Taking Life for Granted

Wednesday, August 23rd, 2023

By Robert C. Koehler

Realizing that I’ve been taking something for granted — one grain of infinity — is never an abstraction. It generally happens by whack and wallop.

Oh yeah, the knee. The knee. It’s kind of important.

A crucial part of the realization process is acknowledgment. Maybe even learning something. So, pardon the details I’m about to reveal, but I’m trying to figure out what I may have just learned these past few days, even as I call out to the universe: “Enough!” I don’t want any more life lessons for a while. (Come on, I’m only 77.)

So what happened was, my long-time buddy, Malcolm — we’ve been best friends since 1967 — came to town for a visit last week. Wow, cool. Two long-time-ago hippies on their own in Chicago. The world felt wide open. And I was host. However, the day of his arrival — as I lay in bed that morning — my right knee woke me up with a piercing poke in my consciousness. No, not again!

Yeah, this had happened before. Knee pain. I’d seen a doctor, had x-rays taken, gotten a cortisone injection. The pain stopped, my hobbling stopped, I felt in control of my life again. So, for this piercing poke in the joint to reappear a few hours before Malcolm’s arrival . . . not fair! I was determined to remain a functioning host. Things weren’t that bad. Just a little pain. But I could still, for instance, drive. I took us to a restaurant for dinner. Yeah, this’ll pass. We’ll have a great time.

And then things got worse. Next morning, it wasn’t just knee pain. Something new got added: excruciating ankle pain, seeming to come out of nowhere. Both knee and ankle were in the right leg, basically turning me into a one-legged guy. Standing up was an act of desperation. Moving a short distance was even worse. I was no longer the host. I was the guy on the couch — much of the time asleep, just because awakeness was too difficult. What was going on? I’d be lying there, then the ankle would quiver and twitch in pain and I’d lurch, then slowly drift back out of consciousness.

Malcolm, my guest, took care of everything. He walked to the market, bought a bunch of beans, made chili. He got everything I needed. He took the laundry downstairs and put it in the washing machine and, of course, eventually brought it back up. When he wasn’t working on something — and when I wasn’t asleep — he’d sit next to me on the couch and we’d talk. Oh, life!

This was not, you might guess, the visit either of us had anticipated, but he said — with occasional big smiles—that he was enjoying himself. It was as though we were getting to know each other at a level beyond the ordinary bounds of friendship, even best-friendship. This was something new. He was inside my life.

And finally we decided, two days into the visit, that I needed to go to the doctor. It was more Malcolm than me deciding this, because I was, at least partially, determined to transcend the pain, be bigger than it — to ‘defeat” it, or at least magically make it go away. Plus I couldn’t organize seeing the doc on my own. The plan was that he’d drive me to the clinic — an immediate care facility — that I’d been to several months earlier. We also understood that I couldn’t get out to the car on my own, or even with his help. He called 911.

Yeah, that was a first. I’d never been the subject of a 911 call. A firetruck showed up and four, or maybe it was five, firemen came to my door with a folding chair. I sat down, leaned back, and they ported me down the porch steps — in the rain, no less. This was not easy for them. The load was heavy, the steps were slippery. And being the liftee, wow, what a strange sense of helplessness.

They got me to my car. Malcolm drove to the clinic and wheeled me in. More x-rays. This was anything but easy, lifting myself out of the wheelchair, flopping onto the x-ray table. God have mercy!

But the doc was friendly and positive and she remembered me from my previous visit. She diagnosed my situation as both gout, in the ankle, and pseudo-gout in the knee, prescribing both pain and an anti-arthritic medication, and a short while later we were on our way back home. It was still raining.

Not hard. Just a drizzle. But it seemed to add a special buzz of strangeness to the day. And when we got back to the house — go figure! There weren’t any firemen waiting for us. Malcolm, two years my senior, was my only steadying force in this moment — helping me exit the car and then, holding me from behind, helping me walk with my cane and one functioning leg up the steps. This is where the “taking something for granted” part hit with full force.

Praise be for walking! What a miracle. What a wonder. When I got inside and collapsed on the couch, I let my mind comb the world and think about . . . oh, war, whatever. The stolen ability to walk, to simply be. Other people’s struggles are not an abstraction. Let me know this like I have never known this before. Let me never take life, theirs or mine, for granted again.

Then Malcolm drove to the drugstore and picked up my prescriptions. When he got back, he said, “My treat.”

The next morning, which happened to be my birthday, I couldn’t believe it. Both the knee and the ankle pain had vanished. I could walk again. And Malcolm headed off to the airport. His visit was over.

As I watched him leave, I found myself swimming in emotional wonder. We’ve been best friends for 56 years. Suddenly the awe I felt for our friendship — our love — was beyond comprehension.