It has suddenly dawned on me that I only have a week left, not two, before returning back to work. That this is over. That a period of almost six months, a big, unprecedented chunk of time to get over the major knee surgery I had back in March (that feels, in ‘reality’ more like six weeks – it has passed so quickly I can hardly believe it), and which I thought would feel like an endless, half year sabbatical during which I would achieve all kinds of wonders – but failed to – is coming to a close as the summer ends, and autumn approaches, and the teaching begins, even though I am not remotely ready for it to do so.
I am not even, by any stretch, fully recovered. I had assumed that I would be walking pretty much normally; would be embarrassed by the fact that I was breezing into work all physically and mentally buff without the aid of any walking sticks, making it appear as though I have just been skiving off work without any reason, to the envy of my Japanese co-workers who have been slaving it through the summer and who cannot in a million years even imagine two weeks away from their jobs ( even when sick), let alone half a year, when the arrogant foreigner comes slinking back to his desk as though nothing had happened, with a sigh and a heavy heart nevertheless, because in his heart of hearts he wishes that the convalescence, and the freedom to do absolutely nothing, could have gobe on indefinitely, forever.
At least, then, I will still look like a vaguely pitiful, half-baked cripple. They will have visible evidence in front of them that I have, in fact, been through the wringer. Just from seeing the way that I walk. The pain from my swollen joints. The fact that my knees still ‘give’ on occasion and I stumble. The odd gait. My winces. For although I have undoubtedly made a great deal of progress since my ‘bilateral, closed wedge high tibial osteotomies’, eight hour surgery (for those readers not familiar with all of this) that required the breaking, cutting and rearranging of my legs so that I would have to learn to walk again from zero, or minus more like, because initially, they weren’t even really like legs, when I woke up, just bleeding, bruised, swollen and paralyzed appendages covered in ice packs that I felt no connection to and which I couldn’t move at all and which let me feeling helpless and inconsolable and full of regret that I had even gone through with it (it was only later that I realized in fact what a major undertaking this all has been : it is very rare for people to have both legs operated on at the same time, particularly with the more painful and complicated ‘closed wedge’ procedure that I had to sign up for – most hospitals only consent to perform the surgery on one leg at a time, at yearly intervals ( what was I thinking?!), and if I look back at myself in March, and April, and then see my situation now, able – at home at least – to move around by myself without sticks, I cannot argue with the fact that I have made a great deal of progress indeed, relatively speaking. Undeniable. I went from immobile and paralzyed, to wheel chair, to slow walking frame, to sticks, to being able now to walk around the house; a flamingo with no support at all.
At the same time, by the half year mark, a good percentage of osteotomy patients (according to the ‘internet’, and therein lies the danger), are playing tennis, walking normally, even jogging, supposedly, yet here I am with all this pain in my joints, deteriorated muscles in my thighs, calves and ankles that I am still trying to strengthen with weekly or bi-weekly physio sessions at a nearby hospital, definitely not the slimmed down, fit as a fiddle, legs like tree trunks September teacher that I thought I was going to be, one who would have spent this long, long hot summer fruitfully, maybe one who had even started writing that book, who had really achieved something, the Bionic Man. Instead, the time has just slipped by, like sand through my fingers.
Then again, when I have talked about this to the people I know – it has been a very sociable and friend-driven time, with hospital visits and stays at our house galore, lots of sitting about and talking and drinking and watching films on the projector, or meet ups in Tokyo, most people I have spoken to about this have said that I am actually being way too hard on myself , that the only thing I really have needed to be focusing on, in fact, for the entire duration, is my recovery, and that to even think about trying to ‘achieve’ other things, in my circumstances, is unrealistic, still languishing in my painkiller cocoon and the heaviest heat of July and August. My mother knew that this would be the case all along. That to even be able to walk ( but why isn’t it more painless? and smoother? and less fraught?) is a great achievement in itself. And I suppose it is. I see severely handicapped people walking on the streets, sometimes, twisted and contorted and with great determination in their eyes just to move forwards, and I feel a lot of gratitude that I am not personally in such a situation. It has, I suppose, been a success, and the entire purpose of the six months off from work recommended by my surgeon was simply to recover from what was essentially a very traumatic experience, the only foreigner in a Japanese hospital having my legs snapped and sliced up then stuck in an in the middle of nowhere Yokosuka rehabilitation ward for two months while the wounds healed, my slow and tentative physiotherapy began, and, where like a baby, I literally learned to put one foot hesitantly, and painfully, in front of the other.
I think the real guilt, if I am truly honest, comes in the lack of guilt I feel in the knowledge of how much I have actually rather enjoyed the whole experience. As readers, you will be the judge of how depressed, or not, I seemed in hospital, as I was expressing myself to you there quite frequently live to you raw and in the flesh, attempting to paint pictures of my time there in sensorial detail, the complexities, and the truth that there is beauty everywhere and anywhere, even in the bland confines of a private hospital room. My mad torrent of impressions that I posted on the last day of my stay, ‘Seventeen things I have realized in hospital’ surprised even me in its sheer length and passion: ironically, or perhaps predictably, I don’t know, the sheer stimulus of, or the reacting against, the institutionalization I was gradually succumbing to brought some muscle and some vigor to my writing that melted away once I flopped into the perfumed, sybaritic environs of our house, where I had no schedule any more to pitch my time against, and where I awoke to the bliss each morning that I had nothing whatsoever to do except get on with my exercises while watching films and documentaries ( heaven !) or playing records ( ditto) or reading the New York Times ( the same ) while drinking coffee ( nectar!); that it was summer, which I love far, far more than the other seasons combined, and most importantly, that I didn’t have to work.
I know when I go back next week (nooooooooo!!!!) that there will be plenty of abnormally workaholic Japanese colleagues who I work with who will be bewildered and uncomprehending if I admit to them shyly that I managed to ‘get through’ six months off from work without getting bored (not one second); that I was able to satisfyingly occupy my time ( absolutely); that I didn’t require outside interference and imposed structure in order to feel stimulated, useful, or worthwhile as a human being (why would I?) True, I do feel quite lazy. Incredibly, unbelievably, shamefully lazy, or indolent, or decadent, or just outrageously, insultingly self indulgent, but my job – though enjoyable, stimulating, and definitely good for me, in the long run, because it keeps me in society where I can do something good for people, for the youth; prevents me from becoming a total Queen of Sheba lying prostate and luxuriating in the moment and the sunbeams while sipping red wine from golden chalices ( we literally have some ) and dangling grapes into my far too active, orally fixated mouth as I smear myself unctuously with unguents and perfumes and sing along to the music – is just that : a job, work; something to bring home the bacon and keep me alive and not ending up on a park bench, essential: but ultimately, at the end of the day, though theoretically it pains me to admit this, I have no work ethic. Yes, I care very much about each lesson, how it goes, and how the students are actually doing, my reputation, the school’s success rate, so I try and do my best whenever I am teaching (there are few things more depressing than a bad lesson, trust me) and I really do need the money ( right now I have none – I am living off Duncan, like a parasite ), but as for working for the sake of working, like a rat on a wheel, I truly, at the end of the day, can’t be arsed. Given the choice, I would not. I have already been teaching for twenty five years, a quarter of a century. Is that not sufficient?
Work have been actually very good to me. Long gone are the Bubble days, when English teachers, ‘foreigners’ were treated like gods and paid like kings for just speaking their own language. I arrived after this time, but even then, conditions were good, and there were plenty of escapees like me just making a living, evading the realities of their home countries by immersing themselves in the incomprehensible exotic, hanging out with each other partying, just having another adolescence, really, because they couldn’t really think of anything better to do and were just living for the moment until they saw a light at the end of the tunnel or a different opportunity. Still, the economy changed, many fled after the earthquake, and attitudes towards them hardened. With the country far more inward looking and less internationally minded now in my opinion (yes, despite the coming Olympics, there is no doubt that the younger generation is more insular and Japanese in many ways); in spite of the need for the country to produce more competent English speakers- really, the general level of spoken English here is really quite embarrassing compared to surrounding Asian countries- the ‘eikaiwa’ teacher now often works in quite appalling work conditions and I am actually extremely lucky to have the position that I do. I certainly don’t take it for granted. When the company that both Duncan and I originally worked for went bankrupt after a scandal, several years ago, there were reports of teachers having to beg for food because they were not getting paid; lesson by lesson, by the hour pay contracts, no benefits, no holidays, quite undignified with no future prospects. And definitely no paid leave of absence ( I was given three months just out of kindness, even though it wasn’t part of my contract) or keeping your job open for you, nor genuine concern for your well being. I am fortunate.
Still, I feel some worry, if not exactly guilt, or regret, about what it is going to be like when I skulk back into the teachers room at one of the schools I work in next Tuesday, my first day back after all this time. Although the teachers at the university entrance exam section I mainly work in were solicitous and kind to me before the operation, giving me a big good luck card and a portable DVD player for the hospital, and several of the teachers also came to visit me there, the high school entrance exam section, far more basic on every level, were quite vexingly blase to almost an inhuman degree. I was furious with them on my last day for the total lack of interest in what was going to happen to me. I am not narcissistic enough to assume that my tedious health issues should be great cause for other people’s attention, particularly seeing how busy they always are, plus with all the paid holiday I get compared to them (as a yearly contract worker I get the holiday, which is precisely why I took the job and why I can write this blog and actually have a life, unlike them), but not the bonuses, the pension, the health insurance, I suppose they just assumed ah yes, there he is, the hoity toity Englishman, off from work again, the unindustrious bastard, so perhaps there was some kind of resentment towards me I don’t know, but even though everyone knew that I was in a lot of pain and that I was about to have some quite scary sounding surgery, no one, except one very cultured man I get along well with and who came to see me after my operation, said so much as a good luck, a hope you get well soon, or even a grunt of human decency as I tidied my text, took my things, and walked out of the school.
Which is why, when I then got an email saying that the entire office of that very same high school section was going to come and visit me in hospital after the operation a few weeks later, I flipped and said no way, because the idea was completely intolerable to me.This is actually a very big faux pas in Japanese society; things are done a certain way and you have to abide by these rules, but I was so infuriated by the hypocrisy of the situation – people only doing something out of duty when they don’t even particularly like the person involved even though they had the opportunity to show concern a long time before, that I told my boss that I didn’t want visitors and wouldn’t see anybody. I weighed up the situation; accepting something just to keep the status quo, having a motley bunch of bad smelling worn out slave teachers filling up my hospital room and going through the motions with them, but at that time I was so fragile and neurotic I knew that no matter what happened I couldn’t possibly bear it for even a minute, let alone an hour, and when I get like this I will do anything it takes to prevent something intolerable from happening to me, no matter what the consequences. I become a total nutcase. I don’t regret it, exactly, but even so, it will be quite embarrassing having to face these people; the incident will create yet another level of enamel, or plaque, between us, yet another barrier preventing me from ever getting close. Still, I only have to teach in that place one day a week, and the other schools are far more sophisticated and welcoming. Wednesday should be a totally different situation altogether.
I regret, quite a lot though, that I am going back in such bad shape. Not spic and span, ‘fixed’ with my brand new shining legs. Is it my fault? It’s hard to say. How much responsibility does the patient have for his or her post operative progress and rehabilitation? I did everything that I was told to do. Perhaps I was just too in love with my young physiotherapist to be listening properly to what he was saying I should do at home as my post-operative exercises (this I feel a lot of guilt about, if not regret; it may have hurt Duncan, how much, who can say, he never would – he has had his own crush in the past, a harmless, unacted upon one, just like this, but still; though I knew that nothing was ever going to come of it, which is why I wrote about it, to kill it in sunlight, and it was probably just some form of Florence Nightingale Syndrome, when sheer dependency and vulnerability can make you feel so emotional, in retrospect I feel that it was mutual; not the deep geological strata that I have with my loved one – and it has been a full on Summer Of Love in recent months – but more like a shallow lake of beautiful clear water shimmering near the surface that I had to wrench myself away from, just because. Still, it may have clouded my judgement about how good exactly he was as a physiotherapist when I think about it now; both of the people that treated me at that original hospital helped to get me back on my feet, so I am intensely grateful to them, of course, but the lack of a clear post-hospital programme once I got back home – I was just given generic exercises that I don’t think were sufficient to strengthen the muscles that needed strengthening – and in full disclosure, was I even doing them all diligently enough in the first place? You know my innate laziness… I don’t know…..)
Whoever is responsible, something isn’t working right; the x-ray displays perfect growth of the new bones, but it doesn’t show the muscles, and the tendons. Maybe I have wrecked my knees with my stupid, grotesque, Burning Bush dancing?
I was finally able to attend the most recent screening of Duncan and Yukiro’s comedy horror film Girl Goned on August 11th, having missed the premiere and other showings while I was in the hospital (even if I did watch it on my phone as the events unfurled live on my screen). It was fantastic to be finally out in Tokyo again, with a whole group of friends, most of us dressed up in costumes, me as my character/ alter ego, Burning Bush who is the foulest villain of the movie, and walking through Shinjuku in that get up at 2am in the morning, bathed in neon, stopped and photographed and smiled at by random strangers was surreal and peculiarly liberating after all these times just stuck on the rented kitchen bed at home like some down on his luck geriatric. Recently, I have just felt so encumbered and ungainly with my walking, like Frankenstein, and though this character also was using sticks, they felt more like props that just quite nicely set off the whole get up to even more amusing effect. In this picture (is that really me? I think I look like a mix of Madonna singing Like A Virgin; a zombie, and a pint size little rag doll, mainly because the drag queen standing next to me was just so very gigantic.)
Nevertheless, I shouldn’t have been ‘dancing’ as I was at the film party (but I was just so glad to be back…..); not dancing, exactly, but on sticks, moving about a bit – did I damage the tentative healing of my legs in the process? Should I have been just staying in at home and doing the exercises the entire summer, like a good little ogre, or should I also have been training myself to get out and about? To learn how to get on the escalators in the station, on and off trains and buses (all quite difficult at first), to get myself back into society when I knew that by September I had to be totally ready for it? There has been just so much conflicting advice and opinions from so many different professionals, that at times I have just felt like giving up or chopping them right off – go on the bike, don’t go on the bike, go up stairs, don’t go up stairs, do this exercise, don’t do that exercise, that it is impossible to know how much activity I am actually supposed to have been doing. At times it has all just been overwhelming.
Which leads us to another thing that I definitely do feel guilt and regret about – not losing weight. This, obviously, is a major way to make the burden on the knee joints much lighter, and leading to less pain (and less bullying at work; yes, I am writing this sentence quite seriously: Japan can be quite appalling, really cruel when it comes to such things. People never hesitate to tell you when you have put on weight here). In hospital, on that wan, repulsive rice and fish diet, even supplemented by smuggled in choco, I lost quite a bit of weight, much to everyone’s delight, as I am considered by others (but not by myself) to be this morbidly obese shadow of my former self. But anyway, sadly, greed, gluttony, inactivity and boozing, though, have put it all back on again and more; I bought an exercise bike precisely for this problem and was working hard on sweating away those extra pounds while watching Netflix on hot July mornings and quite enjoying the endorphins but my newest physiotherapist (very good; thorough; rigorous, experienced) doesn’t think this is good for my inflamed and swolled joints right now, so again, heeding yet again the latest advice, I have stopped.
Do I regret all this? I don’t know. I don’t think so. We’ve had such fun. A blurry, and memorable few beautiful months following the initial stress of the surgery and its aftermath, which at the time was exhausting for us both (and for you readers, too, I imagine – I think this is the last time that I am going to talk about any of it for the time being). It’s been so lovely just sitting together on the tropical balcony upstairs having beers and settling into a gorgeous sunset dream state, or sinking into the new Twin Peaks series, stoked on Sicilian red wine. Nice dinners, spent out on the town. A summer of just living in the moment; being oblivious, or trying to, with the world the way that it has been; poised in the membrane somewhere between reality and somewhere else. Content. Happy.