I have officially reached the point in life where I can look back at a lot more things I’ve done than I’m likely to do for the rest of my life. For me, the identifying factor in making that measure has been arthritis. Both of my hips are trashed, bone-on-bone and little chunks of debris spitting out the sides of both hips and an “osteoarthritis” diagnosis from both my regular doctor and an orthopedic surgeon.
For the last year, I’ve been avoiding the surgeon and trying to slip past that nasty bit of personal history with physical therapy. If the definition of “it’s working” is that I’m still mobile and working, it’s working. If the definition is being pain-free (or even mildly inconvenienced by pain) and able to be as active as I expect myself to be, it’s not working at all. So, I’m looking at a total hip replacement this winter, followed by weeks of pain and disability and months of rehab. If that isn’t a marker for being “old,” I don’t want to hear about the next step.
While wrestling with the surgery decision, I’ve been carefully comparing the best post-surgery case to my current physical status. There are things that I can do now that I may not be able to do after surgery. There are things that I can’t do now that I could do a year ago. Currently, I don’t do anything with my legs that doesn’t involve pain. So, while I’m arguing with myself my wife chips in, “If the big part of the decision is whether you can ride your motorcycle after surgery, you know you can’t ride forever.”
No, I don’t know that. Ok, I do. I understand that I'm not going to live forever; nothing and no one does. But I don't concede that I won't be able to ride for nearly all of my life. Not yet. I'm not even willing to concede that decision is in my near future.
I’ve taught Experienced Rider students who were seventy and even eighty-years-old. I’ve worked with MSF instructors who are almost a decade older than me. I plan to be one of those guys ten years from now. My father-in-law, Bob, is 93 and he gets around easier, faster, and more gracefully than me. If I’m going to have a chunk of bone (the femoral head) sawed off of my leg and a six-inch chunk of titanium inserted in the hole, I expect to be at least as mobile as a 93-year-old man as a result. If that’s too much to ask, I can live with the pain for a few more years. Like, until I’m 93.
Pain is a relative thing. You think you can’t stand any more until you get more. Then, your old reference is replaced with a new one. Literally, it is replaced. A few years back, I crashed and separated my left shoulder, cracked some ribs on my right side, and broke the metacarpal forefinger bone on the forefinger of my right hand. I’ve enjoyed at least two of those injuries in the past, individually, and thought they were almost beyond tolerating. When I broke several ribs in an off-road crash in 1978, I thought the world was ending. I was out of work for several weeks and hobbled for three months.
When I separated a shoulder and broke my collarbone in an off-road bicycle crash in 1988, I sold the family’s beloved VW camper because I couldn’t manage the unpowered steering or the shifter. When I jammed (and fractured) that very same finger on my left hand in a basketball game in 1991, I was unable to use my left hand for much of anything that required strength.
When I revisited all of those injuries together, I turned my bike around and rode it 400 miles back to Dawson and “fixed” everything in a boiling-hot bathtub, a ten yards of Ace bandages, and a bucket of Aspercream™. I didn’t know the ribs were damaged for several hundred miles until my shoulder pain dropped below the rib threshold. Other than not being able to hold a fork with my right hand, I barely noticed the hand injury for almost a week and 2,000 miles when I stopped at a clinic in Valdez for X-rays and discovered my hand was healing almost perfectly. What I learned from that is that big pain overwhelms less-big pain. I half-suspect that smashing my big toe would solve my hip problems for at least a couple of days.
If this column runs in the Winter issue, by the time you hear from me again we’ll all know if I’m right; or that my wife wins another argument. Or we’ll learn that I’m a total wimp and limped away from the surgeon’s knife like the gutless cowboy I am. I can always smash a toe every morning and distract attention from that damned hip.
MMM Winter 2011