I used to think that taking a long vacation of solitude and rest, locked up in a room with a view and a good book to read, would be heavenly. I was wrong. Solitude is dreadful.
I am currently confined to my bedroom as a result of foot surgery. There is no way of resting comfortably in bed because the surgeon admonished me to keep the foot elevated, “foot-to-nose.” When he cursed me with the foot-to-nose requirement, I thought the surgeon meant that I would have to contort my body in an acrobatic exercise of bringing my toes all the way up to my face. I’ve done very similar exercises in yoga. But I was wrong; it is much worse than that. Foot-to-nose means lying flat on your back and putting your foot atop a mile-high pile of pillows so that the tip of the foot is aligned on a horizontal plane with the tip of your nose. This brings all the blood away from the toes and prevents swelling. If the surgeon had told me about this requirement before scheduling my surgery, I would have told him, “No thank you.”
So here I am lying perpendicular on my back, unable to walk around. I am bored. I am allowed to use a scooter to move from one room to the other, as long as I maintain the “foot-to-nose” requirement at least 80% of the time. I’ve improvised a sitting position in the living room where I put my legs on a footstool with three pillows holding the legs up high. This allows me to balance a laptop on my lap so that I can surf the net, watch old movies, and waste time. I’m like Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, incapacitated in one room, looking out my bay view window. Except my view is not as exciting as the view in Rear Window. Jimmy had a technicolor and oversaturated view of the back alley of his Greenwich Village apartment, where he could comfortably sit in his wheelchair and shamelessly use his binoculars to spy on the neighbors across the way. He could spy on the old woman with a hearing aid who spent her time making art. He could see a young married couple who just moved into their apartment and couldn't keep their hands off each other. He ogled over a tall blonde who liked to dance and exercise in skimpy clothes. He listened to a young man who composes songs and played the piano all the time, And of course, he could spy on the murderer, played by Raymond Burr.
My view pales to the Rear Window alley. As I sit in my foot-to-nose position, all I can see from my bay window are overgrown pine trees, lots of grass, a bunch of geese, and roaming deer who love to dine on my pine trees. It’s idyllic, it's delightful, it’s boring. This is what happens when you retire, move out of the city of Washington, and transplant yourself to the rolling hills of the Brandywine Valley in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.
My parents had also moved from a metropolitan city to the middle of Pennsylvania country when they retired in the 1980s. At least my father had some previous experience with living outside of a city because his family had an estancia in Patagonia where he had spent his summers as a youth. My mother on the other hand was a total novice to country living. She had grown up in Buenos Aires, in the center of the center (el Centro del Centro), and she had no idea what it meant to live where there are no paved city blocks. Mom and Dad had taken a trip to the Pennsylvania Poconos shortly before they turned 65, and they fell in love with the woods. They built an A-frame home near Lake Wallenpaupack, and made this their retirement home. The roads leading up to the house were miserable, but it was quaint and green. I was living in North Carolina at the time, so I didn’t visit them much. I would talk with Mom by phone every once in a while, and I knew she had made close friends with the local grocer who would order the New York Times for my father and hold it for him to pick up. In retirement, Dad continued writing his Spanish-English dictionary that would never be published, and Mom wrote long romantic novels set in Argentina. I was busy with my law practice, so I mostly lost track of what else they were doing in the Poconos.
One year, I visited my parents a few weeks before Christmas, and Mom proudly showed me a Polaroid photo that she intended to use as a Christmas Card. It was a picture of Dad, in front of the A-frame house, standing next to a black bear.
“Mom!” I screamed. “What is Dad doing in front of a bear! Have you gone insane?”
“Funny story that,” said Mom. “I was inside the house one day and I saw a fur coat fly by. I told your father about it, and we both assumed that one of our neighbors must have washed their fur coat and put it on the laundry line to dry, where it blew away. Then we heard some noise in the front yard, and Dad went to check it out. Turns out it wasn’t a fur coat; it was a bear.”
“Mother,” I told her. “First of all, no one in the Poconos wears fur coats. This is the woods, not the fashion center of New York or Buenos Aires. And second of all, why is Dad standing in front of the bear? He could have been eaten alive.”
“You know your father,” she answered. “He’s incorrigible. I told him it was dangerous.”
I shook my head. “Mother, you posed Dad in front of the bear and took a picture with your camera. You are an accomplice in this madness.”
It’s a wonder that my parents survived living in the Poconos. After a while, they got tired of the woods, and moved to Northern Virginia in 1988. Thus ended their bear-trekking adventures.
It was that same year that I broke my foot. I was jogging at lunchtime with a friend of mine, across a poorly paved road. I was in tiptop shape in those days, able to jog eight miles in the wee hours of the morning, swim thirty laps every other day, and ride ten miles on my bike on weekends. On weekends I was a warrior, and during the work week I was a corporate rat tied to a desk.. One day in September my friend Rob and I decided we had time for a quick midday jog. We would be working late anyway, into the evening as usual, so we were entitled to take a couple of miles on the road. Unfortunately, that may have been one of the worst decisions in my life.
During the jog, my right foot landed in a pothole and my ankle broke. I was so delusional and full of youthful hubris that I did not even realize that the ankle was broken. I was young and thought myself invincible, and I didn’t listen to my body. I thought I had merely sprained the ankle. After a few weeks of ice packs, I resumed my daily routine of eight-mile jogs. My wife at the time was working overseas, so even though she is a doctor, I was not able to get her advice about the foot condition. After Holli came back from overseas, we were walking the dog one day, and suddenly my leg collapsed and I couldn’t walk. Holli helped me into the house, and then drove me to the hospital. They x-rayed the ankle and confirmed that it had been broken for quite a period of time. Because I had continued to run on the ankle for many weeks after the original injury, I had made matters significantly worse.
“When you hurt your ankle while I was away, did it change colors at all?” asked Holli.
“Oh yes!” I answered in excitement. “It was spectacular! First it turned red, then blue, then purple, then almost green and yellow. I was amazed at how puffy and colorful it got.”
Holli stared at me in disbelief. “Why didn’t you go to the hospital then? Anyone with any sense would have realized it was broken.”
I said nothing. Better be silent and be thought a fool than speak and prove it.
I wore a soft cast for three months and then had some sort of surgery on the ankle, but the doctors warned that it was not a complete fix. They predicted that I may need ligament reconstruction in the future. They were right. Now, almost 40 years later, my right-foot ligaments have given way, and the doctors recommended surgery. That foot has been nothing but a pain for a long time.
I am less than “content” lying in bed looking at the Chadds Ford greenery through my window as my foot heals. It’s not very entertaining. I can’t help but remember that I had a much better view a year ago when I still lived on the seventh floor of The Westchester Co-op in Washington DC.
My apartment overlooked the intersection of Cathedral Ave and 38th Street. Neither of these streets has much vehicle traffic, but they have a lot of pedestrians. During the many months that I was working from home due to the Covid lockdown, I sat in my dining room which I had transformed into an office, and I would stare out the window to spy upon the comings and goings of my neighbors. Like Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, I could not hear what the neighbors were saying, but I could see what they were carrying in and out of their homes, and I could make up stories in my head about their lives.
Since we couldn’t do much on weekends during the Covid lockdown, I would spend the better part of a Sunday afternoon keeping an eye out the window to see who was doing what. The Westchester is known for having a large open area of manicured grass and hand-cared plants. It is very attractive and alluring, but even though there are no gates, it is private property. One particularly warm Sunday, some neighbors decided that the Westchester grounds would make the perfect spot for hanging out in beach chairs. Many people laid out blankets and chairs (socially distanced) and enjoyed the day. I spied it all from my seventh-floor apartment and, with nothing else to do but complain, I told my husband to call the front desk and get rid of the intruders. Renato looked at me, crossed his eyes, and said, “I’m not doing that.”
Lately, in my broken foot boredom, I’ve taken to watching sappy shows on television. Renato and I will watch one hour of TV every night. Our favorite show is This is Us, which is about three dysfunctional adults (Kevin, Kate, and Randall) who grew up as triplets in a dysfunctional family in Pennsylvania. The keyword here is “dysfunctional.” It reminds me a lot of my own family, and my own adulthood. It’s fascinating that I’m unable to recognize the dysfunction around me as it occurs in my actual life, but I’m quick to point it out when I see it on a television show.
When Kevin in This is Us got drunk and drove his car with his niece in it, I found myself at the edge of my chair, screaming at him, “What are you doing!”
When Kate in This is Us had one of her moody tantrums and made snide remarks at her husband, I criticized her across the room, “Be merciful!”
When Randall in This is Us said something incredibly cruel to his 72-year-old mother who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, I opened my eyes wide in anger and my mouth large in uproar and said … nothing.
Renato stopped me in my tracts and said, “Shut up. They don’t hear you on the other side of the TV screen.”
I looked indignantly at Renato and told him that he should be mad as hell and as angry as me. “You should join me in yelling at these characters,” I told him. Boredom makes me irritable.
Renato looked at me, crossed his eyes, and said, “I’m not doing that.”
As I convalesce with my foot in the air, incapacitated, Renato is as attentive to me as Grace Kelley was to an invalid Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window. But, trust me, Renato is no Grace Kelley. Granted, Renato was an actor in his twenties and thirties, and he knows how to wear a tuxedo and cut a good figure. But Grace Kelley appeared in every scene of Rear Window with a new outfit, freshly applied make-up, and carefully coiffed hair. Instead, Renato has been showing up for breakfast scruffier and scruffier each day.
Saturday, two days after my surgery, Renato’s face seemed dirty. I couldn’t tell because I was still drowsy from the anesthesia and pain killers, and I refuse to wear my glasses, so I let it go. On Monday, I saw a definite trace of a mustache on his lips, and I grumbled but let it go. On Wednesday, Renato took me to the doctor’s office for a checkup, and it was my first time out of the house, in a wheelchair. Under the clear sun, I could finally confirm that Renato was growing a beard and a mustache.
“Renato,” I said. “You didn’t shave today.”
“I haven’t shaved since last week. I’m doing something new,” he answered.
“You should shave,” I told him.
Renato looked at me, crossed his eyes, and said, “I’m not doing that.”
You would think from this long tale that it has been several weeks since the day of my surgery. It has not. It’s only been a week. I have two more weeks of mandatory bed rest, followed by three weeks of limited walking in an orthopedic boot, and then six months of physical therapy. If I sound impatient, it’s because I’m impatient. Will I survive the broken foot, or will the foot-to-nose position be the end of me? I want Alfred Hitchcock to come and make a movie of this boredom.
© Ernesto Beckford 2022
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