What happens when you fall backward over a dog? In my case: an ambulance ride to the hospital, emergency surgery to replace a broken hip and a realignment of some of my long-held impressions.

One would think at age 80 my views on life would be pretty much set in stone. Not.

As an octogenarian, I realize folks my age deal with myriad maladies, creature discomforts and the inevitable thinning of the herd. The latter only too obvious as my holiday card recipient list grows shorter each year.

I’m also the caretaker for my husband, who has a disabling, chronic condition. Our shared retirement is one of quiet days and quieter nights devoid of travel and high entertainment. Not great, but we have each other after nearly 60 years of marriage — and there's much to be said about that.

So, I am disappointed in myself to discover there are life lessons I somehow missed. Among these is the fact that I have been naive about what people with unending disabilities cope with every day. What I am dealing with is temporary and trivial by comparison.

I first realized the depth of my ignorance one night in the hospital after 48 hours of sleeplessness. A clamoring patient in the next bed had called for assistance all night, setting off bells and whistles. When she was sprung the next day, I looked forward to a long, deep sleep.                                                                

That deep sleep lasted but two hours before a nurse jolted me awake — perhaps determine if I was asleep. I awoke to total darkness and had absolutely no idea where I was or why. I was bewildered and terrified. Had I gone blind? Had I lost my memory? What would become of me? Who would care for me? Happily, within a few minutes, what seemed an eternity, I was able to think a bit clearly and phone my daughter to verify who I was and where I was.

I cannot forget how that momentary disorientation in total darkness felt. It dawned on me that some people spend their entire lives in such circumstances. Had I never fully realized that before? How could I have been so callous? To say that now seems condescending and foolish … but it has been an awakening for me.

I have learned other lessons as well, such as how difficult it can be to get around when one does not have use of all one's body parts. At first, I used a wheelchair, then a walker and lastly a cane. Throughout I was assisted by a loving family and a caring home health aide.

There have been frustrations along the way. Driving was out of the question. Stairs became mountains, and in the case of hip replacement one cannot cross one's legs. Leaning forward beyond a 90-degree angle was forbidden, or as one of my daughters described it: Keep your upper body obtuse to your hip, never acute. She talks that way sometimes.

I had to sleep with a large, clumsy, plastic-foam wedge attached to my legs to maintain my hip and lower leg in proper position. I plan to burn that contraption in some sort of ceremonial ritual.

Using the bathroom, showering, walking alone or picking up anything that fell to the floor required assistance. Having to constantly baby a hip makes one an instant klutz, and everything seemed to fall to the floor. So you buy one of those picker-upper sticks that stores use to grasp items off shelves. As for putting on your socks: There is a bizarre gizmo that allows you to slip the sock over a plastic shell, insert your foot and pull the shell away leaving the sock on the foot; it works beautifully.

Henceforth, I will see a person using any form of physical aid and I will say to myself: I have known a small sampling of what you must tackle. I admire you, and I know the world is a better place because of your enormous strength and grace.

Ellen Mitchell,


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