Sunday, July 25, 2021

LAST LEGS – Giving My All to Walking Tall

On the self-consciousness scale of one to ten, I’m about a six. It’s far from an obsession, but it does enter my mind now and then: How do I look or sound—or smell, for that matter—to others?

But the list of things I’m self-conscious about has seldom included how I walk. Until about my fifties, that is. That’s when putting one foot nicely in front of the other started becoming something I could no longer take for granted.

I was a jock all the way through college and beyond. In high school, I’d played football for a leathery ex-Marine coach who labeled a sniveling coward anyone who shied from blocking or tackling head-first.

When I was a junior in college, I was in a bad car accident. Most of the damage involved having my face pushed in, but I always wondered if any musculoskeletal after-effects might show up.

Then there was about 20 years of ice hockey. Oh, and flipping 60- to 80-pound canoes up and down from my shoulders—something I’ve kept doing into my mid-seventies.

So, though I suspect none of these factors by itself resulted in significant impairment, together, I’m afraid they stirred up a perfect storm of damage to my poor spine.

I’ll never forget the day, about six years ago, when my orthopedic surgeon at Mayo showed me that CT scan of my spine. It wasn’t just a bit worse for wear; it looked like the backbone of someone who’d just jumped off a cliff…and landed on his tail bone.

The surgery alleviated the worst of my referred-pain symptoms, but it could not fix what decades of degeneration had wrought. Alas, the 15-degree sideways S-curve in my spine remains.

Crumbling discs, narrowing nerve pathways, bone-on-bone abrasion. By rights, I should be a cripple…but I’m determined not to look like it. So, of course, I’ve  grown quite conscious of trying to stand straight, walk tall, and not limp.

By the time I knew what was happening I’d already lost the battle between dexterity and gravity.

Now that I’m in my mid-seventies, my screwy spine is just part of my posture problem. There’s also the inevitable wear and tear of aging on one’s bones and muscles. Not to mention balance, that precious asset whose denigration is a dead giveaway for old folks and drunks.

(I sometimes wonder, if I ever got pulled over on suspicion of DWI, would I be able to walk the straight line—even if I hadn’t touched a drop? I doubt it.)

That reminds me, I’ve recently had a couple of sobering falls. One time I unknowingly stepped off a curb, and by the time I knew what was happening I’d already lost the battle between dexterity and gravity. 

A few years ago, my wife Sally started pointing out that I slouch. Ever since, I’ve made an effort to suck in my gut, rock my hips forward and pull my shoulders back.

Doing so actually feels pretty good. At first, the resident pain in my lower back eases and I feel younger, stronger. I imagine that Sally’s not seeing me as a stooped old man. After a few minutes, though, it starts to feel like a lot of work. I let go of the effort…and of my short-lived fantasy.

     Every time I pretend the curve’s still there,
     it’s like trying to bend a two-by-four.

I’ve come to realize why standing straight is so hard for me: When most folks rock their hips forward to stand straighter, they’re actually flattening out the smalls of their backs—those inward curves most people have just above their butts.

But after my lumbar spinal fusion I no longer have a small of the back. That surgery, by fusing together the three vertebra central to the lumbar spine, flattened out the curve and rendered it more or less rigid. So every time I pretend the curve’s still there, it’s like trying to bend a two-by-four—one anchored, by the way, by four three-inch titanium screws.

Walking tall is about more than appearances or pride; it’s also a survival strategy.

Some years ago, my friend Silverio and I spent a very late night in a bar on Garibaldi Square, one of Mexico City’s seediest attractions, notorious not just for its glut of mariachi bands, but for its rogues gallery of thieves, beggars and drunks.

As we’re stumbling out of the place in the wee hours, a group of four or five wiry young men approach and start harassing us. All five-foot-eight of Silverio puffs out his chest, swaggers right up to the punks and gets in their faces.

They backed off, opting to look for someone less formidable.

Later, I asked Silverio about the incident. He explained that, growing up in that close-quarters city of 20-million, he’d learned the hard way that stature is about more than height; it’s also about attitude, the way you carry that height.

To this day, when I take our dog, Sylvia, out for her last walk before bed each night, believe it or not I find myself channeling Silverio, aware of exactly what the way I walk says about me and my vulnerability.

        Like my dancer alter ego, I’ll hobble
        as if no one’s watching.

Especially to us humans, a spine fit for walking also means freedom. It’s hard to imagine losing that elemental ability to go wherever we want, whenever we want, under our own power.

But lose it we will. Aging and physics assure it. In the meantime, I plan to fight the inevitable at every turn. Can’t walk so well? I suppose I’ll get a brace or use a walker. Still can’t walk? There’s always a wheelchair. (My mom got around pretty well in one till she was 100.)

And what about the self-consciousness? I guess I’m counting on its waning at the same rate as my abilities. Like my dancer alter ego, I’ll learn to hobble as if no one’s watching.

Something I now know that I didn’t when I started writing this post: Consciousness—of others, of Nature, of joy—is just too precious to waste any more of it on how I walk.

“Look outside and you will see yourself. Look inside and you will
find yourself.”


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