I plunge my left hand into the bucket of short-grain rice. It’s not an actual pail, but a lidded Tupperware container I once stored Lay’s potato chips in, and the rice feels dusty, malleable, offering some pressure, as if my hand bathes in a giant stress ball. I breathe in the starchy scent, envision bread dough.
After I saw the rheumatologist three years ago, I bought several bags of rice at Albertsons and poured the contents into the Tupperware. When the grains first sifted and slid onto themselves they were alabaster white, but after three years, exposure to air and my body oils have withered and darkened some of them.
As I begin to move my fingers through the rice, I wonder if the new bone Dr. E, my orthopedic oncologist, created eight years ago in my right foot has aged like the rice (story is here). Since the tumor—a Giant Cell Reparative Granuloma—had eaten away the meat of the central bone of my foot, as well as one end piece, he had had to build a navicular bone from scratch, using bone harvested from my hipbone. I’ve seen pictures of Dr. E’s creation at each visit to him. X-ray and CT films clearly show me the bone. At first, it looked fresh as a new bag of rice. By the last visit, the bone had been fired in the kiln of time. It no longer changes. It’s as good as it is going to get.
Not long after I had mostly recovered from the surgery, I noticed my hands. It’s not often that I take the time to notice anything about myself. I certainly don’t shave my legs until the hairs on both calves war with each when I put my legs together. But I caught sight of my hands when I was washing dishes, and that glimpse gave me pause. They were starting to look like my mother’s. I could see the beginnings of the gnarled and knobby persimmon tree look of my mother’s arthritic fingers.
Dr. H, the rheumatologist, recommended that I fill a bucket with rice and perform hand exercises twice a day, using the rice. And so every day I do what I am now doing.
I grasp a small imaginary ball in my left palm–clenching and unclenching ten times. Then I pinch the ball between my fingers and my thumb another ten times. The third part is waving the hand upside down in the rice ten times. I switch hands and repeat. Then I perform the whole series one more time.
I tried to teach my mother to use the rice to exercise her hands, but her crooked hands are too weak and rigid. She can’t push the weight of the rice with her fingers. When I pull my right hand out of the bucket at the end, both hands tingle with energy. They buzz with joy at their own movement. If I keep working the rice every day, I hope to keep them just this way, as if I can ward off the aging of my fingers indefinitely.
I wiggle my fingers to feel their increased flexibility, a looseness I used to feel in every joint after jazz dance class. In that freedom, the endorphins used to diffuse throughout my body like shooting stars saturating a movie screen. This experience is only left as a memory because Dr. E says I can no longer dance or exercise on my feet because the re-created bone is fragile, formed by accident with bumps and crevices, even gaps. I imagine that it has aged like the dry rice hulls in my bucket. But I can’t see it hidden inside the bent and stiff foot. This foot can no longer arch in a soft leather dance shoe, but rests inside its magic shoe, the New Balance W992. This shoe and the orthotics the elves at Swiss Balance build keep the foot moving throughout the day. Inside, Dr. E’s creation holds the other foot bones in place as the spine does the limbs of the human body.
My left hand is the opposite extremity from this healed foot. The fingers connect to the palm, and framing the palm, the pads are firm and even. I’m not sure, but think that the fingers seem straighter than they did three years ago. I snap the lid on the rice bucket and shove it back into the cupboard. Then I walk to the computer and open up a blank page on Word. My fingers begin to move along the keyboard, marking the choreography I create for them.
Writing prompt: describe a daily ritual you perform.
My daughter continues to recuperate from her surgery, and I remember my own medical adventures.
I collapse into the nearest empty wheelchair parked just inside glass doors to the ER waiting room of St. Mary’s Hospital. “Wait, Marshal.” I call to my husband who marches, with his head bent forward, to the triage desk. He turns, sees me in the chair, and motions me to follow.
He speaks to the nurse, and his upper body moves with the force of his words. I don’t have time to observe the waiting room, when the nurse pushes me into a cubicle in back. Within minutes I am in a gown, on the Stryker bed which is no bed, but a parking place for a sick body. The gown smells of a commercial laundry. I unbuckle my medical walking boot, dropping it to the floor, where it looks like a robot’s foot.
Marshal goes outside for a cigarette, and I am cold, shielding my eyes from the fluorescents positioned directly above. I get migraines from fluorescents, but not headaches. Mine originally were confused with transient ischemic attacks, or mini strokes, because they pucker one side of my face like a rotting fruit and give me vertigo, vomiting, and an inability to rise up from a prone position. I put the pillow over my face and wait.
“Excuse me.” A handsome young man has pushed another bed to the opening of my cubicle. He helps me onto that bed, tells me to lie down, and pushes me still farther back into the ER, shielding my face from the lights with a towel. “It won’t take long to x-ray your foot. We should have some answers soon,” he says. His voice is gentle. His features vaguely resemble my son’s. I wonder if he’s Korean; my son is of Korean heritage.
“Where’s my husband?”
My bed driver says, “He’ll be back soon.”
The lights are off in the x-ray room, so my eyes relax. My driver stays in the room.
“My foot has already been x-rayed by two different doctors,” I say.
The x-ray technician is tall, blond, and he’s focused on his machine. “We need to x-ray it ourselves. Did you bring those films with you?”
I want to tell him that I’ve been traveling for weeks, barely able to walk with the shoe on, with a symphony of pain in my foot. We arrived only last night in Rochester for my husband to get to the bottom of his mysterious medical ailments at the famed Mayo Clinic. Now, before he has had a chance to be seen, my tears have sent him driving me to the ER before his own appointments at the clinic.
No, I did not bring my films from California, Mr. X-ray.
Both young men introduce themselves to me, but I can’t take in their names. They are studying to be doctors. Or maybe they are already doctors, studying ER patients. They look at me to answer their question.
I want to tell them it’s the end of July, and it was early April when the spider climbed the wall behind the couch and I jumped up and came down to a fireburst of pain in my right foot. I want to say that in these months, I have been examined by two physician’s assistants, four doctors-in-training, and have received advice from two specialists. Both said to exercise my foot and tough it out.
No, I did not bring my films from California, Dr. X-ray.
My driver is to hold my foot while the blond works the machine. The rubber gloves he is to wear to protect his hands from the radiation are huge, clumsy, and my foot can’t get placed correctly. In frustration, he pulls them off his long slim fingers and with those fingers, he pulls my foot apart, spreading the bones out like the ribs of a silk fan. This is the third set of x-rays and the first time anyone has concentrated on trying to do the best job possible. Gratitude wells from me like tears brimming over. I worry about him becoming a doctor, worry that if he continues putting himself in danger for his patients that there will not be enough of him to sustain a full career and a long life.
When we reach my cubicle, my husband stands at the doorway, hands in his pockets, surveying the workings of the ER. He looks at my face quickly, steps aside to allow the possibly-Korean young doctor to position the bed-on-wheels next to my Stryker. I scoot over onto the bed.
“Thank you,” I say. “Have a good life.” He smiles and pulls the bed back out of my cubicle.
Marshal stands at the doorway and watches the ER from there. I lie under the fluorescents. The ceiling is low and the light so concentrated they can do surgery right there on my Stryker, if they need to. I shield my face with my hand until my hand gets tired, and then I switch hands. Marshal sees me squinting and finds a light switch, turning off one panel of lights over me. I hope he, too, has a long life and gets some help tomorrow from the Mayo doctors for his ailments. He says if you rub your arm for twenty minutes and then stop, that’s what his esophagus feels like all the time. Nobody has solved this mystery yet, but Mayo has the best doctors in the world.
Nurses and orderlies walk back and forth in front of my doorway. I can see them beyond Marshal.
Marshal says, “What’s taking them so long?”
I lie down and pull the pillow back over my face. Exhaustion settles like a blanket over my limbs, even my mind. A clatter on the floor startles me, and I realize I have started to doze. My body settles down again, shrugging into itself from the chill of the room. The thin blanket I have pulled over myself only keeps me from chattering off the metal bed.
“It’s been at least forty-five minutes since they took those x-rays,” Marshal says, but I tune him out.
A hum starts in the large open room of the ER. It grows in sound, a barely perceptible vibration. I see Marshal alert, watching the quickened pace of the medical personnel.
“They must have brought in a bad one,” he says.
I sit up and look out past him. The room feels as if a bee colony has awoken and begun droning. I get off the bed and hop to the doorway, lean on Marshal’s shoulder. Two doctors are walking from the hospital side into the large room. At the same time two others who must be doctors stride from the other direction. I can tell they are doctors because they know they are doctors. It shows. A fifth doctor materializes and they meet at the nurse’s station, talking at once, interrupting each other.
Marshal turns to look at me. “Get back on the bed,” he says and helps me up onto the Stryker. “I don’t know what you have, but you have something.” He’s so dramatic. I wonder what he’s talking about. He sounds silly sometimes. I wonder if he has the beginnings of early dementia. He’s such a pessimist.
I’ll tease him, as usual, when those doctors converge on the stretcher coming off the helicopter or out of the ambulance or wherever the new patient is coming from.
Then the doctors are crowding into my cubicle, vying for my attention. They all want to share the news with me, but finally the others defer to one who speaks to me. They are busy, taking time away from their duties, and there is no time for finesse. “You have a tumor in your foot.”
I stretch my foot out in front to stare at it, the ridiculous stranger. “No, no!” one of the doctors says and another catches my foot in his hands and slowly pushes it onto the bed, keeps his hands on it as if it’s a new hatchling or huge opal fresh from the mine. The speaker keeps talking. “You must be extremely careful of your foot right now. The least misstep and the bone will shatter. It will be irreparable, and you will not be able to walk. Let me explain.”
Marshal is leaning against my bed, his hands behind his back, defenseless.
“A tumor has taken over your navicular bone, which is the central bone from which the other bones operate. There is very little left of the navicular. The only way it can be fixed is to graft bone tissue into the bone. If the shell of the bone shatters, there is no way to recreate a new bone.”
Eventually they file out, and Marshal and I don’t look at each other. He hands me my clothes. A nurse bustles in with a long list of appointments for the next day and an address for the wheelchair store. When I’m dressed, Marshal hands me the walking boot and opens the hospital’s wheelchair, plunking down the footrests with his foot.
“Good thing we came here,” one of us says. “Good thing.”
I’m sorry that was so long! If you read to the end, give me the link to your blog, and I’ll post a thank you to you on one of my next posts!
A few posts ago I posted a link to a poem I wrote about my entire experience with this bone tumor (don’t worry: it’s much shorter than this post).