Jan Reid,

Jan Reid,

A weeklong electronic journal.
July 11 1998 3:30 AM

Jan Reid,

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       "You may walk again, and you may not," said the Houston neurosurgeon who had supervised my care. "It may take a year, 18 months, for this to play out. But you're going to have at least some movement of your legs. If you have to get around in a wheelchair, you can still work. You can drive a car. You can get on an airplane."
       "A productive life," I said, trying to match his enthusiasm.
       "Yeah. Now we're going to get you sitting up."
       I laughed and said, "Sure." Confined to bed, I had come to feel like a brick slowly sinking in a lake of mud. All the strength I ever had was gone. But soon after the doctor left, nurses wheeled in a contraption that looked like a stretcher. When they lifted me over to it, one hit a switch, and this stretcher turned into a chair that vaulted me upright. I happened to look down, and something flopped like a salmon thrown out on a bin of ice. It was my right foot. Talk about a sobering bottom line.
       The improvement came with time and with dogged, tedious effort in the rehab hospital. I couldn't feel sorry for myself. On the next machine or exercise mat someone huffed and puffed with injuries far worse than mine. Friendships formed. Jim was a linguistics professor who had made his life's work penetrating the mystery of the Tarahumara Indians in northern Mexico. He was also a competitive cyclist who had got bashed almost to extinction doing his daily miles in the Houston traffic. "I've got to walk again," he told me. "There's no other way to get to them." One day I watched in awe as his legs gave out climbing a flight of stairs. He got to the top by turning around and lifting his hands and hips; then the therapist urged him to crawl.
       Jesus was a Mexican immigrant. He had six kids at about age 40 and had bought a house and made his way as a landscaper. Now his back problems had put him out of that line of work for good, the neighborhood where he lived rang with the gunfire of gangs at night, and he had no medical insurance. One day he told me with an air of wonder: "I just got a bill for $145,000. That's a lot of money." Another night my leg pains were making me thrash and cry out. Jesus rose from his bed, restored the pillows I had kicked away, and stood for a moment with a comforting hand on my foot. It was one of the kindest gestures I've ever known.
       Tom was a busy contractor called to look at a leaking roof. The shingles shot out from under him, and it was a long way to the ground. "This wheelchair business sucks," he e-mailed me the other day. "Thank goodness for hardwood and tile floors. Our bedroom carpet is like 6 inch bubble gum, but that's good exercise, they tell me. Whoopee."
       Walking or rolling, we've all gone on with our lives. As I make my rounds of out-patient rehabilitation in Austin, I'm concerned with "gait," a noun I once associated with horses. With admiration and a nag of envy, I watch people saunter past me. How tall and confident they are! On my rear deck now is a protective rail that's just the right height. I lean forward and with a heave of exertion I stand up. Resting my hands on the rail, I pull my shoulders back, tighten my buttocks, and shift my weight from one hip to the other. I breathe the air that never penetrates a hospital and think of those friends and the bond we share. But so far I'm afraid to let go of the rail. My left knee starts wobbling, and with a sigh I lower myself to the safety of the chair.

Jan Reid is a free-lance journalist and a founding writer at Texas Monthly. He recently returned from a trip to Mexico that went awry.