Prior to my eyes failing, I had already become well practiced in the process of degeneration, procedure, and recovery over the course of a decade. It was another of my birth defects, a pair of bipartite patellae, where the saga of my surgeries began. A dislocated knee during 7th-grade football tryouts tipped us off to the fact that the kneecap had never fused properly; rather it remained two separate bones. Most importantly, as I would mythologize later, I beat the kid next to me on the track, which had just enough of a dip in it to pop my kneecap out.
1) “In most of our human relationships, we spend much of our time assuring each other our costumes of identity are on straight.” – Ram Dass
Ten years ago, while moving a 7-foot couch into my upstairs apartment, something began to break down in my left knee. The process was intensive and involved removing a pair of posts on the screened-in porch; there were a number of casualties on the way to its final resting place at the other end of the house, including my roommate’s scraped up back and hands. Before we got the massive piece of furniture through the kitchen, my knee began to swell to the size of a large grapefruit and I remained on the couch for the next six weeks.
2) “I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one.” – Flannery O’ Conner
Most of the next year was spent nursing the knee before I finally sought an orthopedic surgeon nearby to check it out. When the first x-rays came back, I commented on how the smaller chunk looked like a ship leaving the harbor of the larger chunk. The greatest concern about removing the wayward bone for the surgeon was the 7-inch incision required. Despite my waving off any issues about scars, he wasn’t sure it was a necessary procedure, choosing instead to do a basic cleanup of the damage caused by the kneecap’s split arthroscopically.
3) “Everybody you fight is not your enemy and everybody that helps you is not your friend.” — Mike Tyson
Almost immediately after the first surgery, it was clear more work needed to be done. The first procedure had simply cleaned up the wreckage but did nothing to stymie the patella’s further separation. When I returned with a nearly melon-sized knee, the surgeon simply showed me a series of rather intimate pictures as evidence of how nicely he had cleaned out the joint. Of course, these were images taken during the procedure and did nothing to explain my body’s extreme reaction weeks after the fact. Throughout this frustratingly idle process, my options were mostly limited to reading and watching movies, which allowed my usual quote harvesting to intensify and acted as a welcome distraction from the pain.
4) “Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.” – Albert Camus
After three frustrating meetings with the first surgeon, my mother encouraged me to track down Dr. Barbara Bergin – the orthopedic surgeon who had diagnosed the malady twenty years earlier. Of course, my visits became frequent because my insurance refused surgery on the knee for another nine months, which meant my only recourses were Hydrocodone and regular draining of fluid build up. So I had time to learn about a cowboy trading her riding lessons for hand surgery, which led to competitive cut riding, and, eventually, a novel she based around her experiences. By this point, I rarely left home and when I did it was with the assistance of a cane; my interpersonal skills deteriorated further with each passing month as I became more consumed by what was happening.
5) “I never make stupid mistakes. Only very, very clever ones.” – John Peel
Between the first and second surgeries, I had signed on to develop story ideas for an upstart production company. However, hovering somewhere between pain and painkillers left my mind lacking clarity and I became increasingly difficult to be around. Emotionally frazzled, I left a trail of questionable choices and confused dealings as I lived in a perpetual state of limbo. Unsurprisingly, I was giddy as a schoolchild when Dr. Bergin finally asked, “Are you ready for me to pull that thing out yet?” In less than a month, I was wearing my gown getting the low down on my cocktail by an anesthesiologist before being wheeled into the OR.
6) “You can tell how smart people are by what they laugh at.” – Tina Fey
Before I undressed, I had asked the nurses if I could take the chunk of kneecap they extracted home and when I awoke there it was like a new potato on the table to my right. That first laugh was a very long time coming – almost like seeing a defeated adversary – the conclusion of the nightmare saw a return of a more sociable version of myself. Many of my friends, even a couple of their kids, asked to see the bone, which I kept in the freezer – I would always indulge them by pulling it from the freezer and saying, “You can touch it if you want.”
7) “I am neither especially clever nor especially gifted. I am only very, very curious.” – Albert Einstein
Those three years initiated a period of personal transformation driven by the breaking down of my body. In my early 30s I expected to spread out and challenge myself, but instead, I was comparing notes with my mother about her knee replacements and researching pain management. A large percentage of my energy was spent doing mental health upkeep, at times I could trick myself by focusing like a sommelier on ways to describe the various types of pain stimulating my central nervous system. At times, it was as though the pain’s intensity overwhelmed my visual field, where I would see blobs of color. Tracing the dynamism of the pain along the nerve could have jagged electrical bolts or feel heavy and sludgy like lava.
8) “Humor is laughing at what you haven’t got when you ought to have it.” – Langston Hughes
With each recovery came a renewed sense of vigor, I bought a stationary bike to help me get back in shape. Activity during the periods of regrowth accounted for over a hundred pounds of weight loss, a curve that would fall off a cliff when a step felt a little wrong and my body would once again stage a revolt. With each new round of swelling – when gravity and mobility become far more adversarial – life moved towards an Olympic level of absurdity. I am the sort of person who refuses assistance as a way of life; many of my falls, tumbles, close calls and near misses were due to an irrational pigheadedness. But I found it helped to laugh as often as possible upon unintentionally finding the floor.
9) “The monster was the best friend I ever had.” – Boris Karloff
Only one procedure was needed to care for the issues in the right knee. Through all three knee surgeries, I lived upstairs in an old house, which meant I was hopping up and down; my bedroom was a loft in a converted stairwell, which meant I took a few tumbles. As a result, my spine had taken a beating at either end. In addition, all of the limping had awakened a big toe pulverized years before I had obtained insurance, and soon after that same toe would become an ordeal all its own.
10) “Simplicity is the most difficult thing to secure in this world; it is the last limit of experience and the last effort of genius.” – George Sand
For more than three years, everything revolved around my problematic patellae and it became clear I was missing out on a great deal of life. My friends were getting married, having children and starting businesses while I was stuck in third gear, a moody shell of my former self. At times I certainly found myself feeling despondent, but for all that was lost, I gained the appreciation of simple glories, like the moment you successfully regain a normal gait and return to walking without limitation after not knowing if such a thing were possible.