This week is a day job week so rather than my usual posts – here’s a short story for you altho’ it’s a bit long for my usual posts. The story was inspired by my mum who struggled valiantly against the after-effects of a stroke. I entered it in a comp and it won first prize. Hope you like it too.
Catching the Rhythm
I wake early as usual. It’s still there, squatting in the corner, a malignant black and chrome goblin, with red handles turned back like goat horns. It’s only a wheelchair but I loathe it.
It arrived…when was it? Oh, I don’t remember now. Rosie the physiotherapist brought it in.
“Your chariot awaits” she trilled. “This one’s been specially tailored for you.”
‘Specially tailored for you’ the words sounded ominous. “Why?” I’d asked. “I won’t need it for ever. I’ll be walking before long…won’t I?”
“I’m sure you will” Rosie soothed, “but it takes time you know. You’ll be more comfortable in your own chair rather than the small hospital one”.
After breakfast, Rosie pushes me down to the gym. The chair smoothes silently over the lino floors. Once I’m in it I feel as though it will never let me out. I’m almost sure the footrests will snap over and shackle me for ever. I know I’m being fanciful but it’s how I feel about the thing.
In the gym, Rosie and Karen, her helper, manoeuvre me on to the bench.
“Sit up straight Kate, look up, look at me” Rosie encourages as I try to hold myself upright. I push on my arms as she tells me but it’s exhausting. They catch me before I can flop forward onto the floor. Rosie straightens me up and positions my hands, arms and legs. I feel like a ventriloquist’s dummy.
“You’re improving Kate. It’s just a matter of time and confidence” Rosie says.
Back in my room, they lift me back into bed and prop me up with pillows.
“Don’t put that where I can see it” I nod towards the wheelchair that Rosie is pushing into a corner, “it gives me the creeps.”
Rosie looks puzzled.
“It’s only a chair Kate. You won’t need it for long.”
“I know it’s only a chair” I snap, “but I don’t want it there. Take it somewhere else.”
Rosie shrugs, “OK I’ll leave it outside.”
I know I’m being tiresome but I can’t explain to her how the chair scares me, or rather, what it might signify for the rest of my life.
Susan, my ever-so-sensible daughter arrives on the tide of afternoon visitors.
“How long have I been here?” I ask.
She says its seven weeks since I had my stroke. Seems like forever to me. I don’t really remember it happening. Just a few confused images and the sound of music on the radio. Susan says Frank found me on the kitchen floor when he came to pick me up. She says it was a good job it was my dance night and or I could’ve been there til’ morning. She says I’m making progress even though my face looks lop-sided and I dribble. She says a lot does our Susan but I’m thankful to have her. She comes at three fifteen every day, regular as clockwork, bless her.
She takes me on a tour round the Hospital, swerving the wheelchair down the long corridor to the lifts. My stomach gets queasy. She giggles.
“Do you think I need a driving licence for a wheelchair, mum? I wouldn’t pass my test if I did; this chair of yours seems to have a mind of its own.”
I shiver. Silly words, but they upset me.
We stop every now and again so she can point out something she thinks will interest me. At the chapel – “Mum, aren’t those flowers lovely?”
“They look like the leftovers from a funeral” I snap.
We go up in the crowded lift to the cafeteria. No faces to look at when I’m in this squatty chair. All I see are bums and crotches. Mostly people take care not to notice me. They talk to Susan though.
“It’s your mum is it? Poor thing.”
“A stroke was it? Can she remember?”
“Ah, never mind, there’s always someone worse off than us, isn’t there?”
I feel invisible, a no thing, just part of the chair.
Susan leaves with an indomitably cheerful “Bye mum, don’t worry, you’re getting better. Uncle Frank says he’ll come in as usual this evening. See you tomorrow. Love you” and with an airy wave she breezes away.
Frank is my brother-in-law and dance partner. Every week for the past ten years we’ve gone ballroom dancing at the Astoria. That I do remember. I think we even won some prizes but I’m not sure. My memory’s still iffy. Apparently that’s what happens with a stroke. Still the memories are coming back now, swirling around like specks of dust in the sunshine, settling in confusing new patterns.
It’s true though, what Rosie said, I have improved. I can wiggle my fingers now and grasp the bed sides. But why aren’t I back on my feet as I should be? What if I never dance again? What’ll I do? All my life there’s been music and dance. I used to dance through the housework – waltz with the Hoover, glide with the iron, a quick cha-cha-cha with the duster – I was never still. Couldn’t help myself. There’s a rhythm for everything. You just have to catch it.
Another day and I’m waiting for Rosie to come. I’m really moithered this morning; sick, anxious, twitchy. I slept badly too. I dreamed about the wheelchair – how I was stuck in it and it ran away with me and we came to a cliff and it threw me out over the edge and I just kept falling and falling into darkness. It’s really got to me, this damn wheelchair. The more I use it, the more I feel scared and trapped by it.
Back down in the gym it’s still not happening for me. I tell my leg to move; I will it with all my strength; I strain every part of me. Nothing.
“It’s no use” I sob. “I can’t make my leg work. I can’t do it”. I’m propped between the exercise bars. Rosie’s holding me up. My left leg sags, lifeless. I’m trying to take one small step – what’s the phrase, one small step for mankind? Well mankind’s going to be disappointed. I can’t do it. I never will, I know that now. The wheelchair sits in the corner… just waiting for me.
“Let’s call it a day” Rosie says and she gets me back in the wheelchair. I yield to its soft leather embrace. It has me. I must learn to live with it.
Rosie bowls me back down the corridor. “It’s there Kate; there is movement in the leg.” She tries to encourage me. “We just have to keep working at it.”
She and the nurses lift me into bed. I tell them quietly, “no more. I can’t do this any more.” They look at each other and leave.
Tonight I’ll tell Frank to find another dancing partner. He won’t be short of offers, I know. That Joan Lawson for one, she’s always been after him. Strange, isn’t it how I remember that so clearly when there’s so much that I can’t quite recall.
Oh but I’m so tired. How can my body feel so dead and yet give so much pain? It’s not fair. I’m young still, only 65. I’ve done all the right things, diet and exercise and so on. Ha, look where it’s got me.
It’s visiting time and Frank has arrived.
“How you doing Katy lass?” he asks. I think he’s the only person who ever calls me Katy.
“It’s no good Frank,” I tell him. ”I’m never going to walk again. Never. I know that now.”
He’s silent. I can’t look him in the face. I suddenly feel hot and … ashamed. Eventually he does speak, slow and serious, not like him at all.
“Katy Simpson, I never thought to hear you say something like that. I thought you were a fighter. All these years we’ve known each other, all those dances we learned together, all the time you nursed your Bill through his last days…you never gave up. You never once said ‘I can’t’.”
I get defensive with him. “But I can’t Frank.” I hear the whine in my voice and it disgusts me. Yet I go on anyway. “It’s not my fault; I’ve tried, really tried. If I can’t walk, well then I can’t. I have tried Frank.”
I’m almost pleading with him to understand. He takes my hand.
“You have to believe you can Katy, believe it with all your heart.”
I shake my head; can’t speak; I’ll cry.
“I’ll drop in soon to see how you’re going on” he says as he leaves.
I let the tears fall now. I’ve let him down. I look at the wheelchair in the corner; a gleam of sunlight glances off its chrome. “You win” I whimper, defeated.
I haven’t slept well. Shafts of early morning light pierce the broken blind, creating patterns on the wall. The wheelchair is in its usual corner. This morning it doesn’t quite seem so sinister, I guess I’m coming to terms with it. It’s a few days since I had any physio – giving me a rest – the nurses said. Frank hasn’t visited either. I suppose he’s fed up with trailing in here every evening. No, fed up with me, more like.
Rosie comes in. “Right Kate, you’ve had a couple of days to rest, now we’ve got some work to do.”
“No, no” I protest,” I don’t want to. It’ll just be another pointless, painful round of ‘head up, back straight, push on your good leg’. It’ll make no difference, so why bother?”
“Kate, we’re going to try something a bit different today. If you don’t like it, we’ll stop straight away and bring you back” Rosie promised.
“It’s a waste of time, you know that” I chunter, but deep down I want her to persuade me different.
“We don’t think it is. Let’s try again.”
I let her hoist me into the wheelchair and whizz me down to the gym. We go through the sitting down exercises and I don’t do too badly with those now. My balance is definitely getting better.
Then it’s on to the bars. Rosie has me wedged between them. She bends down to straighten my left foot which insists on turning inwards all the time. “OK” she says “let’s see how this works for you.”
To my amazement, Frank appears and switches places with Rosie.
“Now, madam” he says politely, “may I have the next dance?”
Suddenly, the haunting strains of “Moon River” fill the room. I feel my heart lurch, my eyes brim with tears, and my breath comes in short hiccups. “Frank, you fool. What are you doing? You’ll drop me.”
“Never” he says sternly. “Now will you dance or no?”
“I can’t” I whisper.
“Just catch the rhythm Katy, catch the rhythm. Remember, it’s a glide not a step. Ready?”
I know I have to try. I close my eyes tightly and there’s nothing in the room for me other than the music and Frank.
“One two three, one two three, one two three” he murmurs, and I feel my body slowly responding to the beat.
Suddenly I’m filled with the music. The weeks fall away and I’m in the ballroom; Frank is elegant in black and white; I’m in midnight blue and silver. We move as one, gracefully, effortlessly.
The music stops. I open my eyes. Frank is smiling. Rosie is applauding. I’m crying now – I don’t know why. I’m exhausted too. My whole body aches.
“You did it Katy, I knew you could”, Frank says.
I look round in amazement. We’ve gone the length of the bars. Just six short faltering steps but it’s a start. I begin to tremble. They fetch the wheelchair and as my body sinks down into it, my soul soars, singing, to the sky. Funny, how comfortable this wheelchair really is.