course I drove all over town using my foot’s pathetic range of motion to mash pedals as it poked out the bottom of my cast. Don’t even ask me how I handled the clutch. I told my body, “shift or die,” and then I headed for places like the mall and Dairy Queen.
Being a stupid and contrary gave me one advantage. Rehab hurt like a cast iron bitch, so out of meanness I embraced the pain. After the nurse cut off my cast, she turned her back to put away the saw, so I stood up to test my leg and plummeted straight to the floor. But apart from that, I spent three weeks bending my knee, lifting weights, riding the bicycle, and getting some sweet, healing electricity passed through my leg. If smacking my leg with hammers would have helped, I’m sure I would have done it. Every day I couldn’t walk was a day I couldn’t make any money. It was about to be July in Texas, and electricity might soon become an unaffordable luxury for me.
A fellow in rehab with me had wrecked his knee the same time I did, and to the same degree. He made zero progress while I was working on mine. He couldn’t even bend his knee. This concerned me quite a bit, because I feared I might hit a wall in my rehab or something, so I cajoled some whispered gossip out of the therapist. It turned out that the guy just couldn’t take the pain. He went to the point of hurting and then stopped. That knowledge relieved me a bit, and I asked the therapist how the fellow had suffered his knee damage. I myself always lied when I was asked that question, because the truth sounded so ignorant. I might instead say that I fell off a house, or that I tripped over a dog, or something reasonable like that. In any event, the gentleman with the negative pain threshold was a karate instructor, and he’d massacred his knee doing some karate move. When I walked out of rehab, the sensei was still trying to bend his leg, and the surgeon was preparing to anesthetize him again and bend the thing for him.
Almost four months ago my mom broke her leg. A powder-blue carpeted floor can’t intimidate you the way a bull can, but it did the job on her leg just fine. I wouldn’t say that it snapped her leg. That’s too mild. Shattered is a better description, but not quite there. Let’s say that her femur was somewhere between pulverized and obliterated.
My mom’s surgeon put her leg back together with enough titanium to armor a guided missile cruiser. Then, despite the fact that she’s owned this femur for 75 years and it’s way out of warranty, my mom set out to walk again. She’s moved through a variety of hospitals, rehab centers, and “skilled” nursing facilities since her surgery. For hundreds of hours she’s lifted weights, stretched, cycled, and done stupid dexterity games involving pennies and Play-Doh. She’s smarter than me and doesn’t embrace the pain, but if a therapist lies to her about how many minutes she’s been working so far, my mom will keep on working until she craters.
But—she will not god damn eat.
My people like their food. Their food is almost a religion. If the bacon’s not crisp enough, then it’s inedible. If the potatoes don’t have enough salt, they might make you sick. If the soup has weird spices, then your mouth will just refuse to open and let you eat any of it. This is inconvenient for three days. For three weeks, it’s aggravating and concerning. When it goes on for three months, you’ve reached “concentration camp victim about to die of malnutrition” territory. Literally everyone she comes into contact with tells her she must eat, including me. “Eat or die.” That’s the message. If I could tattoo it on the backs of her fingers I’d do it in a minute.
Like any two family members, my mom and I disagree at times. We have issues that may be a little out of the ordinary, but that’s not really pertinent here. She has demonstrated to me that someone can crumble to sand while you’re watching them, and that frustrates me. It causes me to not want to visit her too often. But when I consider that she drove all the way across creation every other day for three years to visit her uncle, I can’t stand thinking that nobody might do that for her.
Yesterday my mom’s surgeon read her tea leaves, otherwise known as interpreting her x-rays. My mom did not get the interpretation she wanted. She got, “Your leg hasn’t healed at all. It’s probably not going to heal, and you’re not going to walk anymore. Stop your therapy, go home, and live your life the best you can. And Happy Fucking Holidays.”
That news disheartened everyone, except maybe for the guy who’ll be selling my mom a new wheelchair soon. I feel a bit guilty for thinking that things might be different if only she’d consumed a little more protein for healing, rather than trying to rebuild bone on seven grapes a day and all the chap stick she could absorb through her lips. I feel less guilty than I might, since every other person who knows her is thinking the same thing. But it may not have mattered anyway. Her leg might not have healed even if she’d eaten an entire codfish at every meal. Who knows?
So Monday my mom will go back home after an enforced holiday of 15 weeks—over a third of the time it takes to hatch a baby. If it had been a real holiday, it wouldn’t have been the kind where it just rained all day. It would have rained white-hot razor blades and insane scorpions trained by mean old church ladies. She’ll need some help at home now, so I’ll try to keep a few things in mind as I help out. She’s not 24 years old. When you get down to it, what she does or doesn’t eat is none of my damned business. And I ought to give her a pocket knife.