"It's been over a year, Ian. Get over yourself."
No, it has been one year, seven months, nine days and... I check my watch. Thirty-six minutes. But who's counting. One year, seven months, nine days and thirty seven minutes ago, I woke up to find myself without legs. They were still there, yes, but they were of no use to me. I was paralyzed from the top of my thigh to my toes.
"Just try to get up and walk," she says. "The doctors say you can do it."
"The doctors don't know shit."
We've had the same argument for the past year and a half.
'It's all in your head, Ian. Ian, get over yourself, Ian. Stop being ridiculous, Ian.' I've grown to hate the way she says my name.
"There is nothing wrong with your legs. There's nothing wrong with your spine. The doctors ran every single test they could think of, Ian. There's literally nothing wrong with you. I'm tired of you sitting around in that chair all day. Just get up, dammit. I'm leaving. Get up and stop me." She turns to walk away.
"Wait, Barbara-" She spins around, arms crossed, glaring down at me. She would be tapping her toe, but that would show defeat. I could almost feel the restraint pouring off of her. "I don't want to be this way..." My voice is thin, meek, and it's as if my brain has shut off as well as my legs. My lips are moving, but I'm not the one controlling them; I barely recognize the sound of my own voice. I must have kept talking, because I watch as Barbara's face begins to soften from aggravation to resignation.
"Ian, I've stayed by your side for five years. I do love you. But this has got to stop. You're being ridiculous."
"If I could fix this, I would, I really would-"
"Then do it," she says. "Stand up."
I try. I try and I try. I tell my legs to move, my arms to push me up out of the wheelchair, my feet to slip out of the stirrups and on to the ground. But nothing happens.
"Find me when you can."
Three weeks later finds me sitting in the waiting room at Dr. Herman T. Brooker's office. I'm seeing a shrink. I don't know what made me do it. Maybe its because a part of me thinks Barb may be right. Maybe there isn't really anything wrong with me. But I think I mostly did it because there's only so many football games and NCIS reruns a guy can watch before he goes stir-crazy.
"Newman, Ian?" the lady at the front desk calls. She's pretty. Not like Barb, whose wild mane hair stuck out at every angle, and whose lips were always painted cherry red with that come here, baby smile. Laura, as her name plate read, was fresh looking. Like a kid. "Ian Newman?" she calls again from behind the counter. She's looking around the waiting room, and catches my eye. I nod. "Right this way, Mr. Newman."
"Please call me Ian," I say, as I follow her through a heavy wood door. Compared to the dingy waiting room, the back of the office is homey. It's a dark wood, comfort, cigars and whisky kind of homey.
Laura knocks on a paneled door at the end of the hall. "Mr. Newman is here to see you sir."
"Send him on in," a deep, grumbly voice calls from behind the door. Laura opens the door wide enough for me to wheel myself through, smiles at me warmly, then slams the door. "Good afternoon, Mr. Newman," the man at the desk starts. He's old and round and hides a southern accent under his white mustache and rumbling voice. "My name is Herman T. Brooker, and I'm here to help you. So, how are you," he glances at a file folder in his hands, "Jerry?"
"It's Ian, sir."
"What was that, Jerry?"
"That's good, Jerry. So tell me a little bit about yourself."
"Well, I'm twenty-nine years old and until about two years ago, I was a firefighter."
"And what happened to make you no longer want to be a firefighter, Jerry?"
"Well, sir, I don't know if you noticed, but I'm in a wheelchair. Firefighters are usually more mobile than that."
"Ah, yes. I was curious about that." He coughs in the back of his throat. It sounds like walrus.
"Yeah. I got hurt on the job."
"It's okay, Jerry. We'll get to that." I'm really getting fed up with the fact that he keeps calling me Jerry. "For now, I want you to tell me about your childhood."
"Well, I was born in a log cabin four score and seven years ago-"
"Jerry, I can see you are not ready to take this seriously." He stands up and walks around his desk. He even looks like a walrus. "Most people have trouble with therapy the first time they try it. I'm going to end your session early today. See Laura at the front desk to schedule an appointment for next week. I expect you'll be more open to discussing your past then." He opens the door, and I wheel myself out.
"How'd it go?" Laura at the front desk asks as she schedules my appointment.
It's been three days since my first meeting with Dr. Brooker. I've just hauled myself out of bed and to the bathroom to start my morning routine. Sit on the pot, bathe in the tub, and attempt to dress myself. For the first time in what may be months, I look in my mirror. I see myself, dark hair cropped close, dark eyes, muscular build. But there's something different. There's a layer of fat all over me. I have a gut. My jaw is soft. I'm out of shape. And I'm shocked. I grip my leg and realize that the muscles have been deteriorating to fat. Right then I realize that I must do something different than what I've been doing. I wheel myself to the kitchen in my pajamas, grab a pen and a notepad, and start to write.
Ian's Get-Back-In-Shape Plan
No more TV
No more junk food and takeout
Get out more
Take therapy seriously
I circle the last one and go back to bathe.
The next time I roll into Dr. Brooker's office, I'm ready. "Good afternoon, Mr. Newman."
"Hello again, Mr. Brooker."
He pulls out his file folder again. "Ready to begin, Jerry?"
"Sure thing, old man." He didn't say anything, just sat back and listened. I tell him about my mom. About how she would come home and cook supper for my eight brothers and sisters and I when she got done with her first job at six, then tuck us in bed just before she would go to work her second job at eleven that night.
I tell him about how my dad died before I was born, about how my siblings had memories of him, but wouldn't talk about him, no matter how much I would ask. How I would catch my mom sometimes sobbing over pot full of noodles while she was cooking. I tell him about how my Jenna, the oldest of us, used to let me sleep with her when I couldn't sleep. About how she was the only one who would ever tell me anything about dad. It was always when I woke up from a terrible nightmare. I would dream I was in the kitchen, and there was a pot on the stove. Mom wasn't anywhere around and the pot would fall off. I would wake up screaming from being scalded. Jenna would run in and get me, and we would go to her room. She would tell me about how dad used to come home from work in his fireman shirt and ratted out jeans, untie his work boots and place them by the door, and hug each of his kids before he sat down for the night. She would hug me to her, stroke my hair, and tell me wild stories about our dad, the hero of the town, fighting fires and rescuing kitties until I fell asleep.
I tell him about mom's funeral when I was only eighteen. I tell him about Jen's two years later. She killed herself.
I tell him about my high school girlfriend, Missy, and about my best friend John, and how they've been married for six years now and have just as many kids. I tell him about Barbara, about how we were off and on for the past five years, about how she was always flakey, about how she was probably off screwing some other guy right now, and I didn't have a shit to give.
I tell him about my buddies from work, about Paul, and Ryan, and Sam, and about how I missed working with them. I tell him about how it feels to be scared out of your mind, running into a burning building, not knowing if you'll come out. I tell him about how it feels to carry a child out to his mother, safe and sound, and how great it feels to see the look on her face.
He tells me "You've done well, today, Jerry." I tell him thanks and let myself out.
At the front desk, Laura asks me how it went. "Better," I say.
She slips a note in with my appointment card. "Dr. Brooker told me to give you this. Its a note for physical therapy."
I go to physical therapy twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Its good for me. My trainer, Jake, is a young twenty-something year old, straight out of school. He says I can use the gym anytime I want, its open to everyone in therapy. Jake bends my legs back, making the muscles expand and contract. I hear my knees pop from disuse. I have never felt so helpless in my life. He shows me how to use exercise bands to curl my legs up and tells me to do this every night. I do.
On Wednesday, I go back to Dr. Brooker. Laura smiles at me from the front window, then waves me back. Today, Dr. Brooker wants to talk about the accident.
"The accident?" I ask. My palms suddenly get moist and the room gets too warm.
"Yes, Jerry. The accident that brings you here in the first place." I gulp. "Well, go on," he prompts.
I take a deep breath. "We got a call about a routine kitchen fire in an apartment downtown. It was me, Paul, Ryan, Sam, and this new Kid on the job. We got to the building and it turns out it was my old building. Actually, it was the exact apartment I grew up in. I didn't tell the guys; I thought I could handle it. They sent me and the new Kid in. He had been on the team for about a month or two. This was his first time going in..."
I stopped talking. Brooker told me to keep going, that it would make it better. I took a deep breath and continued. "Anyway, we went in. I don't remember hearing Sam's voice on the radio telling us where to go. I knew where to go. So me and the Kid were running up the stairs to the third floor to get the occupants out. Paul and Ryan were hosing from the outside, but it wasn't doing much good. We got in the door, me and the Kid, and the fire leapt out at us. I ran in to check the rooms on the left, the Kid to the right. He got all the bedrooms. There were two kids. Sam told us the parents already got out. I checked my mom's old room and the kitchen. And suddenly, I was the kid again. The kid from my dreams, standing at the stove looking at the pot tip. I was frozen.
"I heard the new Kid say he's got one of the kids from the back room. Then I noticed, for the first time since I've been a firefighter, I noticed the heat. The unbearable, scalding heat. The Kid said he's coming back up. He yelled at me for a location, but I couldn't talk. Next thing I know, he's got me around the waist and is hauling me out of the building. We got to the entryway when the ceiling collapsed and fell on us. I blacked out. When I came to, I was in the hospital, had been for a week. The first thing they told me was that the Kid was dead. His name was Alex, same as my brother's.
"When I tried to get out of that bed, to get to up and do something, anything to make sure that it was real, I couldn't move." I sniff. "I couldn't move..." And that's it. I break down in his office.
Mondays I work out. Tuesdays were physical therapy. Wednesdays were spent with Dr. Brooker. Thursdays were with Jake again. And Fridays were weights by myself. Jake kept on with my physical therapy, but every time we met, he made me try to wiggle my toes. At therapy with Dr. Brooker, we practiced remembering what it felt like to move our legs. Recovery was going slowly. Actually, there's no progress at all. Ha. Shows what Barbra knew. She pushed me to do therapy for a year after the accident.
Four months after the therapy started, I am still going to see Herman. I wake up to get ready for therapy, and swing myself out of bed. I attempt to wiggle my toes.
And they move.
Oh, my God. My toes moved.
I rolled as fast as I could into Dr. Brooker's office. "Laura, Laura! Look!" I wiggled my toes.
"Oh my gosh! Ian!" She ran around the desk and hugged me. "Doctor! Doctor!" She pushed me through the door as quickly as she could "Doctor, watch this!"
I wiggled my toes again.
"You would understand if I came back later today, right?" I asked him.
"No, no, Jerry, that's fine. Go!"
I rolled out of there as fast as I could, til I got to the physical therapy center. "Jake! Jake!" I hollered.
Jake came running around the corner "Ian?"
"Watch!" I wiggled my toes. After a split second of shocked silence, he grabbed my chair and rolled me to the therapy room.
"Wiggle your toes again." I did. "Now try your ankle." I tried to move my ankle. My foot went up and back down about a half a centimeter. Same with the other foot. "Come back in tomorrow. Keep trying that ankle tonight. Do your stretches. I'll see you in the morning."
I get back in Dr. Herman's office, and I'm bombarded with questions. "What happened between last week and now to give you the ability to move?" was the first one.
"Well, this didn't happen until this morning. I'm as shocked as you are, honest, Doc."
"So, what caused it?"
"I... I dreamed about the ocean. I was standing on the beach with Alex. We were talking. The water was so warm... I buried my feet in the sand... And then I woke up, and I could move my toes."
"I believe that, coupled with your steady improvement in therapy, may be bringing your mind back to the state it was in before the accident."
"Why do you think we've been making you relive your past?" I shrug. "To get you to cope with your accident. It wasn't your fault that your old apartment caught on fire. It wasn't your fault Alex died. And by accepting that fact, you've been slowly releasing yourself from your mind. Alex in your dream was your mind's way of accepting his death."
Therapy improves much more quickly now. In six weeks, I have full control of my toes and ankles. Two months later, I can bend my knees. Three months, and I'm standing up and moving around on crutches. By November, two years and nine months after my accident, I'm only using a cane to hold myself up. Jake and I work on strengthening my muscles. I walk on a treadmill, and I'm slowly working my way up to running. Dr. Brooker and I still meet and discuss life. He still calls me Jerry. I realize that it doesn't bother me anymore.
My old fire department holds a ceremony for me in February. Three years after the accident. They ask me to come back to work. I accept. Then they ask me to speak. I do. I thank my therapists, I thank Laura, and Dr. Brooker, and Jake. I thank my friends and team for their support. I thank the fire department for the chance to rejoin them. I look out to the crowd and see all the faces.
After the ceremony, I talk to Sam. He tells me he's had injured men before, but never have they bounced back quite like me. He's lost men before, so losing the Kid wasn't as bad for him. I talk to Ryan, who says he's glad to have me back. We joke around for a few minutes. I can tell it's been hard on him, the past three years. His hair is more grey, he has bags under his eyes, and his face was more lined than when I last saw him. I guess losing Alex was bad for him too. Before I leave, he claps me on the back and says "Its nice to have you back, Ian."
Paul was next. I walk over to his table and I'm shocked to see Barbara sitting with him, her hand in his lap clearly visible. "Hey, man," I say.
"Oh, hey Ian. Its good to see you again."
"I'm sure it is. Barbara." I nod in her direction.
"Ian! It's so good to see you!" She stands up to hug me. I cringe at the sound of her saying my name. I guess some things you don't ever get over, I think as she wraps her arms around me. "I missed you," she whispers in my ear.
"Don't let your new boy toy hear you, he might get angry," I whisper back. She looks fed up with me. "So, Paul, how have you been?" He's been doing well, he and Barbara have been together for the past year or so. Can't say I'm upset.
Next I go talk to Jake, who's talking to Laura. They're going to get coffee later.
I save Dr. Brooker for last. "Hey, Doc."
"Hmm? Oh, hello, Jerry."
"Doc, you know that's not my name, right?
"I know. I'm proud of you, Ian," he says. "I called you Jerry because I wanted you to feel comfortable talking about your experiences. If you pretended to be someone else, you would be more willing to talk."
"Oh. Thanks, Doc. For everything."