It is an odd thing, being injured.
I forget if I told you already about my small accident—I was horsing around outside and rolled wrong, and managed to severely insult my back, which now seizes up at the least provocation. As you can imagine, a huge proportion of my every is now eaten up with avoiding triggering another spasm. Chris has to do nearly everything—I can’t even get out of bed without help. Per hour, this has got to be the most painful injury I’ve ever sustained, and the second-most inconvenient. I’m hoping there will not be many hours, though. Already I’m seeing some improvement; as you saw today, I can walk normally at least.
I’ve been injured before, of course, and the interesting thing about injury, aside from the anatomical detail (on one occasion I found out I had a body-part by breaking it), is the way that the extent of the doable becomes so suddenly circumscribed. At the moment, I cannot bend at the waist from a standing position, nor can I rise from sitting or kneeling without help. As a result, I find myself staring at items on the floor (my laptop bag, a pair of socks, my shirt), and even though they are right there, these things might as well be ten thousand miles away, for all the good they can do me. I can’t reach them. A few years ago I spent a summer with what turned out to be plantar fasciitis, a condition I really recommend you not develop, such that every step hurt, not hurt a whole lot, I could still walk, but it added up, step upon step, until I was exhausted with pain. A quarter mile came to seem a long and terrible journey, a thing to steal myself for, if it could not possibly be avoided. In the glow of good health, of course, a quarter mile slides by under my moving feet more or less automatically. Distance expands and contracts with my bodily strength.
It occurs to be that this sort of temporary disability is simply a foretaste of getting old. I assume I’ll feel better in a week or two, but someday, unless I die in some accident first, there will come a time when I am permanently and progressively disabled in some way or other, when distances that now fly by under my feet come to seem just too far away, when things begin to hurt more or less all the time, when I will need help with even the most basic things. I don’t know what will fail, but eventually something will.
I don’t think of this in a morbid or frightened mood; age is the price of living a long time, and I intend to pay it, if I can. More than that, age is part of life, just as the end is part of a story. I’m enough of a storyteller not to begrudge this structure to things. Instead, I feel a kind of kinship right now with the elderly, while for a week or two I feel the rough edges of the old woman hiding inside myself.
I’ve been thinking of aging recently, in part because my husband has just had a birthday. A old college friend of his, in the course of wishing him a happy birthday, mentioned a former history teacher of theirs. The man had been something of a mentor to them both, and is now dead. All of Chris’ college professors are dead, or at least he assumes that they are, so much time has passed. Inevitably, I fell to wondering how many of mine will still be around when I turn fifty-six (a question with obvious relevance to you…).
Of course, Chris is talking about professors he had in his early twenties, which adds an extra decade of time to the mix. Also, his professors were not baby-boomers, and I believe your life expectancy is greater than theirs. So I think it’s entirely possible that I will be able to invite you to my fifty-sixth birthday party—and you will probably still be too busy to attend. Yet your death, and that of my other heroes and baby-boomer friends, is another thing, like my own old age, that I shall have to cope with, if I live long enough.
I was injured this past Saturday, while horsing around on a lawn. Just prior, I had been playing happily with my guide books, looking up plants and taking notes, drawing pictures…I found that the witch-hazel in the back had four different types of leaf damage, plus one spiky green growth that was probably a gall of some sort, and many three-part little buds that I’m guessing will become flowers in the fall. There were three or four types of moss at least, interspersed with scraggly tufts of some little rush. Rushes, as you may know, look like grasses, but their flowers structurally resemble tiny, inconspicuous lilies. They’ve gone to seed now, and when I look through my lens I can see pointed, greenish seed pods each cupped by three tiny triangular bracts. In the front yard, in among the grasses and sedges, I also found wood sorrel (an old friend), and mouse-ear chickweed, a tiny little thing with pairs of green, fuzzy leaves and flowers with delicate white petals each cleft almost in two. I’ve seen it before, but not often enough that I didn’t need to look it up. The new acquaintance turned out to be some kind of speedwell, probably common speedwell. Usually these sorts of vernacular names are easier to remember, and much more charming, than the Latin, but the speedwells are an exception. Their genus name is Veronica, a pretty name that one of my dorm-parents in boarding school also bore, if I remember correctly. Veronica the plant, then, is a plucky little creeping thing with four purple petals, the bottom one thinner than the others. I remember all of this because I wrote it down. I was planning to tell you, and thinking also of using these letters to assemble a little book of natural history, full of careful observation and carefree speculation, my modest offering after the likes of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and Honey from stone. And then I jumped up like a child at play and fell down like an old woman, and I’ve been temporarily old ever since.
The thing is, Nature is not simply something I observe and wax poetic about; I am also a biological object, subject to damage and nibbles and frost, and so are you. We are fit subjects, therefor, of any natural history discussion. Our treasured individual dramas and the fleeting tragedies of anonymous birds could equally well be viewed with fond, detached hilarity. A sunny day can bring a predator’s swipe; a walk down the street can slice the heart.
And a cool summer’s evening can fuzz the air with mosquitoes till I tell myself I can persist only five minutes more before I must go inside, Chris has gone in already. But I will persist those five minutes, it is a matter of pride, and in those five minutes a great blue heron flies over, its wings as big as tablecloths flapping silently, its shape silhouetted black against the purpling sky and framed by the equally black arms of pine.
There is recompense for those of us who stick around, even if we must be nibbled a little.