So, I fell on the ice and broke the elbow of my left, my writing hand. Of course, writing isn't what you're thinking about at the time. First there's the trip to the emergency room, the exam, the X-rays, the splint, and the shot of Dilaudid that sends you to the moon. The next day, the consult with the orthopedic surgeon. I had smashed the elbow bone itself as well as broken the radial bone where it meets the elbow. "Let's get you right into surgery," the doctor said, and so I went.
Then came the wisecracking, competent nurses, the blood sample drawn, the EKG, the procession of health professionals asking me to rate my pain on a scale of 1 to 10, state my full name and date of birth, and had I ever suffered from nosebleeds or cancer or anything in between? The operating room was bright and bewildering. "You're going to be asleep in 30 seconds," the anesthetist said. "I'm still awake," I told him at about the 29th second, and then I was out. In a process that I'm curious about, in a gruesome way, holes were drilled in my elbow bone and steel rods and wires inserted to stabilize it.
Back home. I now had an immobilized and heavily bandaged arm that weighed about 50 pounds. Writing? It was hard enough to take a shower and dress. I cut the sleeves off of a few shirts and sweatshirts so I'd have something to wear in the February cold. I had bills due, and friends wrote out my checks for me. I actually have some ability to write with my non-dominant hand, useful for chicken-scratching my name on surgical permission forms but not much else. Other people had to do things like open cans of dog food for me and change the pillowcases.
After a couple of weeks, I reached a point where people would ask me how I was doing and I'd tell them, "Do you know the part in A Fistful of Dollars when Clint Eastwood gets the crap beat out of him and escapes in a coffin and then crawls around in a cave, recovering? I'm in the cave." The surgeon said I was healing well; everything was just going to take time. But I'd been in the middle of a new writing project, and I was anxious to return to it. There is such a thing as momentum sustained and momentum lost. Once I got through 10 days of an anesthesia hangover that made me feel funky and ill, during which I had to allot three hours for even the smallest household task, I was ready to get back to writing, at least most of me was.
My writing process has always moved fitfully between a keyboard of some sort and composing by hand on yellow legal tablets. I'd probably still be using my old electric typewriter if it hadn't finally broken down beyond repair. "You write on a typewriter?" a scandalized acquaintance once asked. "Just like Shakespeare," I replied cheerfully. I liked scribbling, then crossing out words, then going back to see what I'd crossed out. I liked typing up a clean copy, then re-reading it and doing more scribbling, then retyping. Finally, and with some reluctance, I moved over to a computer, like the rest of the world, though I still print out different versions of drafts so I can recline on the couch, rifle through the pages and scribble some more.
From the very first days of my recovery, I could use one hand to peck out emails. But capital letters were beyond me, and somehow you make more mistakes when you can't position both hands in the usual QWERTY. And I couldn't. Even once my enormous surgical bandage was removed, it was impossible to rotate my arm either palm up or palm down. Pronation and supination these are called, I came to learn. There was a lot of post-surgical swelling, and I didn't have enough hand strength to even pick up a piece of paper.
You have to expect some of this, and you have to be patient, which is a virtue I am not famous for possessing. But there's always the fear that you might not make a sufficient recovery and might be limited to one-handed typing until the end of your days. Of course, you think about writers who have coped with this and with worse disabilities: Christy Brown and his left foot, Carson McCullers after her strokes, tap tap tapping out a page a day, and Stephen Hawking with his specialized computer and voice synthesizer. And you admire them, but you don't necessarily want to join their company. Someone made the suggestion that I try using voice recognition software. It was not well received.
Writing process can be hard to separate from writing product. Everyone has their own and their own requirements, so it can be perilous to interfere with any part of a writer's routine. Maybe some of this has to do with brain pathways, the trail that language follows to get from invisible impulse to tangible artifact. Maybe it's also superstitious, our fear of snuffing the flame that's so difficult to keep going if we change what has worked before. In any case, I didn't welcome the idea of giving dictation to a human or a machine.
I also had a different and unforeseen problem: It hurt to even sit at the computer. The ergonomics of the dining room table and the dining room chair where I was accustomed to sit were probably not that good to begin with, and now they worked against me. Something about the positioning of shoulder, hurt elbow, and swollen arm worked to make more than a few minutes typing painful. I tried bringing up a side chair and loading it with pillows, I tried lying in bed with the laptop on my actual lap. No dice.
My emails were getting brief, even telegraphic. My manuscript languished. I brooded, wondering if I was going to have to put aside full-length stories and novels and write flash fiction from here on out.
Then, about a month after my surgery, when I was finally able to wear clothes with buttons and zippers again, and without being at all aware of it, my left hand rotated over the keyboard. Cautiously, I typed some of my favorite letters: a, s, c, r. It would take me another week to depress the shift key properly, but soon I would have no more excuses. Welcome back, left hand. We have work to do.