Watch Your Step!
By Fred A. Reed
I’m lying on a cold hard table. Beams from the overhead spotlight are boring into my brain. I am hyper-alert, in a state of shock.
Doctors and nurses bustle this way and that. Someone pulls my arm; another pushes my shoulder into place. I’m lying on my side, separated from my pelvic region by a blue curtain.
“We’re going to freeze you from the waist down,” says the lead anaesthetist as he pokes a large syringe somewhere into my hip region. Then another. Then another. Numbness follows.
When they’d wheeled me from the ambulance into the clinic the day before I asked the same man: “What are my options?”
“Only one,” he replied with a confident smile. “We’ll have to operate.”
There was another option, actually. Rapid decline and early death. I preferred option one. “Go ahead!” I said.
Soon the team gets down to work. They speak in low voices; confident tones. They are specialists; they’ve done all this before. Silently, for scalpels make no sound, they cut through flesh to get to my snapped femur. Throughout my life I’d been an avid cyclist, pedaling my very fine and racy Marinoni road bike through the Québec countryside, puffing my way uphill and rushing at high speeds downhill. I was always proud of my thighs. Never would they let me down, I thought.
Of course I’d had some falls, scares, thrills. Exhaustion in plenty; much pleasure. “You’ll live to eighty,” my family doctor had told me years before, back when eighty was “old.”
So now here I am, eighty-two and lying on an operating table in a private clinic in Agadir Morocco, our new and ultimate hometown as age, which can never be outrun, has finally overtaken me.
Such are the thoughts that rush through my mind, like a bicycle before the wind, as the surgical team gets to work. My right leg is propped onto the crutch I spotted as they wheeled me into the operating room. Peeling back the exposed flesh, muscle, sinew, fat, veins and arteries, they will have laid free the bone and now they’re hard at it.
“Wham! Thud! Thwack!” I hear. Then the whine of the bone saw. They’re working in there with drills, wrenches, pliers, screwdrivers. All this is of course pure hypothesis, as I see nothing. But I can hear, and feel their efforts as they thrust the titanium prosthesis into my femur and guide it very energetically into place.
Finally the impacts cease, the crutch is removed and they lower my leg back onto the table with its sparkling new foreign body in place. It’s over. That part of “it”, that is.
Now, back in my room, I begin to review the events that led me here. To this point that marks a break with the past as sharp as the break at the neck of my femur, and the beginning of an uncertain future.
It was a fine Sunday morning and Ingeborg and I were on our way to our favourite sidewalk café for brunch with friends. We turned right onto a side street, a spot we’d passed by hundreds of times.
Nothing there but a small irregularity where the sidewalk joins a separation stone that rises at most two centimeters above the level surface.
On it Ingeborg trips, then falls. I reach out to catch her; grab her hand. But her fall has begun and cannot be stopped. Its centrifugal force spins me around; I take two stumbling steps in an effort to keep my balance. Too late.
As though in slow motion I’m thrown violently to the ground. As I replay the moment over and over again—perhaps I can stop the fall, roll when I hit the ground, veer left and run up against a nearby wall?—the whirling dervishes whose ceremonies I’d attended so often in Turkey rush across my consciousness. Stately and silently they turn on their toes, one arm stretched upward, the other pointed toward the ground, human lighting rods that channel the divine essence to the earth.
That sublime condition, of the Sufi poised between eternity and infinity, would not be mine.
With a crack I hit the ground. I know I’m hurt. I know this is one of those moments that will mark a sharp break with the past—the carefree and insouciant past in which I would stroll along Agadir’s magnificent seafront promenade arm in arm with my life companion of sixty years.
A small crowd gathers around us. “Can we help?” ask anxious passers-by. “I’ll call an ambulance,” says someone.
“Please do,” we reply. Meanwhile Ingeborg has gotten to her feet, stunned but unhurt while I lie motionless on my left side, unable to move my right leg.
The civil protection ambulance pulls up, the attendants wedge me onto a stretcher, and it speeds off. Where are we going? I have no idea. What happens next? Even less. Soon we pull up at a downtown clinic; the attendants rush me in and transfer me to a gurney. I hear the receptionist ask Ingeborg: “Do you have insurance?” and hear her answer “no”.
“No” because when we moved here, we knew that it would be impossible, at our age, to purchase a policy. We are at the mercy of forces well beyond us.
The clinic could have refused and sent us off to the city’s public hospital, a place we had been advised to keep away from. It did not.
A distinguished-looking man in a white medical jacket—the chief surgeon—comes out, takes one look at my inert and twisted leg and says, “I’ll have you walking in a few days.”
Two weeks later—two of the most extraordinary weeks of my life—I’m home, and taking cautious footsteps, leaning on a walker.
The clinic has been efficient and clean; the nursing staff attentive and patient. What have been extraordinary are the visitors. Virtually everyone we know in Agadir has dropped by to pay his or her respects, some repeatedly. Two prominent and influential gentlemen known for their piety and good works persuaded the clinic to grant us a significant reduction; others came bearing flowers, boxes of dates, cups of coffee, and from our neighbours, trays or bowls of food, spicy, savoury and delicious.
Ever since my bout with Covid-19 my outlook on mortality—my own, of course—has changed. Then, in the darkest hours of early morning, I could sense death exploring my outer perimeter. I felt neither fear nor dread. No one knows the date or hour of his final departure.
My subsequent fall was of a piece with those pre-dawn encounters. Throughout my life, I’ve always known that everything would be all right. That whatever came my way would be the right thing for me, at the right time.
My brush with Covid-19, the fall, the fracture and my two-week hospital stay all seem today of a piece: steps on the road to reconciliation and acceptance of that which lies in wait at the end of the path chosen for me and along which I am now travelling.