Today I will admit in this post what I’ve not wanted to say but been thinking for a long time: I don’t get a warm and safe feeling when I imagine myself as a 70 year-old man with one leg. The tipping point came at 4:43 AM a few weeks ago … in the bathroom. (Predictably – and sadly – my moments of great realization and insight don’t come when contemplating a breathtaking landscape or sitting in meditation, but rather, when half asleep in the john.)
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A common question I get asked by kids is whether I wear my prosthesis in bed. The answer – unless I’m trapped on the redeye – is no. Between 10 and 11 most nights I climb up the stairs, go into the bathroom and remove my left leg. I use crutches from that point until I put my prosthesis back on again the next morning.
For most people, not many things happen between 11:30 PM and 5:30 AM. Pretty much the only event of note during that timeframe involves basic bodily functions. You wake up and have to use the bathroom. You lie in bed for a few moments, half awake, wondering if you can somehow just gut it out and go back to sleep for the few remaining hours without awakening to find yourself in a damp puddle of your own excretion. You conclude that the answer to the previous question is, “Probably not.” You stumble out of your bed, shuffle your way to the bathroom like a drunk, and try to circumnavigate the obstacles in the darkness with your eyes 90% closed.
As a one-legged person, that scenario plays out for me in largely the same way as it does for my bipedal friends. After I say to myself, “Probably not,” I sit up and reach for the crutches next to my bed. I stumble forward and shuffle (yes, that’s possible with one leg and crutches) to the bathroom like a drunk, my eyes 90% closed.
Following this process, I found my way into the bathroom at 4:43 AM a few weeks ago. As some readers may be aware, men have a choice when emptying their bladder: stand in front of the toilet or sit on it. I long ago made a choice that when not wearing a prosthesis, half asleep or not, I sit. I’ve found that as a general proposition – officially, General Proposition #1 – having your hands and arms occupied by crutches while trying to perform all of the machinations necessary to ensure that the fluid leaving my body actually finds its way into the toilet (as opposed to in the general area of it) militates against standing. (The rarely-stated-but-ignored-only-once-before-it-becomes-a-fundamental-principal-of-your-existence General Proposition #2 states that your physical and mental health may never recover from a fall into a pool of your own urine because your crutches slid on said urine after ignoring General Proposition #1. Helpful hint of the day for all males using crutches in the middle of the night, amputee or otherwise: never forget General Proposition #2.)
These golden rules [please tell me you got the pun] hold especially true after midnight. My ability to balance solidly on one leg degrades precipitously when I’m half asleep, eyes mostly closed. But it’s important to remember that sitting down when you use crutches isn’t quite the same as doing it with two legs.
The person with crutches has to complete the following steps: (a) do a 180 so that his back is facing the surface he’s going to sit on, (b) get close enough to the sitting surface so that when he lowers himself, he doesn’t miss the landing pad, and then (c) lower himself onto the seat in a controlled manner. Note: the uncontrolled “collapse” method in place of (c), while arguably ok when falling onto a soft, heavy chair or sofa, can have painful and, I theorize, potentially catastrophic consequences when toppling backwards onto a completely hard surface like porcelain … with your pants down … (I’ll let readers imagine the horrific outcomes that could follow therefrom.)
The layout of bathrooms further complicates things. Toilets typically sit within a foot of the wall on one side, leaving someone with crutches little space to widen their base of support with the wall-side crutch. And as you execute step (a), your ability to maintain stability equally on both sides is inversely proportional to the distance between toilet and wall. (For example, the crutch on my right side often makes contact first with the baseboard heating cover some 4-6 inches above the actual floor as I spin my body into position.) In short, performing The After-Midnight Excretion 3 Step is the equivalent of doing the Tango flawlessly while being attacked by a rabid dog.
All of which leads to this: as I tried to sit down at 4:43 AM while executing steps (a) – (c) – a process that takes less than 3 seconds from beginning to end if performed consistent with U.S. federal standards – I lost my balance for a moment, teetering perilously close to an uncontrolled fall. I caught myself at the last minute through a combination of one crutch and the wall, crashing onto the toilet seat with (through the grace of God) no damage to those body parts relevant to the activity for which toilets exist.
Now I was awake.
And the following thoughts flooded through my head: my balance isn’t going to improve as I get older; my reflexes aren’t going to improve as I get older; my strength isn’t going to improve as I get older; I’m not going to get less breakable when bouncing off a wall or landing on a hard surface as I get older. And most scarily: it only takes one bad fall …
Now, perhaps I’m overestimating the risks; dark thoughts have a way of seeming particularly sinister in the middle of the night. Perhaps as I age, I’ll force myself to open my eyes all the way in the middle of the night and be more cautious as I traverse the distance between bed and bathroom, thus lowering my injury risk level. Perhaps I’ll become so irrational that I’ll stop drinking fluids after 3 in the afternoon and sleep with a 5 gallon bucket next to the bed. Regardless, this is the first time I’ve had a vivid vision of life as an older person with a prosthesis – actually, technically, I guess I’m imagining it without the prosthesis – and it wasn’t fun. (I don’t even want to begin to consider the psychological implications of the fact that I can only imagine myself at age 70 in the middle of the night trying to sit on a toilet.)
I’ve actively avoided thinking about getting older for my entire adult life. But I’m finding that strategy harder and harder to successfully implement with each passing year.