This is not the post I meant to be posting. This is not where I saw myself just a few months ago when I conceived of returning to writing via a blog. However, this is where I am, fighting back the writer’s block that I have allowed to curse me for over a decade. Newly single and recovering from surgery, I have no clue anymore where my life is heading. All I know is I would rather live it writing…
The day I found out that I needed a two level spinal fusion is the same day my marriage ended.
I felt the pop in my lower back the day my career as an Emergency Medical Technician ended, a scant 15 or so months after it began. After the pop, my next thought was for my marriage; I wondered if it would be intact by the time I healed. This was not my first back injury, and we had not done well during the last one; though it was minor and short-lived in comparison.The entirely new injury occurred in early October while I was lifting a patient. I went through all the prescribed rigmarole, trying to heal. I walked unevenly into physical therapy twice a week; my back hooked sharply left some days, right the others, never straight up and down.
My days at home were lonely. My wife, our two dogs and I, moved to our new city just a few months before I was injured. It was not enough time to make new friends to combat my isolation. I spent a handful of weeks satisfied with binge-watching TV between physical therapy appointments.
I began to suspect that non-aggressive therapies were not going to work on my back as it worsened and sharp pains radiated down my leg more viciously by the week. As winter began to bury my city under 9 feet of snow and block my view of the neighborhood, I finished the final season of yet another HBO show. I began to feel lost and not in the surreal way one feels when they turn the last page of a great novel.
I began to lose track of the days of the week as PT became pointless and my back and leg grew weak and more painful.
I told myself, most people never get an opportunity for such solitude. Most people never get paid to be idle in their homes, “healing.” I knew I should have been writing. I had no excuse not to. It felt sinful to waste the time, the opportunity.
Writing was integral to my young and early adult life. I had the ability to walk in the shoes of others. I could not imagine what writer’s block could feel like back then. I tried to imagine sitting with a felt tip pen in front of a blank journal and not being able to touch the pen to the page. It felt the way a nightmare muffles the dreamers screams. I was the student whose academic essays waxed creative and went on for pages beyond the minimum word count, relevant and appreciated by my professors. I was a cocky, contest winning, wordsmith, sure of my future as both a writer and a doctor.
I am not a doctor, nor have I written more than a tidbit in 15 or so years.
I do not know what day the urge struck me, but I crookedly attempted to find a journal and an appealing pen. I shuffled papers on my overladen desk. Turned in a circle in the spare bedroom, still stacked with unpacked boxes. A cream tote with pale pinky orange handles poked from an open box. It had in it, a few sets of knitting needles, a few balls of yarn, one finished — white and brown mottled fingerless glove, and one partly done. I began the partly done one, nearly over five years ago. I had yet to make a pair of fingerless gloves for my wife to wear and it seemed I would never hear the end of it.
I was astonished that injured and confined in the dim light of New England winter, I was keeping my emotional head above water.
Thus, the warped knitting needles stifled my urge to write; more months passed spent teaching myself to knit increasingly difficult patterns. I do not believe I put pen to paper once in those months though several loved ones received well-knitted hats throughout winter. The hats varied, some simple and some complex enough that I labored over them for days.
Our little family made the best of fall and early winter. We sat by our fireplace listening to NPR’s “Serial” and spoke of such things like planning to start a family in the spring. My wife finally received her matching pair of fingerless gloves in a soft yellow wool, a hat, and a pair of too loose purple leg warmers.
I was astonished that injured and confined in the dim light of New England winter; I was keeping my emotional head above water. I have battled depression since my teens, yet still felt fueled by the happiness and energy of the previous year. I loved being an EMT; I worked ungodly long hours with a ton of overtime at paid and volunteer companies. So many hours away from home forced my wife and me to plan our time together, which suited us well.
Our marriage felt stronger than it had in years. After our big move, the feeling persisted for some time, but winter slogged on, and I felt the happy fuel running out. I could glimpse, in the lengthening days, spring coming and began to feel as if I would miss another season. My left leg was dominated by nerve pain and creeping weakness, my back still crooked. I had to walk with a cane for a semblance of balance and the snow, and ice outside became my wardens. As I became more reliant on my wife for help and a link to the outside world, she withdrew. For a time, I failed to notice.
I began a new project, digitizing all of my family photos and piecing together my family genealogy. I read histories of the Jewish people. I even took to old world Jewish cooking, beginning with schmaltz. I sat on a stool in my kitchen simmering chicken skin in a large cast iron pan. I added sautéed onions and garlic as the chicken skin began to brown. Gallons of rich chicken soup and matzoh balls made with golden schmaltz scented our home at the cusp of spring. Kasha varnishkes became my goyim wife’s favorite new pasta dish despite her doubts.
One night in March, I dreamt of a pre-WWI, Jewish shtetl life. My senses were alight with the scent of cabbage cooking and chicken simmering. I fought the impending daylight, willing myself to stay asleep to see how it ended. I awoke with a cast of characters in my head vying for my attention. I reached for my iPad and did not allow myself to stop typing until every detail was recorded. Finally, I had organically found my way back; I was writing again.
On April 1, 2015, I finally had surgery to remove the loose chunks of the discs, which were pressing on my nerves. I was in and out in the same day. I felt tall, standing straight for the first time in five months. Walking was the only exercise I was allowed. The weather was fickle as if trying to decide what season to stage next. I basked in the sunlight, my skin winter white, warming as I walked around my neighborhood. I had to remind myself that I was still fragile.
Two weeks post-operative, I was finally allowed to be out in the world. I figured that meant more time out in the world with my wife, and sometimes it did, but something had shifted. A night or two a week spent drinking with the girls had become three or four nights per week. Even on weekends, it seemed my wife could only put aside an hour or two at a time to spend with me.
The nerve pain was creeping back down my left leg. I iced, I rested. Just three weeks post op, I re-herniated both discs while stepping out of the shower. The pain was much worse than before surgery. I had seen a light the end of my injury and it felt as if the way forward had been filled with cement. I was left with thrumming and throbbing and an array of strange sensations working down my leg, into my ankle and foot. It became more difficult to walk as my back fell into its shifted old ways and the affected muscles weakened daily.
I decided I ought to begin a blog to create an accountable commitment to writing and to put myself out there. It was obvious I would not be going back to work soon and maybe never in the same way. A blog seemed like the best way to put my writing in motion while I had the time. I chose a name in honor of the Jewish immersion I recently enacted. The name, Schmaltzy Balz, did not encompass anything about me or what I wanted to do. It was merely clever. That brand of clever is too easy. I wrote draft after draft of what I thought would be my first post. I still do not know why, but I could not a accomplish a draft that I was willing to share.
I was angry at my debilitation, but it did not entirely explain the niggling feeling I had that everything in my life was shifting out of my control. I began to suspect my wife of emotional infidelity. My long, painful hours made turning my suspicions around on me relatively easy. I was probably just being paranoid. My mind was eased as we moved forward with our plans to have a baby even while awaiting a new plan from my surgeon.
I have no clue anymore where my life is heading. All I know is I would rather live it writing…
The day I found out that I needed a two level spinal fusion is the same day my marriage ended. I was feeling confident that day. My wife took time off to shuttle me to the surgeon’s appointment. The weather was spring perfect, and we got along as if we did not have ugly fights nearly every day. Maybe I was wrong, either way, I needed to know. I demanded the truth from her that evening.
By the time I went in for my second surgery in June, it had sunk in, my wife was no longer mine. My sister, Danielle, who had practically raised me, came to my aid. My father came up with her, and I was grateful to have them both on the day of the surgery. I remember thrashing in pain upon waking from anesthesia. I grappled with the button that was supposed to deliver pain medication. It was far too stingy.
My family saw me to my room that night and left for home, a state away. Already under a doctor’s care, I had to stay in my marital home until I was well enough to travel. I was achingly eager to get home to my family and friends. Alone in my hospital room on that first night, I expected to get out in a day or so. Without my one-eyed, 35 lb., brown Boston terrier, Barnaby Jones, snoring and sharing his warmth with me, I felt utterly alone. I began to wonder why I could not feel my left lower leg or move it at all below the knee. I pressed the painkiller button and waited until I could press it again.
My incision was producing copious drainage, requiring several bandage changes a day. I was kept in the hospital and tilted so that my body was at a head down, 45-degree angle. This was a precaution in case it was spinal fluid flooding out of my wound. Moving, at all, elicited involuntary groans, grunts and sometimes screams. My doctor explained that my vertebrae were too small for the hardware intended. He had to improvise. However, he could not yet account for the damage to my left leg, the outsized pain, or the drainage.
My failed marriage was almost a welcome distraction from the ceaseless pain. I reviewed our seven years together in my head: our beginning, my spontaneous proposal a week after we began dating, our raucous summer camp wedding two years later, holiday parties hosted, holidays spent with our families, all the dreams we had together, and also the things we could not unsay or undo. All of these things were easier to process outside of the home we shared. I journaled most days and buried my sadness and fear for my future in binge-watching the small town, quick-witted banter of the “Gilmore Girls.” The shows antics and ivy league location shots of my small home city were as close as I could get to home.
Five days into my hospital stay, the source of the profuse drainage was discovered. A piece of the hardware slipped. When it did, it tore loose another piece of a disc and smashed it against the nerve root responsible for the paralysis in my lower left leg.
There was no delay; I was brought into my third surgery on the weekend. My doctor borrowed OR nurses from a nearby hospital. The two women, “best friends” they said, bore religious sounding names that reeked of a paperback romance. Surgery number three was a success, we thought. Though there was post-operative pain, it was nothing like what I had been enduring all week. I even got back the ability to extend my left toes just slightly.
It was not until I tried to walk with a walker for the first time that I realized how debilitated I had become. I was still crooked due to muscle spasms and nerve damage. Worse yet, my left foot dragged as my weak leg attempted to lift high enough to clear my limp foot above the ground. It became clear that I had a long recovery ahead.
My sister, Danielle, and her children came to pick me up from the hospital and stayed with me in my home. My wife stayed elsewhere. My sister spent hours getting my belongings packed and ready to move home.
My body felt battered. I struggled with even the smallest movements. Not to mention, trying to heal surrounded by reminders of my marriage was impossible. Just a few weeks to wait, but it might as well have been months. I trudged from bed to couch, couch to porch and back again, taking tiny, careful, shuffling steps. The redeeming part of being home, aside from not being awakened for vital signs in the night, was the snortling sounds and the solid warmth of my dog.
I had been the one passionate about moving north and now I was the one retreating south to home base.
My niece and nephew provided a constant circus of sibling rivalry while their mother toiled in my home. By the time of my follow-up appointment, my belongings were packed and organized. I had even finished drafting a separation agreement. We could not hit the road soon enough. I had been the one passionate about moving north, and now I was the one retreating south to home my base.
Danielle created room for me in her home where there was none. I write this at the end of July, while practicing sitting tall and straight, from my bedroom area in the corner of the kids’ playroom. Barnaby Jones and I have been here a month now. The pain of my separation and impending divorce is present but dulling with time. I am still using a walker. My leg has not recovered any more feeling or use then the day of my third surgery. I am less stiff and at times, less crooked. I have high hopes for the physical therapy, which I have just begun, and I am still limited by my mobility and pain but beginning to drive again is freeing.
The life before me bears little resemblance to the one I had planned. I was busy planning a baby nursery while my wife planned her escape. Now I plan only for Barnaby Jones and me. I will not work as an EMT again or in health care in any physical capacity for that matter. I have been willing and working my way back towards a career in healthcare for years, yet knowing it is simply not possible, is much easier to deal with than just never having accomplished it. My conscience is clear on one count.
Writer’s block is not the silent scream of a nightmare; it is the noise of life clogging the mind. It is not that I spent the past decade unable to freely move my pen on the page, it is just that nothing I was writing was coming from me; I was writing as the cocky, college wordsmith who had never known love or heartbreak or struggling to pay the rent. That college kid felt so old and mature because her childhood was difficult. She knew nothing of me, a twice married, twice divorced, 36-year-old woman who has finally stopped wallowing in unfulfilled goals.
Writer’s block is not the silent scream of a nightmare; it is the noise of life clogging the mind.