August 31, 2006


Like my nervous system, with its perpetual synaptic lapses, my thumb joints have been determined to be unstable. They had a few years, a hiatus, when both were operating on as close to full power as they had in 15 years. I could cook; carry groceries, mail and packages; wear clothes that buttoned and shoes that laced, and even change a light bulb or two. I could even hold your hand, or any part of my anatomy or yours I desired, depending on the occasion.

The skills that remain semi-intact are typing, telephoning, and channel-changing. Others I have misplaced are the ability to pour a pitcher of water, cut food with a knife or properly use a fork, wrestle lobster out of its shell, pick up a suitcase, hold onto a hand bar on a bus or subway, navigate car doors (forget driving), pick up a pen, shuffle papers, or use the computer mouse.

Say good-bye to 21st- century living. On a good day, I can punch the start button on the microwave. Sometimes I can wash my hair. Being left-handed (and left-thumb dominant), I have been challenged by the electric toothbrush, its control and my coordination.

So, off to a new orthopedist: he wanted to know what had befallen his colleagues in the hand trade. A misdiagnosis, a badly run office, a doctor who stopped taking my insurance: with that I stopped. Newsflash and note to self: never tell doctors -- except perhaps shrinks -- how his/her predecessors have failed you. They will mark you down as a difficult patient, never mind that you have been dealing with your body and its foibles low these 45 years, and the doctor has met you perhaps for five minutes.

There is no scheduled date for the reuse of my hands. I did not need the orthopedist to say "I don't know"; I could have told him that. All I wanted were new custom-made splints to immobilize my thumbs -- black is the latest color plastic to come down the designer splint turnpike. Its ever so chic and, more to the point, doesn't show the that dirt my several previous incarnations of the white knuckle-halfway-to-elbow or the beige pin-pricked (for air circulation) wrist-length plastic of earlier entries in the immobilization sweepstakes.

I realize this plaint of unusability has nothing on the situation in which my eldest cousin and her family found themselves a year ago. Apparently the proper term for the destination for those who made it out of New Orleans just ahead of Katrina -- for government purposes is an "evacuation center." Refugee camp is more like it. I doubt they ate Army surplus MREs; the military can't fill the beds it has available, so MRE shipments are not what the government would have had at the ready.

My cousin and her family had barely deposited her daughter at her dorm at Tulane when word of the storm's impending arrival made the news (at least locally; I don't know when Bush's official messenger sent him the word), and the entire family evacuated. Fortunately, they are a family of campers, accustomed to going without electricity and making do with the most rudimentary of lavatory facilities. Otherwise, it would have been rougher going in Jackson, Mississippi than it was.

It was a 21st-century involuntary migration: when the electric power went out, the family could have had a full tank of gas, and they could charge their cell phones in the car's cigarette outlet (and to think, no one wants me to smoke), get some semblance of news from the car radio, and press the four-way red blinker button to indicate a crisis.

My cousin's 13-year-old had, at that point in her life, experienced not one but two parents surviving cancer, on top of the Katrina evacuation, and I give her prize for surviving more instability than any other relative at that age. When I saw her last week, the Mississippi story bored her; to me, it would have been a life-changing event. In an instant, powerlessness and instability can overwhelm.

Had I been there, a medication crisis might have been imminent. Today, if I were not already prone to depression, my inability to do for myself would certainly have helped shove me over the edge.

Then, too, there is this past month's familial instability: some of you may remember I thought last October I should have gotten my brother a box of condoms for Christmas. Who knew how prescient that was?

For he has interjected into our tiny family the 21-year-old mother-to-be of his child (I thought, but did not ask, are you sure it's yours?), whose pregnancy (and his impending fatherhood) crushes any thought of stability, in my eyes, in his life. Couldn't he at least have waited until, say, Thanksgiving, to announce this girlfriend was pregnant? Given me a week or two to adjust to his most recent divorce status? Given him, maybe, a week on his own?

I have spoken to the girlfriend. In the Southern state in which they resided, Medicaid was taking on her prenatal care. In the state to which they moved less than a week after announcing the pregnancy, matters are not so clear cut. All I can think is, if we had national health insurance, my mother and I would not be singing my brother's wedding bell blues nearly so frequently. (The third time was not a charm.)

The girlfriend's mother is one year older than me. She works at the equivalent of an International House of Pancakes, in what capacity I did not ask. My mother once made pancakes, in the days when Aunt Jemima wasn't considered politically incorrect. Her mother married at 16, had a child at 17. At 17, I was a virgin. My mother married at 22. Given this disparity in generational ages, my mother is old enough to be this forthcoming infant's great-grandmother. As it stands, she can't muster the excitement for the assigned role of grandmother (my own chronological generational peg).

As for me, I am wondering: do I set up a college fund for this child, after she -- it's a girl -- is born and in possession of a Social Security number? Neither of her parents finished college. I am grateful that the mother to be (status as brother's wife or ultimately sister-in-law to be determined) speaks grammatical English, something wife #3 could not manage. Yet I can't help wondering: what are the chances brother and mother-of-his-child will be together in five years? What will it be like, to be Aunt Alice?

I may well be putting the proverbial cart before the horse. However, when my mind veers ahead of itself, it doesn't twist in any prettier a direction than my unstable thumb joints. It hurts.

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Blogger Janet said...

It must be so frustrating being unable to do simple things you do everyday. Thumbs are definitely something we take for granted. It's not the same problem, but I learned the hard way that carpel tunnel problems are very easy to fall into, and I wasn't even all that old once it started. Getting away from an office job helped with that considerably, but that still doesnt tell me what is going to happen to any of my digits, someday.:(

5:13 PM  
Blogger scout said...

I like the way you've connected some seemingly disparate issues here, Alice. On the surface, your thumbs, your niece to be, and Katrina have little to do with each other, but you built all these nice little bridges from one topic to the next and, despite the title of your entry, the bridges prove most stable!

As a fellow survivor of doctors who labeled me as "difficult" on their most charitable days—"crazy" most of the rest of the time—I salute your perseverence. I hope this latest finds a way to give you some relief soon. Hands are rather important.

7:08 PM  
Blogger The Misanthrope said...

Brilliant as always. What I wouldn't give for your talent.

12:49 AM  

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