Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Friend in the Ditch

Morningside Community Garden, 111 & Amsterdam

The world looks different once you’ve fallen into the ditch   I’m now post-surgical and recovering from my herniated disk, but still walking slowly, with crutches or a cane, still getting no farther than the end of the block.   One thing I’ve noticed standing there in the autumn sun is how much company I have.  We live two blocks from a big hospital, in a neighborhood with many elderly people, so along with the parade of students, tourists and busy people in the prime of life, there are always the sick and wounded, getting around with canes, crutches and wheelchairs.   

Like most healthy people, I tended to ignore these people before, or wince when I looked, thanking God or good luck that I had been spared their pain.  Now that I am one of them, I try to make eye contact, and express some sympathy.  Misery loves company.   

But even among the wounded there’s a hierarchy.  We tend to look away from the dying and the horribly maimed, leaving them alone to suffer in their own world.  On our block there is one woman who has learned not to look for sympathy.  She has little more than half a body, cut off just below the waist.  She rides around the block in her motorized wheelchair nearly every day, her lower torso tied up in a shawl, staying out for hours to take the air and the sun.  Her face is deeply lined, deeply tanned, and she looks straight ahead with an unchanging, stoic expression.  The sight of her is painful to others, and she knows it.  Even my pastor wife, turning the corner and seeing a half-person coming toward her, gasped under her breath.  A moment later she said -- "that was quite a sight.”   

I admire this woman, because her demeanor says that regardless of what other people think or feel, she is determined to live.   She knows that when she goes out she will be ignored, shunned, ostracized by her neighbors.  But she refuses to be homebound, to limit her human contact to those who by family or profession are bound to be sympathetic.  The block belongs to her as much as anyone.  She may be an outcast, but she will not sacrifice what’s left of her life.    

Like most people, I used to look down on this lady with horror, and avert my eyes.  But in recent weeks, as I stubbornly took my daily walks on crutches, once even passing out from the pain, I decided we had a lot in common.  People didn’t like the sight of me, either.  So a few days ago I looked at this lady openly, intently, and she looked back.  I nodded, and she returned the greeting with a barely perceptible movement, as if to say I’m not sure you meant that, but if you did, OK.   

Today, feeling better, as I stood near the corner leaning on my crutches, she suddenly rolled around the corner, and looked up.   I smiled and nodded.  She smiled and said, “Hi.”   

Now we are what you call “nodding acquaintances.”  I’m not sure I want to push it.   One thing I don’t want to do is to play “journalist” and find out her story so I can use it.  But I’m not averse to making a friend in the ditch.   I’m only there temporarily, it seems, but I could be back, any time.
-- Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Curse of Ms. Bliss: Unfamiliar Quotations 2

Having no doubt worried readers with the run-up to my back surgery, I feel it necessary to offer a post-surgical update.   To kill two birds, I can combine it with Part 2 of the popular feature “Unfamiliar Quotations.”    

Today’s quotation is different, though – not a useful saw or slogan, but something you should probably never say to anyone.  It was said to me, though, at the tender age of ten:  

“Some day, Tommy Phillips, you’re going to be flat on your back.”    

This came from my fifth-grade teacher in Roslyn, Long Island, a Miss or Mrs. Bliss.  Middle-aged, thin and usually dressed in black, she never made much of an impression on me, but somehow I set off a deep resentment in her.  At the time I was a smart kid who did what he wanted and often didn’t pay attention in class, though I had no problems with learning.    

One day, I discovered a new way to solve an arithmetic problem, and eagerly put up my hand.  “I can do it a different way,” I piped.   

Ms. Bliss told me to shut up, and do it the way she taught. 

I don’t remember exactly what brought on her prophecy.  But I'm sure I was doing what I wanted, probably horsing around with my deskmates, when she erupted:  

“Some day, Tommy Phillips, you’re going to be flat on your back!”  She said this quivering with rage, repeated it for emphasis and followed up “Then, you’ll see…”    I was too stunned to listen further.  But it had its effect.   

For the next 60 years I wondered about the curse of Ms. Bliss, and what I would see if it came to pass.  And then at 71, I found myself flat on my back.   


On Columbus Day, eight weeks after the first stabbing pains in my right hip and thigh, I was stretched out on the table in a neurosurgeon’s examining room, unable to sit or stand for more than few minutes.  I had grown a spiky beard and lay there moaning when Dr. Cohen came in.   He immediately diagnosed me as “pretty miserable.”   

The MRI showed a badly herniated lumbar disk, pressing on the nerves from my spine.   Rest, ice, heat and gentle stretching had done nothing to help, and the pain was getting worse by the day.  He proposed a micro-diskectomy, cutting away a small portion of the vertebra to clear out the herniated tissue.  Some friends had urged me to explore non-surgical options, and I had already tried acupuncture, with no relief.   Today I was desperate and this surgery seemed to make sense.  “Let’s do it,” I said.  

Clearing his schedule, the nurse found an opening three days away, but only if I could get the necessary pre-op tests with my primary care physician.   

Dr. Baskin grumbled about the hurry-up, but he squeezed me into his schedule the next day, even after the holiday weekend.   Normally brusque, this time he patted me on the back and said, “Good luck.  You’re in good hands.”    

I woke up in pain at 5 a.m. Thursday.   Debra helped me dress, led the way to the elevator, then to the street to hail a cab.   The cabbie was African, mellow at the end of a night shift.  No traffic.  I stretched out in the back as best I could and we rolled down Columbus Avenue in the pre-dawn, past familiar signs and buildings, the Natural History museum, Lincoln Center, Fordham, the Church of St. Paul the Apostle, then a right on 58th and over to the entrance of Roosevelt Hospital.   

Inside the atrium a small crowd was gathering.  These were the ambulatory surgery patients, reporting at dawn for 7:30 operations.  We were blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asians, some with kids in tow.   I was the least ambulatory of the bunch.   There were easy chairs in the waiting area, but I couldn’t sit easily, so a Hispanic man, a sharp-looking guy in a new straw hat,  gave up his place on the one couch, making room for me to stretch out.   

At 6:00 a nurse came to escort us upstairs.  She looked Chinese, plump and jolly, and herded us like campers on an outing.  I was last in line when we reached the 5th floor ward, but she assigned me Waiting Chair Number One, closest to the door.   

Before I even tried to sit,  an orderly came up to ask if I would rather lie down.   “We want you comfortAHble,” she said with a Haitian lilt.   She wheeled a bed from across the way, adjusted the height, helped me onto it and covered me with a blanket.    

Next to come in was a senior RN, who introduced herself as Alicia.  She reminded me of Edith Bunker, chatty and friendly but serious about her business. She went through a ream of paperwork, checking my answers to all the questions about medical history, allergies etc, while someone else took my blood pressure.  Alicia had seen hundreds of these operations and assured me that I was going to feel better, very soon.  

A few minutes later I watched the ceiling fly past as my bed rolled through the corridors, pushed by a Jamaican guy.   The anesthesiologist had deep blue eyes.  She looked deep into mine, checking my consciousness before she obliterated it.  “This is your last chance to ask questions,” she said, as I saw Dr. Cohen coming toward us, dressed in casual street wear.    

I had no questions, just told Dr. Cohen I was looking forward to this, and we shook hands.  I felt his hands and they were good.   

A Filipino nurse popped into view.   You’re going on a trip, she said.  Where you wanna go on vacation?


“OK, Aruba!”  The anesthesiologist dropped the bomb in my IV. 

Next thing I knew, the surgery was done, I was back from vacation.  A medical student with a hairy chest debriefed me – told me all they’d done, and what I could expect in recovery.  Already I began to feel an ache in the lower back, and the return of normal sensation to my right hip and leg.   

After that I was wheeled to the recovery room, where a golden-skinned, dark-eyed  nurse took my vital signs, and gave me a choice of snacks.  I chose cranberry juice and graham crackers.   They tasted divine.  She brought me seconds.   

“I’m Miss McDonald,” she said primly.  She was so pretty and I was so happy that I had to flirt.   Ah, but what's your first name?  

She hesitated.  I usually don’t give it, because people can’t say it right.   

Spell it, then, I said.   


Oh, Zen-IDA, I said. 

So, you’ve traveled, she said with a smile.   Zenaide is from Panama.   

A volunteer was hovering, an elderly lady named Evelyn.  Her job was to stay in contact with loved ones and escort them to the recovery room.  She called Debra, and brought her to my bedside.   

 The last nurse we saw was a solid Hispanic woman, middle-aged, who was there to check out my “sea legs.”  She watched me intently and followed close as I got up and walked on crutches to the men’s room.  I hadn’t noticed before, but there was a bright yellow bracelet on my wrist that said FALL RISK.  My legs felt steady, though, as I made my way across the floor.  The nurse closed the door – “for privacy” -- and told me to knock when I was ready.   

I stood, I peed, I knocked firmly.  I walked back across to Debra and sat on the bed.  The nurse said “You’re good to go.”   I could leave whenever I wanted.   

I rested for a few minutes, then Debra called for a wheelchair to push me to the main lobby, where I sat while she went out to hail a cab.  Another mellow African driver took us up Amsterdam Avenue this time, past PS 87 where the kids had gone to school, past our favorite Taqueria, past V&T’s Pizza.   We took a left on 111th, stopped at our entrance, and Debra gave him a $5 tip “for a smooth ride.”  I asked for extra time to get my legs and crutches out.   

“No hurry, man.  All the time you need.”   

Home again, miraculously with two working legs under me for the first time in months.   

That night I was able to reflect on the curse of Ms. Bliss.  She was right, I did find myself flat on my back.  But what I saw was not what she envisioned.   She probably thought that in a helpless state I would see that my boyish sense of freedom was an illusion, that our lives are controlled by others, that we live not according to what we want but the dictates of family, school, employer, medical establishment, church and state. Shut up and do it their way.  

Maybe that was her life, but it was not what I saw.  My wife stayed home from work to feed and dress and bathe me.   We left our door unlocked so that neighbors could look in on me when she had to be away.  A neighbor and a stranger picked me up off the street when I passed out in pain.   My best friend helped bring me to doctor appointments.  My entire church prayed for me, plus people from other churches and other religions, plus friends of friends who I don’t even know.  Families cooked and brought meals to our door.  My children visited and called, and the ones far away got together and bought me a bed table and a Kindle.   

And on the day of my surgery, every human being I saw recognized my distress and shared it in some way, helped me to bear it.  I didn’t feel controlled, but lifted up by others.  Maybe it was because everyone could foresee themselves in the same state.  I never felt helpless.  Lifted up by people from all over the world, in the heart of the greatest city in the world, I wound up feeling on top of the world.  I was doing what I wanted, was thrilled to see it working out.  But I wasn't doing anything, it was all being done by the people I had trusted myself to.  Thus my boyish sense of freedom lives, but I understand freedom in a new way.  It's not an individual achievement, but a communal gift.  

A hundred years ago hernial disk surgery had barely been invented, and I might have spent the rest of my life flat on my back, in an opium trance if I could afford it.  Today I am walking on two feet, healing, my energy returning and my dotage receding again to the horizon.  I owe it to humanity and science, and even our half-broken health care system, in which I am blessed to be in the unbroken half.  I only ask for the strength and wisdom to return the blessing, and help set others free.  

-- Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips

O let the heavens hear it
The penitential hymn
Come healing of the spirit
Come healing of the limb.

---    L. Cohen


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A Tragedian Unmasked

Life lessons come fast and hard on the Road to Dotage.   Last month I defined my fundamental problem as a Tragic Flaw:  “an irrational craving for life that picks me up out of bed every morning and propels me out the door to explore the known and unknown world, that fills my head with music and makes me want to dance.”  This flaw, I supposed, was the force behind my latest dancing injury, which turned out to be a herniated disc, requiring surgery.  “The dancer will dance, the actor will act, the lover will love, the tyrant will oppress and the courtier will curry favor until they expire,” I wisely wrote.   

My thesis was that even thought this flaw had got me into big trouble and would eventually kill me, it was simply a fact of life, in the DNA, unalterable, a categorical imperative.    

Cool facts about a Tragic Flaw: 
1.  Since it is unalterable, you don’t need to work on it.  You’re off the hook.
2.  It puts you in a class with Kings!  Remember the college definition of tragedy – a great man undone by a flaw in his nature.  A tragic flaw confers nothing less than greatness on its bearer.   

Lest you all run out and look for one, let me offer this urgent update.  At some point a doubt may appear in the tragic hero’s aura of self-satisfied suffering.  Could it be that his flaw is something less than the curse of greatness?  Suppose, just suppose that it were no more than a stupid, babyish arrogance that should have been shed long ago, and in fact could still be shucked off.  Ever since I wrote about my Tragic Flaw I’d been thinking:  Do I really need this?   

As fate would have it, I was presented with a test.  Two weeks ago when my herniated disc was hurting out of control and I still didn’t know what it was, I had reduced my daily outing to a 50-yard walk, to the corner of my block, where I could stand in the sun for ten minutes and watch a parade of Upper West Siders go by.  It was my last direct contact with the great world outside, and I didn’t want to give it up.  One day, the pain was especially intense and unpredictable, but the sun was shining and the world beckoned.  I grabbed my crutches, unsteadily, and told my wife I was going out for my little walk.   

She eyed me.  “Are you sure you want to do this?”   

“Yes,” I said in a defiant tone.  And off I went.  I wobbled to the corner and stood in the sun, but it made me feel sick and dizzy.  A few people wandered by, but I got no kick out of them.  I decided to walk back.  Turning for home, I dropped one crutch and had to stand holding an iron fence until a woman came and picked it up for me. 

I made it back to the front stoop and mounted the ramp, but felt too weak to open the heavy front door of the building.  So I leaned against the wall, waiting for a neighbor to come along.  The next thing I knew, two guys were hauling me into a sitting position on the ramp.  I had passed out, grazing my head on the iron railing as I fell, and was bleeding slightly from the scalp.   

For the next three minutes, I had to fight my rescuers and talk them out of calling an ambulance, which would carry me to a squalid emergency room where I would be held for hours, checked for a concussion, stuffed into an MRI machine, and held up for inflated fees.  “Just buzz my wife,” I begged, and she rescued me.

The test itself came two weeks later.  Feeling a little better, I craved some afternoon sun on a beautiful October day.  The day was getting late, but I begged my wife to walk with me to the corner.  When we got outside, we could see that the sun had already sunk behind the buildings opposite ours, and had crossed Amsterdam Avenue, where it still shone on the sculpture garden at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.   

It was about 75 yards to the garden.   

I could make it, I was sure, and told Debra so.   

“Yes, but will you make it back?”   

I couldn’t swear to it, but I thought so.  Besides, she was with me.   

“If you fall down, I’m gonna call an ambulance,” she warned. 

That put me in a pickle.  I couldn’t afford another collapse and a trip to the ER.  But my Tragic Flaw craved the sun and the city.  To deny its wishes would be to abandon my own beloved irresponsibility, my own cherished greatness.   

I caved.  All right, I said sheepishly.  I would wait and go out the next morning when the sun was on the stoop.   

Thus my tragic flaw began to come undone.  As I had secretly suspected, there was nothing noble about it.  It was no more than a babyish arrogance, a flight from reason toward objects of desire, however passing and trivial.  I could still compare myself with King Lear, but I had to look past his royal robes and see him too for what he was:  a foolish old man who knew himself only slenderly, a poor decision maker, deluded by flattery that had turned into grandiosity. 

A few years ago, in my Shakespearean acting period, I wrote on a futile audition form:  “King Lear, c’est moi.”   


A very dear friend of mine describes herself as a “ridiculous person,” and she means it.  Irrationally neurotic, compulsive and fearful, she is nevertheless probably happier than I, because she is at home in her ridiculousness. She doesn’t try to justify or glorify it, it is what it is, and so is she. 

But could I, at this age, make the leap from pseudo-tragic to authentically ridiculous? 

Some would say I’m already there. 

-- Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips


Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Voice From the Ditch

The Road to Dotage is the pleasantest, openest road you’ll ever encounter in life.  Free at last from the demands of working and raising a family, you get onto it as if exiting from a jammed expressway, coasting down a ramp, abandoning your car and skipping onto a broad, sunny path.  The destination is unknown, but of course it’s the journey that matters, and the journey is delightful.   

There’s just one little thing.  You have to find a way to block out or disregard the shrieks and groans continually rising from the ditches on either side.  These are the the cries of the casualties, those who have fallen or run off the road.  The ditches are strewn with elderly people: wounded, sick, demented, and dying.  These are your peers, your colleagues, your rivals and your friends.   

Of course there is an army of doctors, nurses and pharmacists on hand, tending to the casualties, trying to get as many as possible back on the road as soon as possible.  They work miracles, these people.   

Last year a man I know, an octogenarian who still teaches college and rides a mountain bike on weekends, fell suddenly and violently ill.  In the hospital they found a hole had opened in his esophagus, and food was leaking out into his abdomen, setting off a septic infection.  This man spent two months flat on his back in intensive care, as they battled the infection and saved his life.  In the following months he underwent two surgeries to repair the damage.  Now, I hear, he is back on the Road to Dotage.   

I write this from the ditch, where I too have suddenly fallen flat on my back.  The sore hip I brought back from dance camp only got worse and worse, until I could barely walk or sit up without excruciating pain.  Last week the orthopedist dismissed me and sent me on to a neurologist to search for the source of this torment.  After two more MRI's, the diagnosis is in: a "doozy" of a herniated spinal disc.  I'm seeing the neurosurgeon next week.   
I’m living day to day with the help of a wonderful wife and powerful pain killers.  But I have hope.  I fully expect that in some weeks or months I will step – or at least limp – gratefully back onto the Road to Dotage.   

I started this blog with an enthusiastic account of a book – “The Delights of Old Age” by Maurice Goudeket.  He was one of the lucky ones, enjoying the wisdom of old age and finding new adventures and pleasures as he walked in wonder through his seventies.  Since I liked the book and identified with his character, I assumed my seventies would go the same way.  And maybe, once I get back on my feet, it will be that way again for a while.  But never again will I ignore or disregard the voices from the ditch, the cries of the wounded.  I’m one of them now, and we are legion.   

-- Copyright 2013 by Tom Phillips
Photo by Django Phillips