After an accident at a parking lot in Makati City in late March, it was the first time I was hospitalized since I was a child.
Sometimes I’d congratulate myself and thank my lucky stars for not having been hospitalized or even bedridden since my early teens. But I knew the day would come, aware that the gods were jealous of the good fortunes of mortals.
So when it came, I wasn’t the least surprised, though I didn’t expect it to be this foolish and annoying. Rushed by an officemate to the emergency room at past midnight, I didn’t have anything on me—no cell phone, no wallet—so that when the nurse asked for contact numbers I couldn’t give any. (I took phone numbers for granted, that they’d always be there in my phone book when needed, so I never bothered memorizing those.)
Two resident doctors attended to me. I was given a first-aid splint and later a leg immobilizer, X-rayed, blood-sampled, issued crutches, given painkillers and antibiotics—all in about two hours. I had hoped the problem would go away by taking some medicine; I almost begged the doctors to tell me surgery wouldn’t be necessary.
The diagnosis: closed, complete and comminuted fracture of right patella. Kneecap surgery was scheduled in two or three days.
The doctors recommended I check into the hospital at once. I pleaded with them: If it’s not an emergency, can I go home first and just return on the eve of the operation? (I didn’t have any reading material with me, and the prospect of spending the weekend staring at the ceiling was disheartening.)
As soon as I got home, I searched the medical manual for those jargons: “Complete” fracture is when the bone is split completely across; “closed,” when the bone doesn’t pierce the skin; “comminuted,” when the separated parts are splintered or fragmented.
This doesn’t look promising, I told myself.
Armed with back issues of magazines like Harper’s and New Yorker I hadn’t had the time to read, I returned to the hospital for the surgery. The bone fragments had to be held together by tension-band wiring. The draft in the operating room was chilly, I felt like I was being laid out in a morgue.
In the one week I was in the hospital, I counted at least seven specialists and a battery of nurses, aides and medical technicians attending—all for a fracture? On some days I was wheeled to the next building for physical-therapy sessions (weights, isometrics, mobility exercises).
I didn’t want to make a spectacle of myself—ogled while being wheeled from room to room, floor to floor, elevator to elevator, building to building, through long corridors—so I struggled to learn the nuances of using crutches (a lesser spectacle, at least). In a few days I could walk on one crutch, until both were eliminated.
But when you’re sick, you don’t really care whether your face is unwashed, your hair uncombed, or you wear boxers and bathroom slippers in public. You just want to get it over with. Vanity becomes irrelevant.
The doctor assured I could walk normally in less than a month, and run or mountain-climb in about four months.
A few things bothered me, though. Won’t the wiring get rusty inside of me? Will it be safe to take a shower during a thunderstorm?
Of course naman, the doctor reassured. There are lightning rods on high-rises around, why will the lightning seek your knee? And no, stainless steel doesn’t rust.
Upon discharge, I didn’t foresee the next problem. At home the bedrooms were on the top floor, accessible through four flights of stairs. I went up and down those steps with grim determination, balancing crutches while grasping at balustrades. I just took it as part of my PT.
Mundane acts turned into epic struggles, like taking a shower on one leg. Even cutting my toenails became an adventure, as I had to bend the injured knee to reach the toes.
A younger brother suggested I stay at his place in Antipolo while recuperating. It had a small guesthouse across the garden with only four or five steps. He’d drive me to Makati City every other afternoon for PT sessions and consultation with my surgeon.
During this period of immobility, my strongest desire was how I could be productive. Milton wrote “Paradise Lost” and “Samson Agonistes” in his blindness, why then couldn’t I churn out a few miserable sonnets on a kneecap surgery?
In the latter two decades I was into full-time journalistic work, I could write only 15 poems, most of them during vacation. I’d rationalize there were too many distractions, the energy drained, to be writing literary pieces; and the arsenal of felicitous language had been channeled to journalistic pieces.
Now that I was immobilized, I could focus—and so I wrote three poems successively in less than a week.
When you can hardly move, you start to experience a heightened awareness of things. At my brother’s place, I kept awake at night listening to the thud of small fruits falling on the rooftop, or the soft growling of the five dogs by the garage. Reading or writing on the porch under a pomelo tree in the morning, I’d watch the red ants walking on the palmera frond, or a green lizard skittering under the badyang leaf in the drizzle.
It was like in my intense adolescence when I couldn’t stop reading Dostoyevsky I often neglected supper, and my senses were so sharpened by hunger pangs and the murky depths of the Dostoyevskian world, that I could hear the footsteps of a cockroach.
On Holy Week, we went home to the province for the annual family reunion, though traveling was double the effort for me.
I knew I still wouldn’t be able to move around through that long vacation, so I brought along a book of Zen (appropriate), an anthology of criticism on Racine, a collection of James Wood’s essays on literature and belief, and stories by Chekhov (he wrote hundreds).
I had actually prepared for this eventuality. Through the years I’ve surrounded myself with books, magazines and DVDs thinking that in case I was ever confined to a wheelchair, I could still entertain myself. When it did happen, and for almost two months, not once did I watch a DVD, but I did read a lot.
Should this happen again (knock on wood), I may bring along the “Kama Sutra” of Vatsyayana, the “Analects” of Confucius, or else reread the “Confessions” of St. Augustine.
And so through that vacation I was often lost in reading, though from time to time I couldn’t help feeling cut off from the world, psychically if not physically.
For the Visita Iglesia, the family split in two. One group drove to southern Iloilo toward Antique, the churches of Miag-ao and San Joaquin, the other to northern Iloilo toward Molo Church and Jaro Cathedral.
I regret missing that family tradition. I had to beg off as it would entail getting in and out and going up and down the vehicle, then walking to and from each church (at least 14, per Via Crucis)—too much penitencia for me, if not an epic journey.
At Easter luncheon, I could hardly mingle with the guests since flitting about was a discomfort, I was trying to avoid the inevitable questions, and I was tired of repeating my story to everyone. So I just sat quietly by the alcove.
I couldn’t even join the family whenever they drove to the beach or to the hill in the farm, or visited old relatives. A childhood friend would come on some evenings, and we’d talk on the veranda till past midnight.
Self-pity I find disgusting, so I was often sweet-lemoning, like: Shakespeare never once left his blessed isle yet he seems to have a wider perspective of life and could conjure characters, places and events more vividly than any world traveler.
That accident, too, could be a blessing in disguise. I got a deeper appreciation of the disabled. And I now have a better perspective of pain. If a slight pressure on the knee can render you literally “halos mapugto ang hininga,” what more those people with sickness involving constant pain for years?
Immobility, too, had given me the time to read literature and the concentration to write poetry. There’s nothing to dramatize or romanticize, really. Life goes on, and you better just enjoy those moments of being. As a Zen poem says:
Sitting quietly, doing nothing, Spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.