Monthly Archives: November 2013

Couched In

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Life on the couch is full of challenges small and large.

My challenge of the moment involves sitting around with my leg up in plaster while it heals from an operation on my Achilles. The tendon has been split and 8mm of bone cut away.

The condition is a bony growth called Haglund’s Deformity, or ‘pump bump’. But I have never worn pumps. I can’t even tell you exactly what they are. But they’re bad for your feet, okay?

It’s 4 days since the 1 hour procedure that put me in this cast. It was a success, apparently, so I now have 2 weeks with my leg up before the great lump of plaster gets cut off so the wound can be checked and stitches removed. I then get a lighter cast for 4 weeks when I can be more active and less couch-bound.

A unexpected challenge of this situation is having to sit to pee. Doesn’t sound difficult and I didn’t expect it to be (others manage it) but keeping the cast off the floor (as directed) adds quite a  trick.

At first I thought the reason I couldn’t pee  was because, in fear of the stairs, I had waited too long and now couldn’t get my bladder to relax. Then I realized that by holding my right leg up, much like a dog, the resulting tension at the top of my thigh was making it hard to ‘let go’.

Doesn’t seem too bad, then, facing such trifling things while being on your arse for 2 weeks, thinking only about your next trip to the toilet. Life has been mad busy and doing nothing is a treat in so many ways. I’m not in much pain, the greatest discomfort coming from the pressure on my bum cheeks from too much lazing.

I’m being well looked after by generous friends and the greatest challenge has been building up my confidence going down stairs on crutches. After a couple of falls at the start I began to dread the unnerving feeling of hanging above the 4 steps picking the moment to drop down, one step at a time, with nowhere to go if a wobble started.

It was easy at the hospital with the big, wide steps the physio had me practice on. I whizzed up and down with ease. But these are narrow split-level steps, only 4 of them, but each must be negotiated one hop at a time on a leg that has spent its life following the lead of the other.

It’s all a bit of a surprise to my left leg and my muscles are  straining under the effort to replicate the strength and stability of my right leg. Being laid-up all the time won’t be helping, either. I’m asking a  lot of a body that’s laxing-out, I suppose.

The good old Tramadol also adds to the general challenge of being up on sticks. Slippy, slidey, wooze, wooze, grin.

Yesterday, I ditched that level of pain relief to try and get some clarity. It worked in more ways than one.

The big clarity came at 12:30am last night, when I awoke after a couple of hours in bed with an urgent need to let go of all that had been blocked-up inside me by the opiate: to be blunt (but coy), I hadn’t had a movement since the morning I went to hospital, and that concern was also driving my desire to can the painkiller.

I had tried many times, drank lots of water but nothing till that awful moment at 12:30 when I awoke sweaty and in urgent need of the toilet.

It is a particularly nasty shade of terror wobbling on sticks in the dark of night in fear of soiling yourself and the carpet.

My friends are good friends but there are limits.

My non-weight baring foot hit the ground several times as a struggled through the door, slipping and banging my way towards relief.

I slept well that night.

Today, day 4, I feel confident approaching the stairs which may be a result of cutting the opiate and moving on from constipation, or more probably because yesterday I got up off the couch every hour to do gentle laps of the house, educating muscles and brain.

And today, with my confidence a little greater I give myself the challenge of having a shower. I should have done it earlier but sitting on a plastic seat with a wet bum and big plastic bag taped around my leg doesn’t sound too appealing. And crutches on the wet floor? Hmm, can’t get my cast wet if I don’t have a shower.

Such are the challenges, small and large, of life on the couch.

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View from the couch.

 

Post-op Blog

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I must say that I wasn’t expecting to be awake and lucid so soon after a general anaesthetic.

5 hours ago I was lying in theatre waiting for the drip in my hand to send me off, chatting with the nurse who has a child in my daughter’s class, reminiscing about the school show the kids did last week performing the Pukeko Stomp in cute wee masks; joining in on the anaesthetist’s discussion about the Archbishop of Canterbury’s call for people to reconsider a consumerist Christmas…then suddenly it’s 2 hours later and I’m with all the other post-ops, being reminded to breathe (that’s the morphine, love) and eating the yummiest lemonade ice-block I’ve ever tasted.

Where was the disorientation and distress I recall so vividly from my last general anaesthetic 40 years ago when I was 5?

I guess the drugs have got a lot better.

My bright red toes are sticking out the huge lump of plaster that will be my friend and foe for the next 6 weeks, while my good leg has a sleeve on it that keeps pumping up & squeezing my calf to keep things moving.

This is the easy bit. The recovery/rehab will be in 6week blocks…rather intimidating. The nurse who brought me up to ward said her husband also needs the op to fix his Achilles but the long rehab is such a hurdle (pun intended).

I’m not thinking about that right now.

I’m gobbling ham sammies and tomato soup, waiting for a visit from my wee girl, keen to show off my cast… I have a pen ready for her to sign it.

She will be excited.

4 hours later.

Well, I guess I was being a little sentimental. She was rather unsure about seeing me. Very wide-eyed and hanging back. Fair enough. I may be chipper but I’m not the looming, tall rumble-tumble Dad she’s used to.

Not sick or sad, but not quite right.
She was very keen to get down from our awkward cuddle in bed.

I imagine it will change when the surroundings are more familiar after I get home tomorrow. I say home. I’m actually going to the neighbours but that’s as good as home to her. She know’s where the boy-next-door keeps his felts so my bright white cast will be well-decorated after she gets back from school.

Can’t wait to see it.

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From the Nest

Families are nests where stories grow. What each tale will become is often unclear. But with the transformations of time the nest remains: familiar, fragile, strong.

I grew up in a family of stories. Everything and everyone had a story, from the chipped and glued figurine on the mantelpiece to every member of my family. All had a story.

In our immediate family of five (six when granddad was with us), Mum was the storyteller. The eldest girl of seven siblings, she, like her elder brother, told stories of the greatest length with the most detail and funny voices. They took interjections, allowed any and all anecdotes each auntie or uncle offered up with great mirth. Dad always sat there and laughed.

As a kid sitting at a table over-loaded with food and drinks I was taught not to return to the same plate twice, to be seen and not heard. There was always too much food to choose from and you couldn’t just pick at your favourites or you would miss out on the desserts: fruit salad, lamingtons, always a pav, with its sweet hard shell and soft chewy centre.

I don’t know how many times I heard about the day my uncle fell into the duck pond in the Gardens and how Mum, as the eldest, got the blame. Or the summer Granddad biked into the Square to get Ice-cream Charlie’s for everyone; balancing the nine ice-creams in a box on the handle-bars for the ride home.

When I was young it was the jokes and clowning of the younger uncles (two jokers and a clown) that opened my ears: they were never repeated, always new. Even today, I remember the best of those jokes. The fart that went Honda. The polar bear who had just eaten an ice-cream.

Family get-togethers were frequent in my childhood. They seemed an echo of the shared meals my mother grew up with where, every Sunday, everyone came to my grandparents’ house (married and moved on, or not). There were always room for friends, a meal provided for anyone who needed it. Such is the rhythm and noise of extended families.

The harmonic I experienced began after my grandmother died and everyone moved away seeking better jobs and lives. When someone came back to visit the old hometown of Christchurch we would flock in for meals shared across two tables as no one table was big enough for adults and children. As always, the old stories came out with interjections and anecdotes, the familiar funny voices.

Outside the shared meal we kids were told to get lost, which we did: packs of cousins, in country or town, heading somewhere to do something. Creek, domain, paddock, park: making huts, sitting together singing to a 45, imploring Billy not to be a hero, telling Laura that Tommy loved her.

The thing about family is you never want the stories to end. You may get bored of oft-repeated tales but as you get older they take on a glow you want to add to.

Today, I live alone. It’s not what I intended. I expected to be near whanau with a partner and children, a living reflection of how I grew up. But the demands of an economy that puts little value on being near the support of family has turned me, like many, into an internal migrant far from my shared stories.

I’m not entirely alone. I have a daughter who is five. I share her care with her mother every other week (far from family, she also lives alone). I love being a parent but struggle being so far from my nest. There are no siblings to squabble with; no cousins leading my daughter into mischief, no stories patiently ignored while waiting for the funny bits.

I do my best to replicate what I miss. There are many others like me in the Bay, far from family. We regularly get our kids together so they may roam free and create mischief while the adults talk.

I’m inching towards a whanau of sorts with aunties and uncles keeping an eye on things, gently teasing and cracking jokes.

Mum has been gone nearly two years. I have her box of photos of people I do not know, and the memory of her voice. There are many other bits and pieces around the place and I tell my daughter the story of each one. The chipped Hummel figurine of a boy eating a pudding sits by the dining table where I eat meals with my daughter. It was broken the night we kids were throwing a ball with Mum. It was a spontaneous moment, we weren’t to throw balls inside, and Mum cried when she saw what she had done. I glued it back together but it’s a rough fix.

I haven’t told my daughter this particular story but I will. We talk a lot, about everything. She’s a very chatty girl. She knows where nearly every object in this house came from, who gave her each toy and all of her clothes. In time, this closeness will change and we will have to part. Until then we tell jokes, and interject, weaving stories built for flight.

Letters Unsent: Letters to Lila

Friday 08 Nov 2013

My daughter, I have been wanting to write to you for a long time. How many letters have I written in my head as I go about my day? I seem forever rushing from one task to another. But it seems strange to sit down and write something wondering when you might read it.

You could have a crack now, you’ve been reading for six months but I need to write to my daughter who knows more than the words on the page. I say page but this letter will not be written or printed on paper or even sent. It will be lucky to be posted. But where will that be once you are old enough to read and recognize why I am compelled to write this letter to you.

This morning I walked you to school. It was still and humid. You were so excited you jumped in the air and said ‘yes’ when I answered your ‘walking or car?’ question at the door. At the bottom of the hill you let go my hand and ran ahead to by the overgrown creek (or ‘lake’ as you told your teacher when we got to class) to pick fennel.

On the way home I teared up more than once at the thought that this may be the last time I walked you to school. It is a Friday and you will go to your Mum’s tomorrow so I can tidy the place in readiness for my op next Wednesday. I will be 6 weeks in a cast, a useless dad, unable to walk or drive. I will have crutches, but I just won’t be able to walk you to school this year.

And next year is a big unknown. Your mother wants you to go to a school closer to where she lives. I understand her desire to commute less. But this is where you grew up, where your friends are. And you are just about to lose your greatest friend, the boy next door who came to see you the day you were born: if not a sibling certainly whanau.

How much loss can a child take?

You are both sad at the idea of the parting as he shifts away but at 5 and 6 you both only have a vague idea what it means.

Lila, last night I said something to you I shouldn’t have. I had just carried you from the shower, rolled up in my arms in the wee ritual we seem to have developed from the winter. You make yourself into a ball on the floor face down on the bath mat, having quickly dried your chest so you can cuddle Bucky to you, then I throw the big towel over you so you are covered, pat you dry just a bit then slowly drag you out into the hallway. Then by slipping my arms under your neck and feet I can roll you towards me and carry your 22 kilos to the fire without getting wet.

This was a warm-jammies-by the-fire routine from the dark of winter. The first time I picked you up like that was an experiment or a compromise: I can’t recall exactly how we devised it.

You like to be carried to the shower (or to bed) on my shoulders. You get up there by standing at the top of the 5 steps that split our house and falling to my arms. As I swing with you, avoiding an impact, you start to climb putting one foot in the hand-step I offer at hip level then hooking your other leg over my shoulder to pull up. You then sigh as you flatten yourself so you don’t bump your head on any doorways. When it was winter you would lean across to turn off the hallway light so we walked in darkness around the corner to the shower.

Lila, I am so dreading losing these special moments. I hate the thought of being useless on crutches: not being the dad you love.

I have told you what is happening and what will follow. You have drawn a picture of me on crutches while we stay with the boy next door during my recovery.

But last night, I became aware that our ritual was coming to an end. Yes, I will recover and be able to carry you in maybe 6 months (it is all so uncertain) but you be a big 6 year old and even now your head has started to hang over my elbow shifting your mass which is not so tight and easy to carry.

You were so sweet curled up on the floor by the unlit fire, with one eye peaking out of the towels; I felt I could say something I shouldn’t have.

I told you how much I was going to miss carrying you when I was on crutches.

The look in your eye was awful. The pain, anger: betrayal. You understood.

I felt like the worst kind of manipulator.

You cried with a sound that scared me, reminding me directly of the deep sobbing of my mother when we said goodbye for the last time.

You were there, two years ago, saying goodbye to Gran E. It was beautiful and awful. One day I will write about it.

You were a great strength to me then. You are such a grown-up 5 year old.

But I was wrong to make you experience that realization last night.

Yes, it only lasted a minute or two but I need to apologize to you.

So I wrote this letter.

Arohanui,

Dad XXX

Clearing the Decks

I’m quite surprised how quickly blogging has taken over my thoughts. Although I’ve been writing roughly one blog a week since I started a couple of months ago the constant narrative of my mind is repeatedly weaving ideas for blogs in the same way that when I focused on fiction, everything was an opening for a story.

This isn’t surprising. When I worked as an actor I immersed myself in plays and scripts, so the whole world took on this hue. Everyone was either an actor or a liar, darling (to quote the famous quote) and everything played out like a drama.

I used to resist the idea that occupation was identity but it’s pretty clear that what you do shapes how you present yourself, how you engage with people, how you react to and regard the world.

I started this blog as something to do while I was avoiding writing a novel. Life had become a tad overwhelming and while fiction is a great way to escape, process and understand the challenges life throws up the last few years have been of such a nature that real life was all I could think about.

In short, I am trying to beat a passage through memoir back to fiction: clearing the decks of the mind so that I can weather the rocky voyage.

To beach that metaphorical ship, my big challenge of the moment is building a deck. Not a massive challenge in itself. It’s not a huge deck (3m x 5m) but it will make a big difference to the cramped, steep section I live on. It will take the place of a rose garden that had been laid out with pavers, concrete and retaining walls which I’m sure was lovely for the old couple who once lived here but is a waste of valuable space for a solo dad who shares the care of an energetic 5 year-old.

I enjoy the digging and shovelling, and to make the time fly I’m listening to a massive audio book, The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton. It’s a door-stop of a tome at over 800 pages so I have 30+ hours of listening to enjoy. I chose it not out of patriotic duty (the first New Zealander to win the Booker Prize since Keri Hume) but because I always read the Booker winner as they’re invariably enjoyable. I don’t have the time to sit down for 800 pages so listening to it while doing physical labour is the perfect way to consume the narrative.

It’s a great read. I say that as any audio book rests on the performance of the reader of the text, and with 22 major characters this is a BIG challenge.

Mark Meadows, the reader, does a wonderful job with all the accents required (especially as an Englishman navigating pakeha, Maori, Chinese and all the rest), and I often laugh out loud as the melodrama of the dead body and hidden gold twists and turns in a romp that has usefully been described as Deadwood on the West Coast (FYI while New Zealand has two major long islands, only the west coast of the South Island is referred to as the West Coast. The North Island has the East Coast, for some reason).

I have a strong connection to the Coast as my mother was born there to a family of migrating Scots miners. I go there each year with good friends to a rugged bach that hugs the deserted coast that once teemed with the shanties and make-shift hotels that populated the region in the gold rush. The miners and camp-followers have left little trace of their presence but you can certainly feel it.

And, of course, there’s nothing like swinging a pick while hearing a story about miners swinging a pick.

As I began to break up the splintering, rock-like clay underneath the erstwhile rose garden I realised another connection as the last time I was swinging a pick-axe I listened to another novel about West Coast miners, The Colour, by Rose Tremain.

It was about 8 years ago and I was digging a 40 metre trench to connect power to a just-built studio. It was a much bigger job and a much lighter book. The reader made some awful pronunciations of NZ words; real howlers that somehow underlined that the novel had been written by someone who had never visited NZ.

Another connection is that half-way through digging that trench I badly sprained my ankle at work, ending up on crutches for 3 weeks with months of rehab before I could walk freely (and finish the trench).

And this is the crux of why I’m building a deck… ‘to clear the deck’, because in 11 days time I am undergoing a procedure that will put me on my arse (and crutches) for many months.

I have a bony growth on my right heel caused by an old injury which is pushing against my Achilles tendon causing constant pain and discomfort. I have suffered from it for nearly 6 years. It’s been a real battle getting it recognized, treated and seen to. I have had 2 rather uncomfortable ultrasound-guided injections through the Achilles into the inflamed bursar that causes much of the pain but neither sorted the problem.

The surgery was planned to occur in February and I had been working towards that, but suddenly it was changed to the start of November…hence my panic at needing to move heaven and earth on a crowded deck.

Everything that needs to be done in the garden and round the house needs to be done now or yesterday. I know what being on crutches means, and it makes even the little things a challenge. Sure, you can make yourself a cuppa and a sandwich, but how do you carry it to your chair?

So, maybe you can understand why I seek diversion in romping fiction and the physical labour I will shortly be incapable of? There are other reasons but this blog cannot be a rambling catalogue.

I wanted to write about how much it upsets me that I will not be able to walk my daughter to school holding her hand. I love our physical relationship and know that as she grows in age and size she will be less and less inclined to clamber up onto my shoulders so I can carry her to the shower or to her bed. I so adore the way she hooks her big toe into my belt or pocket on the way up, swings her leg over my shoulder with great effort, letting out a relaxed sigh when she achieves her perch.

And, looming large, in 9 days it will be 2 years since my mother died.

It is so much on my mind.

She died on 11.11.11, which is Remembrance Day. Once, as she was waiting to die, I suggested she chose that date. It’s funny what gets said in the face of the unimaginable.

So, 2 years and 2 days after 11.11.11, the surgeon will severe my Achilles, slice a chunk of bone off my heel, staple my tendon together and close me up. It will only take an hour. The recovery will be ‘extensive’.

The irony is not lost on me that my Achilles heel is my Achilles heel.

Should the procedure not work or make things worse (both are possibilities, I have been reading chat-rooms about this operation), then the irony will be even greater. Given how things have played out over the last few years I can see the story going both ways.

But that is the nature of good stories. You never know exactly what will happen.

The Luminaries has that mystery. It both reflects and deflects life. The Colour did not. It was obvious, adding nothing to the world but a way to pass the time.

Writing this blog has taken me over an hour of my time. I could be digging the piles for the deck, mowing the lawns, taking a machete to the jungle in the top garden, clearing the path to the house so my crutches don’t get caught, rearranging the house for my recovery, washing the windows covered in sea-salt, tidying up the planting I did the day Mum died in preparation for her anniversary… but these thoughts need to get out of my mind on to the page (so to speak).

You can’t achieve everything. The inevitable and the unexpected must be faced.

It’s time to go outside and swing the pick, lost in a world created by a gifted writer, free of my pressing concerns.

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