I’ve had the humbling experience of undergoing ankle surgery about 2 months ago. As a father of a near-two year old, and a husband, it has been extremely difficult to shift from the role of a provider and equal member of the household to a person initially very dependent on others.
My family and friends have been very supportive, and where we still needed some help, we were able to find babysitters, someone to help clean, and someone to do the annual fall clean-up.
I’ve progressed over the last month from a doped-up, leg-elevated, impression in my couch to a semi-functioning member of my family and society. I’m back to work, and trying to catch up on my PhD studies. Still, its a big challenge to hop from place to place, and occasionally catch a ride in a wheelchair during longer outings. Let’s just say that I’ve had plenty of time to think.
This experience has made me appreciate the small battles, triumphs, and failures that millions of disabled Americans face each day. I’ll never take for granted: a stand-up shower, shaving, or brushing my teeth (among other things) again. Another thing that I appreciate is how much more difficult it is to live up to one’s ideals (especially about environmental issues), when one is struggling to fulfill their basic daily needs independently, or is dependent on others for assistance. I’ll admit now that paper plates made a quick return to our household after I was laid up.
In some ways, my environmental impact was drastically reduced. I didn’t start driving for about a month after my surgery. No hot showers for the first two weeks, and now, since they are a huge pain in the butt, only every couple of days. Less eating out, less travel to visit relatives. Less coffee too (though I am back on that bandwagon). Being homebound slashed our driving and travel expenses and the accompanying energy consumption and emissions.
On the other hand, more meals of convenience (Digiorno’s pizza isn’t half-bad), less recycling, less peak-oil preps. Did I mention paper plates? More TV, more internet. More lights burning during the day. Switching my programmable thermostat basically to the “on” position.
How can you ask your wife, who has done so much for you over the past 8 weeks to, “oh by the way can you put the Halloween pumpkins in the compost pile instead of the garbage?” You don’t. You curse your misfortune while still counting your remaining blessings. You learn not to sweat the small stuff. You learn to become much more humble and more appreciative. And form lists in your head about all of the things that you’re going to do just as soon as you get off the damn crutches!
You also learn that forced reductions in energy consumption and environmental impact are not nearly as fulfilling as those made voluntarily (I commiserate with the recently laid-off employees, who must feel the same). The result is the same, but the motivations very different.
The last thing I’ll carp about is the trapped feeling and lack of contact with fresh air, the sun, and nature in general. Not being able to get out and experience the beautiful fall colors and crisp air did a number on my psyche. I relished two trips out – one to get pumpkins, the other to a county park – where my best friend dutifully pushed me in a borrowed wheelchair through the woods at dusk.
Can a one-legged man stay green? The answer is sure. Given all of the above, I’ve probably had less of a net impact on the environment than before the surgery. But it’s been a tough slog.
For those of you who know someone who is disabled – a family member, friend, neighbor – try to remember to drop off a nice home cooked meal (local ingredients and organic, if that is your thing – but any home-cooked food is better than out of a box), offer to take out their recycling, run some errands for them as long as you’re going to be out and about anyways, and if you can, just stop by on a nice sunny day and take them outside and sit in the warm sun and fresh air. You’ll never know how much they’ll appreciate it.