An excerpt ...
I used to think of the spinal column as a toy xylophone, a rainbow of ascending notes, synonymous with the feeling of giggling uncontrollably with a friend or purring internally with excitement over the hint of attention from a crush. It came alive in moments of unabated joy as confident as the roll of a finger across piano keys during the musical prelude to some television special event, trilling Anticipation! Hope! Otherwise, I didn’t pay any attention to my spine when I was young. If it wasn’t tingling, it was mute. Apparently, at middle age, the pleasure of my animated imagination has been no match for the slow march of Degenerative Disc Disease. Everyone knows a xylophone doesn’t work if the nodes between the plates are missing. The music stops and the broken instrument gets discarded.
So where do I stand? I am standing, sitting, squatting, and shifting my weight to avoid the discomfort of any one position in the waiting room at a hospital in Palma de Mallorca, Spain in January 2020.
I am waiting to receive a cervical MRI to complement the one made of my lumbar spine a few months before. It is six p.m. on a Saturday, so only the generator lights are on in the hallway waiting area. The sparse overhead lamps in the dusky corridor give a low wattage glimpse of pained faces and patient partners guarding purses and coats. The zones of this new labyrinthine teaching hospital are color-coded from the waist down with matching footprint decals along the floor. These are in place so you don’t get lost as you listen to your name being mispronounced and strain to hear the number of the door and the color of the steps to navigate. My dark mood brings out an ex-pat snobbery I have perfected in my mind over the last fifteen years. Can someone get a graphic designer in on the architecture committee, please? By day you can see that the leaf green tile of the radiography zone must have been intended to brighten the mood. The walls say It’s ok, it could go either way, or This is just a routine check-up, no big deal. At the weekend, during after-hours appointments and under dim lamps, the walls reflect a sickly warm gel on already pallid faces, whispering: It’s just what we feared.
I am on my own. I’ve done this before and I don’t care if the other waiters watch me as I move around to distribute the pain. I am split into segments. I occasionally make blank eye contact with them, as Frida Kahlo does in her self portrait The Broken Column, as though they can see right through to my shattered core. I imagine the worst and swiftly push out thoughts of the irony of how much time I spent on my inner workout during twenty years of yoga practice. What was the use of all that dedicated visualization of each vertebrae lining up neatly with each chakra to illuminate in an ascending rainbow? I push even more swiftly against the positive spin that pops up as well, Just think how bad you could be if it weren’t for all that yoga? In my aching sulk, I am sure I must have been doing it wrong all along.
Which end of the spectrum will I fall on? I’ve got trouble in both areas after all - north and south. I could be relegated to a chair for the rest of my life, or a big bed like Frida Kahlo. I fear the neck damage the most. These vertebrae support the roots holding up my brain, my reasoning, my creativity, my reason for being, my ability to evolve and to serve and to mother. I wanted a verdict. Paralysis, the word arrives. Is this how I am going to go? I muse that such a destiny would be OK as long as I could still somehow paint or type. I imagine myself like Frida, bravely writing books, and curating art shows from bed with tools attached to my hands. Not in a cold, robotic way like the Terminator, but in a stylish steampunk contraption of leather straps and copper mechanical devices sewed together that would be worthy of a posthumous Victoria and Albert Museum exhibit.
I could get carried to a book signing in my bed just like Frida's last stand, gloating and grateful all at once.
This is all very romantic, but my ending will probably be way less cool. My death will have nothing to do with my spine. It will be from some dumb accident like peeling back the dreaded top of an anchovy tin, one fell slice and I'll bleed out on the kitchen floor. Everyone will feel really bad while they back the dumpster up to the house to empty the contents of my studio. "It was just too much to go through," they will say.
... to be continued ...
The Broken Column, 1944 Frida Kahlo from www.fridakahlo.org