Henry and I are at the kitchen table, eating breakfast. Grape Nuts, sliced banana, milk for him. Oatmeal for me, with walnuts chopped small, fresh blueberries, and dried cranberries. Mugs of coffee. I did not always drink coffee. My feeling was that it never tasted as good as it smelled. But with enough Half & Half, I like it now. Funny about how we describe ourselves. One minute, we’re: Oh, I’m not a coffee-drinker. Never touch it.The next, we’re solidly in another camp: Have to have coffee every morning. Who we are can flip like that. The details always shifting. Henry picks up the Sports section, folds it in half, then half again, pushes the rest of The Charlotte Observer to the far side of the table. I’ve got the Living section. It’s mid-February 2006. Outside: wintry and windy. And wet.
“Doesn’t this sound like a good idea?” he says, pointing to an ad I can’t read from where I’m sitting. “A non-surgical procedure for back pain. Done by a physiatrist.”
“What’s a physiatrist?” I ask, scooting my chair closer so that I can read even the fine print.
“According to the ad, physiatrists are MDs,” he says. “Apparently, they treat spinal problems.”
Six years ago, Henry had surgery for spinal stenosis, which helped. But his back is hurting again. He’s stiff when he gets out of bed in the morning. Can’t stand for long, finds a chair pretty quickly wherever he happens to be. He lives a normal life though. A normal life with backaches. He’s so athletic, what he’d really like is to be able to jog again, play racquetball, tennis.
Yes, I say, that does sound like a good idea.
The physiatrist tells Henry he believes he can help. From what I can understand, he’ll use fluoroscopy for guidance, while he injects steroids and an anesthetic into the epidural space – between the spine and the spinal cord. The procedure will take about thirty minutes, followed by maybe forty-five minutes recovery time. Henry will be monitored for an additional fifteen to twenty minutes, then discharged to go home. An hour and a half — total! Compare this to hours on an operating table, days in the hospital, the long recuperation that back surgery entails. This injection is so common, it’s given to women during childbirth. The physiatrist explains that an epidural steroid injection can be highly effective because it delivers pain relief directly to the source of the problem. He recommends two injections, spaced three weeks apart; he needs to inject two different areas. As with all invasive procedures, there are risks. Generally, though, the risks are few and tend to be rare: headache, infection, bleeding, nerve damage.
Henry signs the consent form.
A week later, we report to the hospital outpatient clinic for the first epidural. Afterwards, Henry’s right leg is numb. Very little feeling. The physiatrist, a tall fellow with a friendly face and thick, hay-colored hair anyone would envy, says something like, “The numbness is a great sign! It means the epidural is working!”
Henry’s leg is so numb he can barely walk. He leans on me as I help him from the car into our house to our bed. He goes right to sleep, which is unusual for him. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him take a nap. The little bit of walking he did completely exhausted him. I keep checking the handout: If numbness persists longer than eight hours, call the office.Every hour, I wake Henry to ask about the numbness. Every hour, he says his leg is still numb. Then he drifts back off. I don’t relax my shoulders for a minute. The eighth hour, I have my hand on the phone, ready to dial. I ask him one last time. All feeling has returned. No need to call. My shoulders relax.
His second epidural is scheduled for three weeks from now.
But first, our vacation, planned months ago, on the French side of the island of St. Martin. The romance of spending long days in two chaises pulled close, our bare toes touching, how warm we are from the sun, lost in our books. Less than a hundred feet away, our lunch place juts out over the sea, the smoky grill, smell of fresh-caught fish cooking.
Evenings, we stroll the rutted mile from our small resort to the row of Caribbean-colored, gingerbread-cottage restaurants. Henry’s back is still hurting, so we have to stop every now and then for him to stretch – backwards, forward, bend way over, hands on knees — but a little pain is not going to keep him from what he wants to do. The moon’s soft light catches the sea grape leaves all around us. We debate the menus posted on the little front porches. Our main concern: Are we in the mood for mussels or sole?
Seven days after St. Martin, we leave early for our one forty-five appointment at the same hospital outpatient clinic as before. It’s one of those golden North Carolina days that always make me wonder why anyone would ever want to live anywhere else. Pure sunlight, air fragrant.
Henry checks in. There are so many people here, the waiting room feels tight. The only available chairs together are catty-corner, a square table in between. But no sooner do we sit down than a nurse comes to take Henry back. She has an air of efficiency about her – the way she holds her head and her shoulders, her sensible nurse shoes. I didn’t know anybody still wore those. She says she’ll call for me in a few minutes, after they get him ready; I can keep him company while he waits for the doctor. I pick up Peoplemagazine and settle in, even though I don’t recognize the names of any of the celebrities.
I glance at my watch. How did it get to be three o’clock? Why aren’t they coming for me?
At three-thirty, a nurse – not the same one who took him back, but a shiny-faced young woman, perky, smiley — appears and says that my husband has had the epidural.
“Oh,” I say, “I thought somebody was going to come get me so I could be with him before — ”
“Well,” she says, “we’re real busy today, and things got sorta’ hectic back there, and then the doctor was all of a sudden ready for him around three o’clock, and we never had a chance to come get you.”
I walk behind her down the long hall. She’s repeating, brightly, “Your husband’s verrry numb! Verrry numb!” as though she’s marveling over some unusual turn of events, more amusing, really, than anything to worry about.
“He’s numb?” I ask, trying to match her brightness, wondering why my little laugh is coming out shaky.
She stops outside a closed door. Pauses. Opens it. I follow her in.
When she moves to the side and Henry is in full view, I see that he’s flat on his back on a gurney, a sheet pulled up around his neck, the way you’d tuck in a child. His expression is contorted. His whole face an agonized flinch. As though he took the world head-on and lost.
“Judy,” he whispers, his eyes clutching at mine, “I can’t feel a thing from my waist down. I can’t move my legs.”
I turn to the nurse. “Where’s the doctor?” My voice rises with each word, going some place totally unfamiliar. “Does the doctor know?”
“Well,” she says, “not exactly.”
“He needs to see this!” My voice verges on shrill. My hand brushes the air. Go. Get the doctor. “Please! Ask him to come in here!”
She’s backing out of the room.
I sit down beside Henry, put my hand on his arm. I don’t know where to touch him, if it’s even okay to touch him.
“Tell me,” I say.
He says that when the doctor was giving the injection, he felt severe pain. He must have groaned, because the doctor asked him, Are you okay? He told the doctor, No, I’m not okay. I’m in excruciating pain. The doctor said, We’re almost done. Then he finished the injection.
Henry tells me that his back, where the needle went in, still hurts.
Maybe it’s not as bad as I’m terrified that it is. Maybe he’s really all right. Maybe I can helphim be all right. Maybe what’s been taken away can be brought back. I just have to figure this out. But I need to hurry. Before it – whatever itis – locks into place.
I loosen the sheet around his feet.
“Can you feel this?” I scratch his bare toes.
“No,” he says. “Not at all.” He sounds as though he’s grown tired somewhere deep in his body
“Can you wiggle your toes?”
“I’m trying. Are they moving?”
They aren’t. I wiggle them myself, to get them started. But then, nothing.
“Can you flex this foot? Or this one?”
“I can’t make either one move.”
“How about your leg?” I tap his knee through the sheet. “Can you lift your leg? Can you lift it just a little? This one? Or this one?”
“I’m trying, I’m trying as hard as I can.”
I stroke the tops of his feet, then the soles, with my fingers. For a second, I think how another time, another place, I might run my hand down his calf to his foot. Maybe in the morning, on my way to the bathroom, rounding the bed, I might reach under the sheet and touch the bottom of his foot. That careless, offhanded thing married people do.
“What about this?” I ask, massaging his ankles. “Can you feel me doing this?”
Now I’m reaching under the sheet and rubbing his calves.
I reach farther and touch his knees, thighs, groin, buttocks.
No, no, no, no.
He feels nothing.
I feel everything.
One minute you’re complaining that the zinc-based sunscreen you’re supposed to wear in the Caribbean goes on like Elmer’s Glue. The next, you’re Googling paralysis. Everything is okay. Then nothing is. That thin line. How a brushfire can erupt on a perfectly sunny, clear-skied day. How your life can be taken right out of your hands.