“the rough patch at the turn up the hill”


A year ago this hour I was in my rooms on the UBC campus, waiting to hear from the surgeon who’d just replaced both of my husband’s hips. One hip was wonky and then with the long wait time for orthopaedic surgery, his second hip also deteriorated. When he was called late last September and told to prepare for both the surgery and the recuperation afterwards, we were filled with optimism. We got the equipment we needed, arranged our house for safe recovery, and made sure the cupboards were full. (Wine rack too.)

A year ago this afternoon the surgeon called me to tell me how well the procedure had gone. I walked over to the UBC hospital, a walk I was to take many times over the next ten days, and went through the rigamarole (stopped to answer questions about my health, putting on a clean mask to replace the clean mask I was wearing, signed the form to indicate the time I was visiting, sterilized my hands in front of the security officer at the desk) to visit John in the recovery ward. He was groggy but excited. Two new hips! The prospect of a return to our long walks up the mountain. Easier travel once the pandemic situation allowed that again. He was a little concerned that he could feel and move his left foot but his right foot was still asleep. The recovery nurse assured him it would also wake up once the anaesthetic had worn off.

I remember walking back to my rooms and calling our children. I also wrote a group email to extended family and friends to share the good news. But by the next morning, a year tomorrow, the story had changed. The right foot was still asleep and that was because John had suffered a compression injury to his sciatic nerve and its branch, the peroneal nerve, affecting his ability to raise his right foot. The chance of this happening was one in a thousand. Over the next week, consulting with the excellent physiotherapists who helped him to move around with a walker, to use stairs, to seat himself and then rise from that position, and with the surgeon who visited several times, as well as with other orthopaedic surgeons who also came to talk to us, we learned that the prognosis was a bit uncertain. The nerves would have to regenerate and that happens slowly. It can take two years. If it happens at all, because there’s only a 50% chance that the nerves will in fact completely regenerate.

Whatever happens we will do our best. When it’s light out, the trees brilliant gold and deep orange, the house finches busy at the work of opening maple seeds, I am ready for anything. But when the weight settles, I pick up my quilt and stitch free-hand spirals into the sashing between the log-cabin blocks. The process of moving out from the centre and then letting the thread find its way out into the open space is calming, in the way I suspect meditation might be. My meditations are of the practical sort though; they always have been. Kneading dough, weeding, watering tomatoes and easing their unruly stems around strings leading them upwards. So I’ll stitch and hope that the threads will take me–us–in the direction we need to go now. Sure-footed or not.

The following week was strange. I was alone (because I’d taken advice to keep myself and John as safe as possible from infections, including Covid of course), walking back and forth to the hospital with a flask of Camino hot chocolate for John (because honestly the food was quite awful and he needed something warm and rich), news from home, and well, just to be company for him in his room overlooking trees.

that week

Back in my rooms, I was working on two quilts. One of them, in the photograph above, had a complicated pattern of spirals in its sashing; I’d sit by a big window and sew. And think. I had a lot of thinking to do. About whether we were ready, about how to get us home, about the winter ahead. Now that it’s a year later and we got through that winter with all its equipment and further medical dramas (because only a few days after we’d returned home, we had to go down to the Sechelt hospital where John was admitted for an issue related to the surgery but also complicated, needing many tests and drug trials) and physiotherapy sessions, acupressure sessions, etc., I am reading a long essay I wrote during and after the winter. I wanted to record what was a life-altering event in our particular lives and I wanted to find the lessons in it. Because there were lessons, ones I might have anticipated and ones I didn’t. I’m thinking of making the essay into a little book, like the book I made of my essay, “Museum of the Multitude Village”.

The quilts were finished and went to their new homes — Anik’s house in Dordrecht, the Netherlands; and Cristen’s house in Edmonton. A year later, John’s foot has come a long way in its own recovery, although he will probably always have a slightly idiosyncratic gait. Think of Inspector Morse, if you are a fan of that television series. (In real life, John Thaw had a condition called drop foot, which is essentially what John has now.) Our long walks up the mountain aren’t quite what they were. Rough ground presents difficulities so we try to find places to walk where the terrain is even. But I have to say that otherwise, things go on as they always did. We swim — daily in summer, three times a week after the end of September. We built a greenhouse last spring. Over the past couple of weeks, John split and stacked three and half cords of firewood. Every few days he goes down our long driveway with a rake and a pick to level out the rough patch at the turn up the hill.

When I remember the week after the surgery, I remember the swelling, the bruising, the uncertainty. But also a kind of quiet beauty in the days. Leaves were turning and falling. There were finches in the trees. In the night I had a small lamp by my bed and I read Anne Boyer’s The Undying, finding in its dark record of Boyer’s harrowing experience of breast cancer a coded message that went right to my heart. You must pay attention, you must care from the bottom of your frightened heart. There is something to be learned from this. Find out, tell what it is.

The bruising is phenomenal. Your flanks, both of them, are deep blue and purple, streaked with red; they’re swollen, the swelling extending down your legs to your feet.

The trees are turning, the birds so lively in their branches, and even the rain against the window reminds me of time spinning from my spools of thread, drops finding a trail over the silver glass.

To take a set of objects and actions from one system and reclassify these as elements in another system is like fortune-telling.


7 thoughts on ““the rough patch at the turn up the hill””

  1. Theresa, I’ve been absent for so long that I had no inkling of these trials. although at the same time I am relieved to read of them for the first time with this overview and knowing that John is well. I wholeheartedly admire your resolution. I, too, believe in the wisdom of the hands as a kind of calming meditation. My favourite line here: “you must care from the bottom of your frightened heart.” Indeed. Brava, my dear.

    1. Oh Alice, how good to hear your voice. It was a challenging year, yes, but that’s true for most of us, I think. And we kept saying to each other, Well, it might have been worse. That’s true and now we live with something that wasn’t what we anticipated but it’s certainly manageable.

  2. Oh Alice, how nice to hear your voice here. It was quite a year but I think that’s true for most of us. If not surgery, then isolation. If not isolation, then something else. I have to say that we often told ourselves how lucky we were — are — during the past year. We have space, good support people on the Coast, and, as we kept saying, it could have been worse. (Though of course I don’t want to think about that.) Right now most days I massage J’s leg and foot and I can see so much improvement. He’s pretty diligent about the exercises. And if this is the best it gets, well, it’s actually pretty good.

  3. I am so very pleased that John has been improving and that he’s able to amble on. I’m sure there may be continued progress as time passes.
    I always love how you share your thoughts. They’re beautifully told with imagery bringing to life every important aspect.
    I’m so pleased things are going on just as Mother Nature also goes on.

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