Today is the eighth anniversary of my accident. Exactly eight years ago I was plowed over by a garbage truck while I was crossing the street. I was in the crosswalk, crossing with the light, and the garbage truck turned into the street I was crossing and mowed me down. The guy said the sun was in his eyes and he never saw me, and didn't know that it had even happened until he heard the scream. I just said one word: "No!"
This was before September 11, or the tsunami, or Hurricane Katrina, those horrifying, unthinkable things we watched for paralyzed minutes thinking, "That can't really be happening, can it?" It's what I was thinking when I realized that the truck was accelerating and I wasn't going to make it entirely out of the way. I wish it had occurred to me just a few seconds earlier that indeed it was happening. (I'm grateful, of course, that it didn't occur to me one second later.) Sometimes I think that if I had watched those towers fall before the morning of my accident I wouldn't have wasted a single second believing that the world couldn't possibly blow apart in such a . . . prosaic . . . way as that colossal giving-over-to-gravity was. He got my ankle and foot. I hit the ground. I had what is known as a "de-gloving," and that's as literal as it sounds; the tire that ran me over stripped my ankle and foot entirely of soft tissue and skin like it was taking off a glove. Tendons and busted bones remained. It was 50/50 try to save it/amputate it. We chose try to save it, but it was a tough call. They amputated my toes, and reconstructed my foot out of a big muscle from my back, and most of the skin from my left thigh, all the way around, and butt cheek. I was 29, a newlywed, newly arrived in Portland. If you had asked me where the hospital was, I wouldn't have been able to tell you. We barely knew our way around town. I was still unpacking presents and putting them away.
I remember seeing Andy's face above me in the ER. I knew things were bad from the way the docs were acting. Everyone was moving very quickly. I truly believed that their IVs, their machines, wouldn't work on me; I wasn't like other people. All my life I had never felt like anyone else, and now that would bear out, and everyone would know what I had been trying to tell them -- instead of blood I expected to leak green slime. I had never been in a hospital before. I was shocked to wake up after -- to have survived -- the first surgery, absolutely shocked. I know it sounds bizarre, but I truly didn't think that the laws of nature applied to my physiology, and every day, as the doctors came in and said that things "looked good," I was filled with a sort of cosmic, timeless relief: I was human. My systems responded to treatment. I knew I would need every possible advantage I could get in order to recover, including professional encouragement, and regular human blood, which it turns out I do in fact have. If they said to me, as they made their rounds each morning, "You're such a good healer!" I would quiver with a sort of sobbing gratitude that was about so much more than a foot. If they forgot one morning to say it, I would ask desperately, seriously, "Am I still a good healer?" Yes, they would say, you still are. I felt entirely unequal to the situation in every possible way. Andy slept in a chair by the side of my bed every night. He met the docs at the door at sunrise each morning with a legal pad of questions. He held my hands and brushed my hair. He was not a nurse then, he was a geologist. We knew on the first day in the hospital that he would become a nurse, though. He had that look of epiphany about him. He did become one in 2003. Visitors came and went. Nurses, total strangers, cared for me so tenderly, changing my dressings and washing me, it broke my heart. I got a lot of flowers. I remember one day when I was getting a ton of them. On the fifth or so bouquet of the day, a gargantuan arrangement, I wailed, overwhelmed by the outpouring of floral support. The nurse who brought it in started to cry, too. We looked at the tag to see who the roses were from. Lo and behold, they were for someone else entirely; she had brought them to me by mistake. Oh God we laughed at that. It was the first time I'd even smiled in weeks. I don't remember many, many things about the hospital, but I remember that moment, when we laughed. I had a vision about the world when I was there. It came to me one night as if a little door opened and I looked through and eavesdropped on the truth. I saw that the world was constantly falling apart, it was always in a state of little things always falling apart, and then there were these brigades of individual human angels, with kind eyes, apples and stitches, repairing, fixing, mending, patting, bandaging the wounds of the world, and putting it back together, piece by tiny piece. I hadn't known that repair was done on a gestural level, a cellular one. It shocked me that I hadn't seen it that way before.
It was a sad, scary time. I cried constantly. I was very, very scared. I was in the hospital for a month. When I got home, it was suddenly spring and I was so grateful I hadn't missed it. I watched it roll into the yard from my bedroom window and I felt hopeful watching things bloom in slo-mo. I was in bed for months as my patchworked skin grew back, my re-routed blood vessels networked, my back muscle became foot, my bones reknitted themselves. The cat plastered herself to my side and growled if anyone got too close to me. Andy went back to work full-time, and continued to do all the cooking, shopping, laundry, and the general endless bussing and fussing required by someone who can't walk, not to mention the emotional coaching and salving of heartache, and panic. Every night he slept on the floor, next to the bed, and I woke, crying again, at 2 or 3 a.m., needing to be put on the bedpan. (Sometimes now, when I'm too lazy to get out of bed in the morning, I will say to him, "Hon, can't you just bring me the bedpan?" and he will scream, "Hon! No!" and we will think this is hilarious, the way that only people who've used bedpans in the first year of marriage do.) I don't remember him as anything other than cheerful, hopeful, confident, endlessly energized, though I'm sure that when he wasn't with me he was as scared and tired as I was. It took six surgeries over six months to fashion me a sort-of foot. I walked for the first time, unaided, almost ten months later, because I forgot my crutches at Thanksgiving. It took years before I had the wherewithal to think about other things. But I will wear this stuff forever. It protects my foot and allows me to walk. I don't take a step without all of it. Obviously I need some new stuff. I never see it from this angle.
Occasionally, I feel a weird nostalgia for my time in bed. The long quiet afternoons. The backyard cats quietly stalking each other under the bridal-veil bush. The absolute removal of all of my responsibilities. My intense focus on whatever I was embroidering. The imaginary world I created in the handwritten scrapbooks I made from my old travel diaries. The reassuring vapidity of daytime TV. The birds that came to the feeder a few feet from where I sat. Letters. No computer. The joy of short and long visits. I heard a story on This American Life several years ago about the strange longing for prison that sometimes affects ex-cons. (It's Act V of Episode 119.) It was really good. I feel that sometimes. It was an incarceration that felt a bit like childhood. You don't usually get to experience that sort of dependence, and boredom, as an adult. There was something incredibly decadent, and illicit, about it somehow.
Last week I could feel March 5th approaching. I'm not big on anniversaries in general, really, but of course, the subconscious always remembers the big ones, doesn't it. This may account for the hissy fits at home, in coffee shops, at work, and a-blog, or possibly I'm just psycho. I wasn't exactly pitch-perfect before all this happened, believe me. Nevertheless, I hope you will forgive my excessiveness lately. Posie means so much to me; it is the Second Alicia. The first one was nervous and flirty, a long-distance walker who had never owned a car, and traveled abroad by herself. This one makes gardens out of fabric, fusses about the house, and tries hard almost all the time. But you know this one. I absolutely do not believe that everything happens for a reason; I never did, and I still don't. I believe that we fashion sense out of the things that happen, and create a kind of meaning in the result. And at the end of the day, you just gotta plow on through! There is no time to waste or worry. There are so many more Alicias to be, I know.
Thank you to everyone who helped me survive, including Dr. M, my plastic surgeon, boy wonder, wherever you are. I am so happy to be alive.