With a Little Help from My Friends
Sunday, November 30, 2014
With a Little Help from My Friends
How is this for a photo? Enjoying Italy flat on my back from my Calitri bed, the only saving grace, the beautiful view beyond our balcony doors toward Doctor Galgano's home on Monte Calvario! Just the man I needed to see and badly at that moment. Let me explain.
I recall delivering newspapers as a kid. Each day when I entered the Angler’s Bar and Grill in my hometown, wizened men at the bar would call out, “Hey kid, what’s the number?” In those days, each day at the bottom of the newspaper's front page, there was a long number. Supposedly it was the US Treasury Balance. Appearing like clockwork as it did, just how it was accurately determined and of what value it had, I have only one possible explanation. It wasn’t that the bar patrons or the newspaper publisher, for that matter, were interested in the state of the nation’s finances. Not even close. They were more interested in their own fortunes, for the last few digits were a sort of roulette wheel of a lottery! Mind you, this was long before the advent to state lotteries and the ubiquitous scratch ticket. For all I knew there was some bookie down at the press in charge. You can imagine how popular a lad I was whenever I strode in, the herald of possible great fortune! Moreover, it was appreciated, for every Friday in beloved routine, when I’d arrive with the expectant news, there at the far end of the bar under a wall-mounted glass case, enshrining what in my estimation was a gargantuan, all-time record lobster, with claws approaching the size of catcher’s mitts, an iced orange soda awaited. Patrons and lobster aside, it was I who each Friday was the winner! Throughout my life, I've felt not lucky per se, more like fortunate. Things just seemed to fall into place and go my way. It was as if someone were looking out for me, some invisible mentor. If you're spiritually minded, it's easy to imagine a sort of guardian angel assigned to guide and protect, something equivalent to today's “helicopter mom” looking out for you. I doubt it though, along with any skewed luck in my favor. My invisible mentor, turns out, was nothing more than good old fashioned planning and persistence, put into action when preparation came face to face with opportunity. Yet there are times things go wrong irrespective of the best of plans or how hard you try. Clearly, we are far from being in total control. Take for example this trip. Plan though I had, I hadn't planned for the predicament I now found myself in, not even close. I couldn't walk, having developed what my British friends might call an unfortunate alliance - me and pain! I'd now somehow become the lobster, shielded by glass from the world outside, my mitts eager to be doing something, anything, yet lying idle at my side.
My malady hadn’t originated from some obvious trauma. A specific incident that put me down, eludes me. Most likely, it was due to an accumulation of self-inflicted physical insults to my frame the week following our arrival in Calitri. Walking along cobbled streets is the norm there, the only repercussion some much needed exercise. It was opening up our long awaited new terrace and preparing for guests that I suspect was the culprit. In understatement, I can say I had overexerted myself. Never satisfied doing things by halves, I'd overworked, all in a brief number of days. My "to-do-list" got the better of me. There had been much to do … painting the terrace walls a butterfly yellow from atop a ladder being just one. The killers I suspect were, in no particular order, lugging a barbecue and bombola gas-bottle in from the piazza then up the “Stairway to Heaven” to the terrace, followed in the days to come by a patio table and six chairs. What the French call the “pièce de résistance”, or in my case more appropriately the killer event, was transporting a cantilevered umbrella and fixing it in place with four concrete slabs! Who was I kidding? As I kept busy, feeling nothing, my back accumulated the abuse, all the while preparing to protest, going on strike in fact. As I said, it was insidious for it took about a week before it hit me. At first all was calm, then like an avalanche the pain struck. From his lofty terrace perch, “Big Bird” was down and stayed that way, all told, for two weeks. A week into it I felt mended enough to take a walk outside. That’s when the spasms kicked in. I’d deceived myself on how I felt. From that point on I couldn’t stand, let alone get out of bed. I recall remarking to Maria Elena how the muscle contractions I was experiencing had to have been close to birth pains. Her only council was a smirky look and a comment on how naive we males were. It was enough for me, however, to believe that if roles were reversed and men had to experience even this amount of pain in childbirth, there would be very few babies and then only if the world had experienced a drastic dip in population and we males had first received an order ordained by the UN, NSA, the WHO, along with the endorsement of Toys-R-Us!
After a while, even with that beautiful view of Mount Calvario rising from the base of the borgo and the doctor’s villa, guarded by five majestic "pina" umbrella pines visible through ten toes beyond the doors of our Juliet balcony, you can’t imagine how bored I’d become. Even a fly that insisted on circling and circling and circling in front of the open balcony doors, occasionally joined in formation by two more of its kind, lost its entertainment value. I gave up wondering how they managed to circle for hours. Didn’t they get tired, as tired as I was watching them? By then, the easy 'one star' pages of my Sudoku puzzle booklet filled with ones through nines, I was approaching the need for a mental health day, but then wasn’t every day a mental health day in retirement! I was literally retired, "retired" to my bed that is, all comfy so long as I didn't move, but forever itching to somehow resurrect and get out of there. This time around, we were missing so much of Italy out there beyond our balcony portal on the world.
At the time it was nearing Halloween and the “trick”, not treat, was definitely on me. As I'd made my trips back and forth from the town square piazza with my various loads, I was eventually accompanied by a black cat. I’d always understood that when a cat, which of course had to be black, crossed your path, it was believed to be a harbinger of bad luck. I remember thinking at the time that, just maybe, when it walks along ahead of you, not crossing your path, it can’t be so terrible a case of bad luck, if any at all. Again, who was I fooling? Maybe myself but certainly not that cat?
Cats aside, there were many theories among our local friends as to how I’d come by this injury. However they went, they would invariably circle around to the dreaded draft, seemingly the root cause of all illness. For Italians, a key to staying well, one of life’s rules it seems, was to avoid drafts at all costs. Especially vulnerable was the neck. This cause and effect rule had been ingrained in them from childhood, its strict observance visibly evident by the coils of scarves around their necks, regardless of the weather. I’d clearly been attacked by the air! While the scenery and food may be just phenomenal, Italian air is somehow bad, at times deadly dangerous. God save you if it’s moving! I’d apparently fallen victim to the colpo d'aria or the "blast of air" disease. It was much like the time Mare developed a sore neck, a trip or so back. The antagonist in her case, it was explained, was the air conditioner in our car or possibly its accomplice, again air, this time from a cracked window. Whichever the source, the blowing air on her neck had resulted in her physical symptom, a painfully blocked eustachian tube. For my ailment, the most interesting of theories was that I’d worked up a sweat porting things and later working up on the new terrazzo. The breeze up there then went to work and voilà, the back pain developed followed whenever I moved by violent attacks of muscle spasms. The general belief being, if you sweat, you are definitely taking a risk and absolutely asking for trouble if there is any air movement. Difficult though it may be for a foreigner like me to understand, I couldn’t help but wonder how someone like Columbus, for instance, with his sweating fellow Italian seafarers could have remained healthy under their billowing sails!
Oh, I'd had back problems before. I point an accusing finger at my flying days, where flight after flight the weight of a parachute on my back gradually took its toll. Tall as I am, the spacer in the ejection seat, meant to support the weight of the chute, was a smidgen too short for my long spine. Thereafter, my back pain gradually became my new normal, coming in fits and starts. The fits usually in the late spring and starts in the fall, seemingly connected with work around the house, now apparently irrespective of which house. It was easy to think of my body as a used car, its odometer continuing to fill with road-weary miles, surely on the order of 200,000 miles or so by now. You’d hope all you needed to do was occasionally replace the windshield wipers and change the oil, avoiding any serious problems with, for example, the rear end or transmission. This time, unfortunately, half a world away, I’d developed a major load-bearing axel problem, clearly in the rear end!
Mare had stepped in and picked up the slack. Beside taking care of me, daily she made forays into town for whatever we might need. It was part of the “for better or worse” clause, here definitely tipped toward the worst side of things. We’d usually walked downtown together, but now for the first time, Maria Elena was handling many of the things I usually did … the bank, ATM machine, pharmacy, etc., if not accompanied by a friend, then entirely on her own. After what had been happening and now my worsening condition going on almost two weeks by then, Mare began to worry. How in God's name will we ever get home? Our return plans lay in waste. We needed a new plan for renewed hope. We could of course have just stayed longer, until I mended, but Mare had issues herself, requiring medical attention, long before I began playing "dead bug” and the “I can’t get up” routine. We needed to get back stateside. Thoughts like "Would I need to be medivaced?” or "Could I wait this out?" eventually became rational. In the end, sort of a combination of both occurred. It got to the point that, even without me, she went to a doctor’s office for aiuto (help)! It proved to be what broke the logjam.
The lyrics of a familiar Beatles refrain easily comes to mind, “Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends … Mm, gonna try with a little help from my friends.” It's true. As I write this only weeks following our return, if it hadn’t been for the help of our Calitri friends, I believe we might still be there. Once our friends got involved, things began to happen very much for the better. Obsessed, as Italians are, with getting well and staying well, I couldn’t have asked for better backing (no pun intended). Many had been involved and I know many more would have pitched-in if they had known of our situation. Though I know I’m not remembering everyone, here briefly is a list of those I especially recall helping out. In addition to shedding light on how each lent a hand, it helps flesh-out a little more of the story.
· Bernie and Gerry, for though they left Calitri before my schiena (back) reached the spasm stage, they gladly relocated an entire dinner party, really a feast, to our home when there was no way I could get to theirs.
· Titti, while not feeling well herself, for serving as our Italian language communications switchboard and coordinator, making calls to Canio and Peppe, and who knows who where else, on my behalf.
· Dr Canio who saw Mare, accompanied by Gerri, in his office, even while his mother lay dying from a stroke. He initially provide her with oral medication to reduce the inflammation and pain. His office closed only hours later when his mother passed away.
· Canio, who we came to know from the construction of our terrazzo and who has since become a cherished friend, for getting us a doctor, his doctor, to make a house call to our home and giving me that first miracle shot in my rump! This after Canio realizing my predicament after coming by with a crutch he thought might help me maneuver.
· Dr Antonio, Canio’s family physician, who at Canio’s behest made an evening house-call after he closed his office, proclaiming “a friend of a friend is also a friend”. At first, he wanted me to come to his office the next day. Once I explained that I couldn't get out of bed and my surprise that he just wouldn't give me a shot right then, he reconsidered, opened his satchel and administered the injection then and there. As for the shot, I’m not sure what was in it – some combination of cortisone and an anti-inflammatory. To sooth my stomach, after the injection, he also prescribed an oral jell. I recall its vanilla flavor, remindful of the yogurt snacks our grandkids inhale back home. His visit turned the tide and made all the difference, giving us renewed hope I would be mobile enough to make a hastily planned commercial flight. Hippocratic Oath aside, don't let it be said doctors don't make house-calls anymore!
· Peppe, for his constant concern for my welfare beginning when he contacted his English speaking daughter, way off in Asti, to call me when I’d not shown up, as expected, for the grape harvest. Later when Titti asked him about crutches, Peppe came right over only to depart and return within 30 minutes with just the pair we needed for the flight home. The crutches arrived along with a bag of his grapes of course!
· Jim who provided me with a Louis L'amour adventure novel, “Last of the Breed” (about another downed pilot!) that keep me occupied as I lay there day after day (I’m a slow reader).
· Visitors Antonio, Sigi and Vincenzina who stopped by to see how we were managing. I enjoyed their visits for they took my mind off things and helped me pass the hours. It was especially nice of Sigi to offer to go for a walk with Mare along the old Path of Cupa in the countryside, close to town. It got her out of the house for an afternoon away from miserable me.
· Declan, who while at the fish market heard I was ailing, came right over to offer us any help we might need. He eventually rented a car to drive us to the airport, arranged for a wheelchair with the airlines at every stop and even came over to help Mare pack things away on the terrazzo for the winter. He also brought us DVDs to watch while I was lay there those many days. Too bad I couldn't make it to the TV!
· Gerri, for her wheels, continued support, phone calls and the numerous trips she made with Maria Elena from start to end … to the doctor, the pharmacy, the post office, phone store - all over town ... wonderfully supporting Mare as she picked up the slack caused by my immobility and did everything to tie up loose ends before we could depart.
· Our neighbor, Teresa, for her rubbing alcohol, which per the doctor, no home should be without. Of course, as you might guess, in Calitri the only alcohol we had was the shelf type, for drinking, not medicinal purposes. Not surprisingly, when I proposed a bottle of Irish whiskey as a disinfectant before that first injection, the doctor declined my offer with a smile. He needed something for my outside, not my insides! I must have watched too many Western movies. In the dark of the night, Mare then went door to door only to return with the approved type of antiseptic, thanks to Teresa.
· Another neighbor, this one Gerarda, who when the doctor also asked us for cotton balls, another thing no Italian home should ever lack, came through by supplying our urgent need while the doctor waited by my bedside. Here again, other than for cotton tipped swabs in our medicine cabinet, we were deficient. A day later, when Mare followed-up and visited Dr. Antonio's office, she surprisingly returned with additional hypos and drug vials. They needed to be administered nightly. When we hadn't a clue how to do it, Gerarda contacted her son, Gaetano, a male nurse for help. While a doctor may prescribe an injection, he only gives you a prescription for the meds. You, the patient, must then obtain the vials and hypodermic needles at a pharmacy. It's also up to you to find someone to administer the injection. This is not too difficult if you are mobile, for there are laboratories and clinics where you can go have it done. If you can’t get out of the house, however, you must find someone who is trained to administer injections to come to you. I can honestly say there was no way I was going to do it to myself. Even Maria Elena recoiled at the suggestion she might play doctor. Like a godsend, Gaetano came by after work in the hospital to professionally perform the deed. He did this two nights in a row. The vials containing the miracle elixir were also like none we’d ever seen. Instead of having rubber topped caps to insert needles through for filling, these tops were of glass. Most likely their design was intended for one-time use. To fill a needle, Gartano first had to snap off the top and then through the resulting opening, insert the needle. He also had to combine the contents of two different drugs from two different vials for each injection - all of one and half of the other. Better him than either of us! Instead, God had provided the angle, Gaetano! Although I tensed each time, I never felt the prick of the needles! He was that good, although I never wish to call on his services again! Yes, as we discovered, things worked a little differently in Italy or at least in Calitri. We were after all raw recruits drawn into the Italian medical system by circumstance.
· Emma, our house manager, who suggested we just leave the house on departure day, offering to take care of cleaning things up, even taking care of the trash and any recycling.
So there you have it, the long and not so short of it - my downfall and my eventual medically assisted resurrection. The shots were enough to see us home. While now it is an easy story to tell, at the time we had no idea where my plight would lead. In the end, recovered to an upright position once again, I wouldn't have been surprised if a baby, complete with umbilical cord as in the ending scene of Kubrick's classic 2001: A Space Odyssey", hadn't floated by displacing my now familiar orbiting companions by the balcony! I felt reborn. If you no longer hear any background violin music playing, you can be assured that my woe is me story is now complete, though again I doubt succinctly. All that remains is for me to express my sincere thanks for the help of all those who took part in helping to get me shipped home. I'll finish by simply saying that a friend is someone who changes your life for the better just by being part of it, for a friend can make a dark and empty day suddenly seem bright and full. Many might say, "I'll be there when you say you need me" but the words that are unheard from a true friend are, "I'll be there whether you say you need me or not." I can vouch for the veracity of this adage, and each and every one of my Samaritans. They all live in Calitri!
From that Rogue Tourist
Posted by Paolo and Maria Elena at 8:59 AM