Some recovery possible, no guarantees
“Hey, sexy,” Jack said as he rolled up in his wheelchair.
I slowed my power wheelchair to a halt. The porter escorting me pushed the up button on the elevator.
Jack was balding and had a goatee. He was a little older than me. In his mid-thirties, burly, and probably fairly short, though I’d never seen him standing. A paraplegic. Complete. Paralyzed from the waist down. No chance of recovery. I was a quadriplegic. Incomplete. Paralyzed from the neck down. Some recovery was possible over the next few months at the rehab centre, but there were no guarantees. I had regained some movement in my left hand. That was something. Paras. Quads. Complete. Incomplete. Critical distinctions I hadn’t known until three weeks ago, after my car accident.
“I’m just coming from physio,” Jack said. “Learning to pop wheelies in my chair. So I can get over curbs, shit like that when I get out. Just a few more weeks they tell me.”
“How’d it go?”
“Kinda cool. I was the best in the class.”
“That’s great.” The elevator doors opened. “Let me go in, then you can get out first upstairs. I’m pretty bad at backing up, so it takes me a while.”
“That’s why you got Pierre here to help. Right, man?”
“Sure thing, Jack.”
When we reached the second floor, I tugged the handgrip toward me in an attempt to back out of the elevator, but the chair veered to the left and I got stuck in the corner.
“I told you,” I said. The elevator beeped; the doors had remained open too long. I thrust the grip away from me to move forward, but I pushed too hard and rammed into the opposite corner. “Jesus.”
“Let me give you a hand,” Pierre said. He grasped the control and manoeuvred me out of the elevator.
“I’m awful at this.”
“Don’t worry,” Pierre said.
“You’ll get the hang of it,” Jack said.
“I don’t know. My arm needs to work better so I can control it.” I glanced at Jack, his tattooed arms, his gloved hands resting on the wheels of his manual chair. If only I could get my arms back. I could live with anything else.
“What’re you up to now?” Jack asked.
“Resting a bit before my next appointment. You?”
“Grab a smoke, then chat with the ladies.” He nodded to where the nurses were gathered at the reception area.
In my room, I pulled up to the window. Only about fifteen minutes before the porter would return to take me to physio. Not enough time to be transferred into bed to lie down. I felt a flash of envy toward Jack. Paras could transfer themselves with their arms. Quads could do nothing. Jack. A petty criminal I’d never have met in my ordinary life. Now, my peer. United by our loss, cripples together.
We’d met during my first week at the rehab centre when Jack dropped by my room.
“Hi, I’m Jack.” He wheeled toward me. “You’re Susan, right?”
“Yeah.” I’d seen him in the halls, on my way to physio and occupational therapy. But why was he here? I relished my privacy, my single room, was so grateful it was covered through my ex-husband’s health insurance.
“Thought I’d pop in for a visit.”
“I’m pretty tired.”
“I won’t stay long. Keeps up the spirits to talk to someone. You were in a car accident, right?”
“I totalled my bike driving back from a party in the country. Out of nowhere a bird flew into my face. I swerved and rammed right into a brick wall. Never saw the wall. It wasn’t there and then it was. What about you?”
I told him the story I’d been telling the last few weeks. The story that had become my only story. “Then the car hit a moose. I was the passenger.”
“A moose?” he said. “That’s fucked up.”
“I know.” I smiled. It was fucked up.
“What happened to the driver?”
“Nothing. A few scratches.” The driver. Gary, a man I’d been dating for less than a year.
“And he was sober? No booze? No weed?”
“Just a freak accident.”
“I got to admit, I’d had a few shots. Vodka. Have a taste for it. Like the old man. This the first time you been in the hospital?”
“First time.” Then I remembered an overnight stay with Jell-O and ice cream when I was four.
“I was in two summers ago. Not this place, the Royal Ottawa. They didn’t treat me so good there. I guess I deserved it. I got to tell you, I was a bad man. A really bad man. I think that’s why this happened. You know? God telling me it’s enough. Time to change my life.” His face went blank. “I was in the Royal ’cause I got shot. Right here.” He pointed to his lower right abdomen, then yanked up his T-shirt.
The puckered skin was pink and shiny where the bullet had entered. “That must have been scary,” I said.
“It was kinda in the line of duty, you know? Part of the job.” He looked down, then up again, his face brightening.
“You like dogs?”
“My brother, he has this big place. An old farm in Stittsville. About twenty miles west of here. That’s where I was, you know, that night? He raises dogs. A whole bunch of them is gonna have babies in a few weeks. I could get you one if you want.”
“They’re real good watchdogs. Pit bulls. Cutest puppies I ever seen. Just let me know and I’ll arrange it like that.” Jack snapped his fingers. “He’s got some shepherds too. But you got to learn German to have one of them. Sitz. Halt. Shit like that. It’s all they understand.”
After that, whenever we met I was friendly and polite.
I tried to avoid thinking about my accident. The four-lane highway between Ottawa and Montreal. Ten o’clock Sunday night. On our way for a week-long hiking trip in the mountains. What if we’d stayed home and left the next morning? What if I’d insisted we stop for coffee just minutes before?
Midnight and I was struggling with sleep, still disrupted by my ex-husband’s visit earlier that evening. I couldn’t ask him why, if he really wanted to be with me again—maybe we’ll still have kids together someday—he’d just put a down payment on a condo with a bedroom loft. When he was with me, he wanted to escape, but when we were apart, he wanted me back. Two years since we’d separated and still this back and forth.
I had to stop thinking about him, to steel myself, focus on recovery.
Maybe a couple of Gravol would help me sleep. I pressed the call bell for the nurse.
A few minutes later a tall beefy nurse entered the room. I didn’t recognize her.
“Two Gravol for you, right?” She leaned over me and tugged the cord to turn on the light above the bed. Her foul breath, the wiry dark hairs on her upper lip, the blackheads across the bridge of her nose repulsed me.
“I take them crushed with jam. There’s some packets on top of the cabinet.”
“Who’s that? She’s so pretty.” The nurse pointed to the framed picture that my ex had given me that evening, a photo he’d taken of me seated on a seawall in Portugal, in a bright green sundress, smiling, tanned, my hair streaked blond by the sun, looking vital, vibrant, radiating health.
“Really?” The nurse mixed the Gravol and jam.
“Can you give me the water jug?” I sipped the water and tried to swallow the jam and Gravol mixture without gagging.
She kept glancing between the photograph and me. “I can see it a bit, especially around the eyes.”
“I’m done. Can you turn out the light?”
“Is there anything else I can do for you?”
“No.” Just go. Get out.
Whenever we met, Jack greeted me with lines like: Hey, sexy. How’s it going, sexy? At first I’d cringed. Propped in a chair, a lifeless body, the steel halo brace bolted to my head, caging a face swollen with purple and yellow bruises. With time, though, I tried to be less embarrassed, to accept his kindness. Jack’s comments belied an understanding that was beyond the nurses and staff, and until now even beyond me.
I moved my eyes to the photo and ran my tongue over my chipped bottom teeth, the only damage from the accident I could actually feel. I visualized myself, again in the green dress, strolling down a sunlit street, entering an office building, the elevator to the dentist’s office. Waiting in the chair for the procedure to begin, eager to receive the final repair.