Out There: Getting Up Again

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, June 1998

Out There: Getting Up Again

What you do when the bottom drops out of your world
By Tim Cahill

Televised baseball. October play-offs. Someone hit the ball and there it went out into center field, caroming off walls and various players before rocketing toward home, where two men in different-colored uniforms collided in a cloud of dust and the ball came whipping out of the flying debris and whirled around the infield so that it seemed as if I was watching a kind of giant animated pinball machine. For someone mainlining morphine, baseball proceeds at an exceedingly expeditious pace.

Immediately, and without preamble, something else indescribably complex began to occur on the screen, something to do with lizards and frogs and beer. A nurse, I noticed, was standing by the side of my hospital bed.

"How are we feeling this morning?" she asked.

"We're a little ..." I glanced up at the ceiling, looking for a suitable word. "Fuzzy." I was not capable of saying, "We're intensely apprehensive less than 24 hours after our back surgery because our career, such as it is, will be over if, in fact, it turns out that we can't goddamn get up and walk."

"The physical therapist will be here soon," the nurse said. She promised that I'd be standing up within the hour. Standing straight and taking my first baby steps. The nurse had ginger-red hair and was beautiful.

I always liked looking at women with red hair. Even married one once, a long time ago, when I could walk. Didn't last long, that marriage. She savored the idea of writers, if not my own peculiar manifestation of the ideal. I wasn't what you'd call a literary writer anyway: I was a travel writer, specializing, I suppose, in remote journeys and rough accommodations. Tropical forests. Bugs and butterworms. Eighty-pound backpacks. Glaciers. I was gone a lot. She, on the other hand, had a degree in comparative literature and admired the works of sedentary Frenchmen, like Marcel Proust, who only needed the aroma of fresh-baked pastries as inspiration to scribble up mountainous reams of dense, evocative literature. Guy never went anywhere.

But Proust it might be. Wake up and smell the madeleines. Didn't matter if you couldn't walk. Not really. Didn't mean your career was over. Just one phase of it. One could always write remembrances of things past.

The major problem seemed to be

that there was a stenosis, a narrowing, in my lower spine, and this, so the doctors told me, is often the result of injury, of a traumatic fall, for instance. Bone spurs are sometimes formed as the spine attempts to rebuild and strengthen itself. These knobby irregularities can touch and irritate the very nerves the spinal column exists to protect. Bone-strummed nerves twitch and twang in a merry galvanic polka. They trace their path through the body in a more or less constant flow of low-voltage currents that throb or sizzle or explode like bolts of lightning.

In my case, the nerve that sputtered and spit fire ran down my left leg, all the way to certain toes. It was possible to relieve the pain by bending forward at the waist while supporting myself with a walking stick. The staff I used was hand-carved and highly polished. People who hadn't seen me for a while always commented on it. "Beautiful stick," they said. That way they didn't have to say what was obvious on the face of it: that I appeared to be in substantial pain and that, even with the stick, I couldn't walk more than a few steps at a time. "Have you injured your spine recently?" one doctor asked. Not recently, no.

Falls are almost always occasions of profound and uninvited contemplation. A slip on the ice, a quick pratfall off a child's toy, and here we go again. There's instability, disbelief, denial, a sudden sense of powers beyond human control followed — bang — by impact. I faw down, go boom. Again. One lies still, waiting for the pain. Did I do it this time? Am I really hurt ? Which parts still work?

The bad one was in the Queen Charlotte Islands, 60 miles off the coast of British Columbia. Every time I look in the mirror, I see that fall. It is written across my forehead in a pair of scars three and four inches long.

The Queen Charlottes are covered over in a temperate rainforest that is thought to have been connected to the mainland by an ice bridge about 15,000 years ago, during the last ice age. Since parts of the Queen Charlottes did not ice over, they were, in effect, a refuge. As the glaciers retreated and the ice melted, the Queen Charlottes were divided off from the mainland by a body of water now called the Hecate Strait. Endemic animals and plants survive and evolve there, making the Queen Charlottes Canada's answer to the Galßpagos.

My friends and I were kayaking the Queen Charlottes, and no one wanted to explore the interior with me, mainly because we were paddling past elephant seals and killer whales every day. The on-water experience should have fulfilled anyone's wildlife wow quota. But there was also an endemic subspecies of black bear on the island that I wanted to see, and woodpeckers that existed nowhere else on earth.

And so I went for a walk in the dense cedar and spruce forests. I went alone, God help me, bushwhacking off trail, and I didn't see bears or even woodpeckers, though there were plenty of orchids, and the ground was covered over in soft green moss, carpets of the stuff a foot thick and more.

At one point, a mossy rock face blocked my path back to camp. It was an easy climb of about 15 feet. I had to dig my hands through ten inches of the spongy moss to find handholds in the underlying rock. Mostly I pulled myself up with my arms, while I kicked steps into the moss as mountain climbers kick steps into steep snow slopes.

At the top of the rock wall there was a small tree, 20 feet tall, that would hold my weight if I could get a hand on it. I was standing on some kind of long, beamy root set deep in the moss. I'd felt it with my hands on the way up, a hefty, unseen thing, festooned with tendrils and about half as big around as my wrist. Standing on it was like balancing on a thick, sagging rope, and I felt pretty secure. I reached for the safety of the tree in a sweeping grab, just as the root I stood upon broke and the bottom dropped out of my world. The tips of my fingers just barely brushed against bark, and I felt myself drop away from the little cliff, astonished and empty-handed. And then I was falling face-first toward the moss below, thinking all the time, "But this is totally unacceptable."

There was a sense of plunging, and my arms were out in front of me to break the fall. Then my head hit something: a protruding rock. The moss muffled most of the sound, so what I heard was internal, something in my body that sounded like the sharp crack of several twigs being broken at once. I pushed up off the moss, and my hands were covered in blood from a head wound.

I wanted to lie still and assess my injuries, but I needed to tie a bandanna around my head to stanch the blood. I also had to start moving before my back completely seized up. There was no trail nearby, and I was wearing green and black raingear under the heavy forest canopy. No one would ever find me here, so I had to move. Had to move.

Our campsite was about two miles to the south, maybe more. Moresby Island, the more southern of the two largest Queen Charlottes, is long and narrow, shaped like a scimitar, with a spine of ridge running down its length. I was about halfway between the crest and the beach. Numerous creeks poured down off the ridge to the ocean, forming rocky ravines that deepened as they neared the beach, and it was often necessary to stumble far up the steep mossy slopes in order to find a narrow crossing I was able to negotiate. It was easier to move uphill bent from the waist, my hands on the moss. To crawl, in other words.

The forest was an obstacle course of downed timber. Sometimes I had to climb over great fallen cedars; sometimes I belly-crawled under them. Always moving, never resting. The temptation was to lie still for a time, but I knew with overwhelming certainty that if I stopped, even for a minute, I would not be able to get up again. So I struggled to my feet, and each time I tried to stand erect there was the abrupt and annoying sound of a human being screaming.

Moving overland, up and down the drainages, was just barely possible, and very soon thereafter, impossible. I allowed the slope of the island to lead me down to the ocean, where there were sandy beaches, at least brief stretches of them. The beaches all ended in rocky points projecting far out into the ocean. I tried climbing the piles of jumbled rock that separated one beach from the next but decided in the end that I didn't care for all the screaming involved in the effort.

Without pause or even a great deal of conscious thought, I waded out into the ocean, still wearing my open-topped rubber boots, which immediately filled with water and weighted me down. I felt I needed the boots and didn't want to lose them in case I had to walk again. And so I swam around the rocky points, in 50-degree water. It took five or ten minutes to get out beyond the breakers that were exploding off the headlands. Beyond each point, there was another sandy beach. Once I built a driftwood fire and warmed up. I swam three times and never once felt cold, though it occurred to me that I was stretching my luck.

Meanwhile, my kayaking companions had initiated a search, and toward dusk they found me. I was out at the tip of one of the rocky points, dragging driftwood logs to a central location for what I hoped would be the mother of all signal fires.

Back at the camp, I lay down for a while and then found I couldn't walk, not at all, not without assistance.

My first wife was named susan, and toward the end of her life she couldn't walk at all. She used to say she was 5 feet, 12 inches tall. I think she was 5-foot-13, because that is how tall I am and we saw eye to eye. We were together 12 years. Later, after the divorce, a disease she didn't deserve twisted her fingers and wrists; it dissolved the bones of her legs and left her confined to a wheelchair. She wrote poetry and published a small book. When the local paper ran an article about her that she found sentimental, she sent me a copy with her own fanciful headline: "Crippled woman writes poetry!" As if this was amazing.

Doctors replaced her ankles, her hips, and each operation was less successful than the previous one. When I last saw her, she could still lift herself from the chair and even walk a few steps. I held her in my arms, her head on my chest. She had lost six inches to surgery. The doctors had just told her that she had six months to live.

The option of assisted suicide was broached. She wouldn't consider it. As a poet, she wanted to realize the sheer astonishment of death. It was rumbling toward her, like a big, slow freight train, growing ever larger in her field of vision, and she couldn't keep her eyes off the son of a bitch. "I will be more than I once was or am now," she wrote, "fully unprepared to be dust."

After our last visit I drove back toward home through a town where the president of the United States was giving a speech. There was a massive traffic jam, stop-and-go traffic at noon, cars on either side of me. People glanced in my direction, then shifted their gaze. I was crying, in that helpless fashion in which your forehead contracts as your mouth expands. Here's a guy, I imagined people thinking, with an incredibly low tolerance for heavy traffic.

The physical therapist got me up quickly enough, and though the incision hurt, as well as the places where they'd whittled on my spine, the nerve no longer sizzled and popped. I was walking upright for the first time in six months.

"Will I be able to do my work?" I asked the surgeon.

"Should be able to," he said. "If it hurts, don't do it."

The doctor was named John Lonstein, and he is a genius or, as another surgeon explained, "the guru" of the sort of operation I needed.

"I'm supposed to fly to Chile in two weeks," I said. "It's a 13-hour flight."

"It should be no problem."

"There's a glacier. I want to walk up to the face of it."

"Stop if it hurts."

"When can I take off these stockings?" I was wearing a pair of white support hose of the type given to surgical patients to prevent embolisms.

"Take them off when you can walk a mile," Dr. Lonstein said.

Three days after the operation, I went to a nearby mall, without my stick. I could walk, at least on an even surface. Hey! I could walk! But the muscles in my legs were atrophied, and I was shuffling along at a geriatric pace. Boisterous teenagers, bouncing off one another and laughing, terrified me. I hugged the walls for safety. A mile would take an hour. Maybe two.

The surgeon said that all had gone well, that I could return to my accustomed work, and that a little caution now and again would not be out of order. I took one step, one breath. One step, one breath. Now one, two, three, four, five steps in a row. I stood balanced on two legs, gasping as if I'd just run a four-minute mile.

In the past, I'd dreamed walks like this: some nightmare bogie behind me, gaining on me, my feet tangled in tall grass, in beds of strings. Now I knew what that dream had always been about, and why I dreamed it. I put together another set of five steps, fully unprepared to be dust.

Illustration by Christian Northeast

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