This perfect road trip hasn't actually happened yet. But I've learned that the reality you want in life doesn't ever come unless you dream it first. And so I am dreaming.
The window buzzes quietly as it glides down into its slender compartment in the car door and settles down in there with a gentle thump.
I wonder how many trees there are in these stretches of pine that seem to roll on and on for miles. From above, I’ve seen that the seemingly vast forests surrounding these roads actually only just line them, maybe only ten or twenty jaggedy rows deep. I was disappointed the first time I flew in an airplane and saw that. Can wild animals live in such a shallow arboreal home? I can’t imagine anything interesting living in a fake forest. Why do we even have these? Who plants them? Maybe they were actual forests once upon a time and have been pruned this close to the roads to make room for farmland plots. I think this is probably the case. But I pretend anyway that I am in a deep piney jungle, and a feeling of childlike safety envelops me.
My hair whips my neck over and over with each wind gust I have quietly invited into my car through the open window. It’s amazing how bugs smack and bleed on the windshield without sneaking in through the side window, like a giant mouth open wide. I’m thankful for that. I hate getting a bug in my hair. Or worse, my mouth.
It is a comfortable tumult, this air whirling through the car all around me, though I know there is probably poison from the pollution it carries out on this highway from all the behemoth rigs growling down the road, which bully all the rest of us in our person-carrying cars, and from the refineries in the distance, and the burning piles of trash in rural yards scattered on the landscape here and there, but which only seem to exist down here in the deep south on these lonesome highways. Do people burn trash everywhere? Or just in the nearly empty southern non-cities where there’s nowhere else for it to go and no one who will pick it up and take it any place else? At least fire is cheap, I suppose. Landfills aren’t. At least morally.
Anyway, aren’t so many things that fill us with joy actually killing us slowly? Killing us slowly is better than killing us quickly. We all have an expiration date, ultimately. I wish I could know mine but am also grateful I cannot know. And I wish wishes could stop time. Could freeze moments. Ones like this. Where the wind hugs me, where a stunningly shadowy voice calling through the speakers in a private duet with a gentle guitar burrows straight into my heart and wakes up my belly with a welcome pang, and the road lays itself out before me – calling me and gifting me with a safe path to anywhere I want to go.
I am leaving the window down. I take a swig of still warm coffee, pull my sweater into my lap, and flip on the seat heater to warm me as the cool front begins to settle in. It’s a wilder wind now that plays with my hair more aggressively as it becomes colder. And it stings my cheeks and makes my nose run a little. Harsh, but in the most beautiful way.
I settle into my seat, feeling it against my body, aware mostly of the vibrations of this car flying along on the pavement. It is supporting me, and I feel it there under me, but it doesn’t hurt. My right foot is gently pressing the gas pedal as I pass the car that just merged into the right-hand lane after clogging up the left-hand lane before it finally got over, and my left foot is just resting, knee bent freely, leaning against the comforting interior wall of the car door. I remember when cold air like this would make my muscles scream. But right now, my muscles feel lazy despite the chill. And I am grateful.
I should buy some beef jerky next time I stop. It hurts my jaw if I chew too much of it, but my sentimental nostalgia yearns for it here on the open highway. And it will probably make my stomach hurt. I probably won’t care.
I never thought I would get to do this again.
They ripped open my hips. That’s when I really fell from grace. Or fell from life but found grace in the end. Twice on the left side, and once on the right side. I paid good money for them to slice into me. I was so broken. I used to drive a twelve minute surface street route home from work and was certain I was dying this time, so many times, on that otherwise repetitive drive. I pulled over more days than I want to admit, succumbing to the dizziness that was overtaking my brain as it tried its best to shut out the pain filling my body, like a hot liquid lava spreading and leaving burned and cracking surfaces, but inside me, in its wake. I suppose the passing out from pain phenomenon is an evolutionary mechanism we have developed so that our brains don’t fry like an overheated motherboard while trying to survive intense pain. I wonder if animals other than humans experience this sensation.
I learned my left hip was dislocating every, single, fucking time I sat. At least that explained it. I’m not overreacting. Or exaggerating. The surgeon explicitly told me that after he’d sealed me back up after the first hip surgery and left me with three scars littering the front of my thigh where he had sliced into me. He was shocked it was so bad and unstable in there. The doctor drew an exclamation mark after he wrote the word “Instability” on the drawing he had made of my hip to show what he had found during surgery. I wasn’t surprised at all. But I was relieved there was a legitimate reason I had become so incapable of even performing the mere act of sitting, which meant I also couldn’t do the higher level things I’ve been trained to do, and had gotten so good at over the years, either. And yet I welcomed the concrete news that the cause was mechanical and not me losing my mind.
After many months of physical therapy and slow, slow healing after surgery – slower than the slowest molasses dripping, slower than the laziest snail – my left hip stopped dislocating. But then I had to allow them to cut into me again, not too many months later, this time to repair a tear in my right hip that happened when I was forced to over-rely on my right leg when my left one had become so fully and entirely dilapidated. So I got a brand new matching set of three scars scattered on the front of my right thigh when they sliced into that one as well.
But then, despite a year of hip surgeries and recoveries from those operations, after having already endured many tortuous months of diagnosing and conservative hip treatment (after four previous shoulder surgeries I won’t even let my mind acknowledge right now), I still couldn’t sit. Although I could stand again without feeling like my torso would slide off of my pelvis, a miraculous development to be sure, the intense pain and feeling of needing to pass out just from sitting did not leave me. My pelvis felt like it was ripping itself apart. Turns out it was. My doctor looked me in the eye and said it isn’t cancer, but what most people won’t understand is that what you’re going through is kind of like that. This is big, he said. Fuck, I thought.
After more months of tests, manipulations, oohs and ahs from interns and residents watching intently but with a cold astuteness as I lay on tables while doctors manipulated my leg around in the air in various positions as they examined my dysfunction, and waiting for a surgery date, I underwent a femoral derorational osteotomy on my left side. Much bigger scar this time. A big slice was made through my muscles in the back of my hip. Through this incision, my femur was sawed all the way through, and the top of it was rotated about twenty degrees from where it had been my whole life, and then reattached to the rest of the bone – its other half – with a titanium rifle-barrel-like rod shoved into it and now running the entire length of my thigh, with screws at my knee and hip to hold the rod in place. I’m told I shouldn’t set off metal detectors. I was also told I was lucky they know how to fix this problem nowadays. People with my hip rotational problem used to have back surgeries, knee surgeries, and hip replacements after their hips imposed far-reaching destruction on distant body parts, and a lifetime of pain pills. At least I have a shot at avoiding that.
All the muscles that attach to my pelvis and femur finally stopped feeling like they were a wrap dress tangled and being pulled with immense and wrong tension while strung up on a hanger, hampering and hindering my movement and making me want to just sleep and drug away the pain. Even though I used to be the girl who refused to even take ibuprofen. I hate taking drugs. I cannot count how many days I lost. How much of myself I lost. But, after the osteotomy, a peace settled into my muscles that had been at war for years. But they were so weak after the long, invisible battle. Shaky and fragile. And there was so much strengthening to be done. And my own body scared me to my core. The thing holding my very soul and all my potential, and with it, my identity, the very thing tying my me to this earthly world and those I love, threatened to be my unraveling on the deepest level. Deeper than any heartbreak I’d ever felt, deeper than any other fear that had ever shaken me. And surgery to repair such physical brokenness, even when it works (and sometimes, it doesn’t), does not erase the fear that builds up over years of bodily failure once it embeds into your psyche. Not quickly anyway.
But I slowly gained strength. After the bleeding, the limping, the swelling, the dizzying drugs, the endless hours not being able to sit or roll over or, at first, to get up at all to even pee… after entirely too many empty moments, tears of frustration, and hours of physical therapy yet again, I began to make progress. I ate calcium tablets with the pain pills, wishing the bone to heal. I was warmed by love letters, calls, and trinkets from friends. Please, please let it be soon. I need a miracle.
I tried not to ask Why Me? But I did sometimes. That never helped. When I did, I just resented my disabilities more and more, while I knew I needed to just be with it and let it exist. Fighting it only hurt me more. I consciously tried to slow my breath and my heart, a lot. Tried to grab calm from the air and swallow it whole. But that was a skill that I took years to learn. And I still forget it sometimes when I need it most. I can be really fucking bull-headed sometimes. I love efficiency too much. And achievement too much. But less now. Out of necessity.
Sometimes I pretend to smoke an imaginary cigarette, and by some miracle, I am able to force more air, with a strange ease, into my lungs. Funny how such a poisonous habit from my youth, abandoned so many years ago, helps me now when I feel too anxious to consciously breathe properly.
And I thought so many times that I would never drive again. Not alone anyway. I’ve been stuck before. I’ve thought I was at my end too many times. I developed a deep-seated fear of a thing I once loved. In my youth, I adored road trips. Three to four, or even more, hours of my time in a car seemed a luxury – a music-filled, daydream-wrapped journey to somewhere new, somewhere exciting, somewhere I longed to visit. I always loved the drive. But as my stamina left me, in my thirties no less, my love of the road became tortuous. What if I got stranded somewhere because I couldn’t go on and my body finally decided to try to give all the way out in some unpredictable place? Who would save me? Or would it just be the end? I don’t want to end with a whimper, but I was certain sometimes I just would.
But here I am. Wheels spinning, comfortably hitting seventy. Humming along. Flocks of birds changing direction in a symmetrical dance in the vast sky above me.
And, of course, I notice the bored, road-weary expressions on the faces of all the other drivers I pass who appear to lack the capacity to fathom how special, how wonderful, how amazing it is to drive anywhere you fucking want. I cry just a little, feeling sorry for myself for all the years I couldn’t do this. Swells of emotion always make me cry. Always have. Maybe it’s raining somewhere now because of it. I missed feeling like this, this free, for so long. I dreamed of taking road trips again. I wished on stars for the ability to just go anywhere while not wondering if I would make it there.
And here I am driving. Reveling. Relishing. Just breathing instead of hurting. Not even having to pretend to smoke or to convince myself I’ll survive this moment, too. I already know I will.