In a few months I’m going under the knife. Well, actually scalpel, followed by saw. It’s a kind of amputation, though what’s being excised won’t be visible to anyone but a radiologist and airport security personnel. And when the bone and dust is kicked up by the surgeon’s weapon of choice, I will, I sincerely hope, be in a state of blissful sleep. It’s a hip replacement. I thought I was on the young side for something I’ve always associated with people like Walter Brennan (who for some reason, in movies and TV, always walked with a pronounced limp, along with some pretty ugly prejudices), but I’m told I’m dead-on the median age for it. The way my doctor was speaking of it I took it as a rite-of-passage, like my bris and Bar Mitzvah, except that in the first instance I was conscious and in great pain (though in attendance was family friend Jan Peerce, the great operatic tenor, who may well have sung arias from Rigoletto to muffle my screams), and in the second I was showered with presents. The great gift of this surgery will be the ability to walk and exercise in the manner to which I’d become accustomed, i.e. easily and painlessly. As though I were twenty-nine again.
Several years ago, after my daughter began horseback riding lessons, I decided, completely against character, to do likewise. My mother reminded me that Jewish people don’t ride horses, and after reminding her that her own father was in the only Jewish regiment of the Tsar’s cavalry, and that Kafka and Proust also rode (though Proust, predictably, less successfully), she told me flatly that if Kafka rode I’d be just as crazy as he was, which seemed okay to me. I also liked the outfits one wore, the breeches and nice high leather boots and the little helmet, not to mention the riding crop, a necessary accessory for any well-dressed equestrian.
The stable in question mostly trained riders to ride to hounds. In the area is a famous hunt club, though when they go out at dawn on their scheduled days it isn’t foxes they hunt, it’s fox urine, liberally distributed hours earlier by a man in a Jeep, and which strikes me as being both eminently humane and extraordinarily ridiculous. I never got to the point where I could go cross-country, take fences (jumping is, I’m convinced, a shortcut to instant death), and afterwards sit before the fire reliving the experience with fellow hunters over a bottle of very expensive whiskey. For one thing, I really did feel like an outsider. A city kid by nature, I knew this really wasn’t for me, though it was fun feeling like a spy in a world I could never have imagined as a boy, where the only people within a thirty-mile radius who sat on horses were cops. The fact that everyone in this closed universe could spot me for what I was didn’t matter; I considered it research, and have already used my experience once in a novel.
My second time on the horse my teacher told me to give the 1,200 pound pea-brained creature I was sitting on a little kick. A kick meant a tap to her; I missed the subtlety of it, and he reared up like Trigger, I rolled off and fell on my left hip, a moment I date as the beginning of the malaise. The fall, by the way, was exhilarating. Riders don’t mind falling, especially if they survive them, and my fall at the moment it was happening seemed to take nearly an hour to complete, as though I’d had an acid flashback and were experiencing it in LSD-time. I got up, dusted myself off and got back on the horse, which my teacher informed me was a true sign of character—like the knight in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” who continues to fight even though he’s had all of his limbs lopped off. “I’ll bite you, then!”
Though it took many years before any signs of hip distress were to appear (and during that time I was, and remain, a regular at the gym), once it did it was more of an annoyance than a fully-fledged grievance. But, as we’d moved to a new location, I thought it would be time to see a new doctor so I wouldn’t need to drive an hour to see the old one, who once told me: “You’ll know when you need surgery. You won’t be able to walk.” My new doctor took x-rays and informed me that a replacement was definitely and immediately in the cards. So I booked a date in October, and, weirdly, I’m actually looking forward to forestalling becoming the aforementioned Walter Brennan.
Three days in the hospital, moving with a walker (something I refuse to do in public; old people use walkers, not 29-year-old guys like me; well, I’m not 29, and though the mirror seems to say an optimistic 43, tops—okay, okay, 46—but that’s my limit—I don’t feel a lot older than that), then home with crutches for a week or two, then for a month with a cane. A cane sounds cool. A cane sounds like the kind of thing you used to see in movies, guys in top hats and cutaway coats, twirling their walking-sticks as they strolled through pre-earthquake San Francisco. You can beat your enemies with a cane; you can hide a sword in your cane. You can be Mandrake the Magician with a cane. But you can also be Grandma Moses.
One of the issues I’ve been thinking about, even at this early stage, is what I’m going to do in the hospital for three days, apart from meals, dealing with the heartache of evacuation and undergoing physical therapy. I’d like to bring my laptop so I can write; my iPhone definitely comes so I can, if the laptop is forbidden, check and answer emails and send myself little cryptic notes as to future projects or whatever I’ve been working on at the time; and then of course there’s the matter of what I’m going to read.
Choosing reading matter for a specific situation such as hospitalization (or even travel) is not a simple matter. The last time I was in for surgery—a minor issue, all of a morning’s doing, followed by a week of incredible pain that only Ketel One in liberal doses could mask—I was reading some stories by Henry James I hadn’t looked at in years. It was perfect. James, with his long sentences forever in search of both meaning and evasion, kept me level. This time, though, I expect I’ll be in a room with…an old man. People always end up with old men in the next bed, and, worse, old men that don’t shut up. Part of the problem is that I really dislike small talk, and small talk with old men, unless it’s about their wartime experiences or something that’s really fascinating, is all too often about sports, of which I know nothing. So instead of saying, “Listen, I’m sorry, but I really don’t follow sports” (which requires explanation), I’m reduced to nodding and agreeing that so-and-so is the worst linebacker in NFL history, though I have no idea what I’m talking about.
The only way for me to deal with this is to listen to Ornette Coleman or Henry Threadgill or J.S. Bach on my iPod and read. It’s the reading I’ve been mulling over. I can reread something I haven’t looked at for years, something I’ve been doing on and off recently; or I can read something completely new. Most people going into hospital would probably not read about sick people, but I’ve decided I’m going to do exactly that. It’s a novel I read when I was fairly young and have been meaning to reread—Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Its cast of characters is made up of the tubercular patients and physicians in a Swiss sanatorium. Though it may seem odd that during my rehabilitation I might want to read about consumptives in the early part of the last century, for me it’ll be just another long stay in a book read in my youth, that now will have just that much more resonance as I lie between the white sheets in an anonymous hospital room as the wan morning sun strikes through the windowpanes, while I turn a page and realize that life will go on.
Causes J.P. Smith Supports