Rising Over the Smoke

What’s next, last twelve months?

Twelve months and counting it is since a less-than-stellar year began in an individually rough manner for me, starting in February 2020.

A big downshift in the way I live my life, marginally because of Covid 19 and the social chaos of racial justice and political upheavals began the first week of February.  Much of this downgrading is due to my paralytic polio.

It was the year when I had to stop walking, probably forever.  To me this was a do-what-you-have-to do decision, not happy, not sad.  Since paralytic polio sickened me back when I was five years old I’ve been more paralyzed than not below the shoulders.  Just enough trunk muscles on the left side to cause a bad scoliosis over time, nothing moving in the legs except two right middle toes that can curl a bit.  

Polio survivors (of whom, luckily, there are nearly no new recruits in most of the world thanks to a vaccine) are nothing if not rugged, so on I went for over six decades, the early parts of which are detailed in the Polio Blog section.  Doctors, my husband and concerned people told me over the years that walking around with long wooden crutches would damage the nerves under my arms, etc., etc.  I paid attention, tried alternative, shorter crutches repeatedly — but could never make much use of them due to balance issues inherent in walking with two long leg braces. 

Those advisors were right, dead on.

Bright and early last February, a terrible pain struck my left shoulder, and I figured that the rotator cuff might have a tear.  Something similar had happened six or seven years earlier with the other shoulder, which gradually recovered under its own steam.  The left shoulder felt like it was doing the same until early August, when similar pain knocked me flat again. 

The day of that first February pain I sadly, but determinedly removed my braces, putting them and the crutches out of sight in the closet.  And began the slow change over to the life of a full time wheelchair user.  That August night I lay in bed wondering how I could live my life if left with solely one functional arm left  from the four good limbs I was born with.

I tried to see my doctor to get set up for an MRI, but the man was out of his office for over two months, due to his wife’s illness;  nobody close by was covering for him.  I risked a visit to the Emergency Room, which was hard hit by Covid 19, down the street from home.  In spite of having a loud, gusty cough shot in my direction by a man who ripped off his mask just before he let loose, I departed from the ER without a looming case of Covid, with no path to an MRI, and a cortisone shot in the shoulder to placate me.

Luckily for me I already possess a power wheelchair that reclines, has a raising footrest, tilts if you want it to, and the seat lifts high enough to reach some kitchen shelves, to look people in the eye from a normal height.

Still, it’s a confining situation to be in.  No more small cars for me, no more getting into people’s homes if there’s much of a step or, horrors, stairs.  No more using small bathrooms when out and about.  

But hardest of all — No More Exercising.  Because of the shoulder so far even arm exercises don’t work.   So here I am in my comfy chair that goes everywhere with me, slowly getting pudgier. The compressed discs in my lower spine are scrunching further, which hurts.  My toes are going numb from so much sitting.   These latter effects have slowly been unfolding over the last year while the raging pandemic around here has affected my ability to do a lot about it.  That plus a strong desire to avoid major orthopedic surgeries if I can help it.

My doctor a veteran of some forty years of practice in this small city, eventually did come back. He ordered an x-ray, which shows a bone spur in the shoulder joint.

However, others have far, far harder tests all around the world.  There’s the pandemic, and as of this writing we are living in one of the hardest hit sections of California.  ICU capacity has stood at 0% for several weeks now.  In Los Angeles County ambulance personnel have been told not to transport patients with a low chance for survival (such as no heartbeat after CPR), as well as to conserve oxygen.  Some hospitals have set up areas for ambulances to park while waiting, sometimes for many hours, to transfer care of a patient to the hospital.

Happily, I’m an introvert so the lock down part hasn’t upset me dreadfully.  My daughter is doing well, my son-in-law is a journalist who can work from home easily enough, and their little boy — about eighteen months old now —   never lets his people get down in the dumps for long.  If all else fails the little fellow will get so fired up about something that it knocks any concerns of one’s own into left field.  Mostly, however, he’s already an accomplished entertainer.  He loves to dance and to drum, and demands music and nature videos frequently.  He is also into naming things, getting somebody to slowly say the name of one object after another.  His vocabulary is doing well, and the enunciation will be growing in time.

We all Zoom, to weddings, birthdays, meetings, and comforting devotional gatherings.  There are ways in which we are readily spending time with others whom we normally might encounter only on Facebook.  This is all good.

Of greater importance than my immediate self has been the historic wildfire season in California, the worst year for the number of acres that were blackened, for air quality up and down the entire American Pacific coast, and up a ways into Canada.  Heck, we ran out of wildfire type fire crews, so lots of Canadians were down here helping California, Oregon and Washington out.  In my neck of the woods we were in the shadow of the Creek Fire in the Sierra Madre Mountains, unable to be outdoors for days at a stretch.  

That fire started on Labor Day and wasn’t declared out until Christmas.  There were dozens of other major ones too.

For a time I took comfort in the ability of sequoia trees to resist fires.  A very necessary quality for organisms designed for life spans up to multiple thousands of years

We now live in the flat, agricultural and therefore irrigated Central Valley, sixty miles west of that fire.  Nevertheless the day-to-day fiery eruptions, concerns for the small settlements scattered around in the fire zone, for the huge losses to wildlife and, heart breakingly for tree-loving me, of hundreds of ancient sequoias — a species that evolved to survive typical forest fires of the past.  But these fires fed on the dense undergrowth of bushes and heaps of tree detritus.  Sequoias had long survived typical forest fires that stay lower down that these new wildfires.  Decades of fire suppression policy brought about a heavy, dense ground cover of bushes, small trees, dead branches and duff.  That made a lot of fuel for a fire to linger over.  Flames and spotting hit high enough to ignite sequoia foliage towering high over regular tall trees.  Once the needles are scorched a sequoia will die. 

One of those giants were as old as three thousand years.  Many were a thousand.  Luckily for history and for the future firefighters made an extraordinary effort to ring the roots of the three thousand year old tree with a sprinkler type system, made of fire hoses.  Last I heard the tree was surviving.

There’s another three thousand year old sequoia in Yosemite known as the Grizzly.  I wasn’t able to meet it during my visit two years ago.

All of this destruction will be rectifying itself in Earth’s own good time.  Say in five hundred years or so people will be able once again to stand under the long-lived giant trees in the Sierra National Forest and marvel at what they will have lived through.

I guess I rather marvel at how long it has been taking us, as people, to recognize the power we have had to lessen global warming, which is surely mingled with some natural hot, dry cycles.  I hope that things under human control will yet be turned around as much as possible.

Moving along with what has made this past year rough for me there have been the ongoing social uprisings that began in earnest last May after a cop with a weird facial expression killed the black man named George Floyd by kneeling on his necks for nearly nine minutes. This instantly ignited a world-wide firestorm regarding social justice for Black people.  The way, way, way overdue social justice.

I was in college during the late 1960s, and after what was occurring during those highly fraught days, I was mentally prepared for this year’s doings. My heart is united with this human rights movement.  I have powerful memories of Dr. Martin Luther King’s inspiring speeches, his jailings,  the vast crowds he drew in Washington D.C., his death and the aftermath, of Malcolm X and the rise of Islam, the beatings and police dog attacks suffered by John Lewis and others crossing the Edmund Petty Bridge (and elsewhere) in their quest for basic civil rights, the torture and death of a fourteen year old boy called Emmitt Till who dared to say something to a white woman, young black men at a lunch counter, four girls dying when a church was blown up, the rise of the Black Panthers, on and on.

So you could say I am entirely out of sympathy with the current White Supremacy movement.  I who am about as white as you can get, DNA-wise.  One of my recent happiest moments was when a young black nurses aide told me that “I don’t see you as white.”

Vividly I recall protests against the Vietnam War. Even I, hopping around Washington D.C. on the crutches and braces, got teargassed at the Pentagon at one point.  Nine years later I married a fellow who’d been heavily enough invested in the anti war effort to spend a couple of years in federal prison for helping to destroy draft records in a Chicago federal building,   Later we had to threaten court action to get the FBI to stop checking up on him in our doorway.  The late President Gerald Ford pardoned my husband.

All these decades later, though, I found myself quite unprepared for follies regarding the military that have gone on in this country of late.  My mind has been blown away — as we used to say — at the thought of sending the military (other than the National Guard) to quell civil unrest in American cities, of pulling US military out of places that very much needed those soldiers to remain a bit longer, of building a long-resisted border wall using military funds.  Above all I deplore  policies world wide that have older powerful people (mostly men) sending young people out to fight wars rather than being able to calm down, exercise self control, think of the greater human good more than of gains in power, economic advantage or influence.  Do they ever deliberately seek ways to consult together about alternatives?  I also have wished those older politicians would get together with younger men and women to create alternatives to caging immigrants and small children after using US soldiers to help police the Mexican border.

What is older age doing for the greater good if not to have accumulated enough wisdom to avoid armed conflicts over things that can be hashed out by non violent means?  Something that is important still has to give way to something that is more important.

I’m somebody who lives most vividly in my own mind, who goes round and round about  things that are unjust or otherwise unnecessarily wrong in the world, so there have been lots of sleepless nights during this Covid year.

Professor Albert Einstein said, “We cannot solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”  If wars, injustices and inequities are created at a physical level that is grounded in material considerations we need to move into a space guided with an authority which is widely respected.  In other words seeking answers that include a spiritual aspect.

To recognize the need to move to a different plane of thought more of us need to develop critical thinking ability.  Making sure that more and different kinds of people receive a good education is thus important.

Do these personal challenges, Covid 19, the electrifying civil unrest and insurrection, the unprecedented, widespread wildfires mean that 2020 was the worst year in human history in my mind?

Maybe to me.  Perhaps.  But to the world?  Heck no.  The Washington Post recently carried a list of worst years compiled by certain historians from Yale, Oxford, Stanford and other well known universities.  It included 1348 with the bubonic plague that killed well over half of all Europeans, the 2001 Twin Towers in New York City, the late 1960s with the anti-war and civil rights movements alongside three major assassinations, the Spanish Flu over a hundred years ago and 1862 with the Civil War, which threatened to dissolve the united part of the United States, as thousands and thousands were casualties.

So here we are,  adjusting to upheavals surrounding the upcoming inauguration of a new United States president near the end of the month in which I write these words.  People have died in a mob storming of Capitol Hill.  Intelligence people suggest there may be more to come.

With all my heart and mind I pray that people will become more enthusiastic about finding things to do together in order to bridge different viewpoints during the upcoming year.  More depends upon that happening than many are able to imagine at present.  Of that I am certain.

A StoryCorps tale

In February of 2020 we learned that the StoryCorps booth would be coming to the Fresno area in California during the summer months. My daughter, Jericha Rendon, put in a request for an appointment with the idea that she would like to interview me (Emily Lee) regarding my experiences growing up and living on with … Continue reading A StoryCorps tale


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