Mornings are often the worst, or at least my symptoms think so. One wakes up feeling rather as if he had spent the night in a medieval torture chamber. During the hours of sleep it appears as though feet, ankles and knees have been battered with a hammer, legs pulled from hip sockets, muscles stretched and flayed. Every body part struggles painfully awake, uncooperative with the idea of movement, feeling for all the world as though it had begun to turn to stone.
You slide, or rather shove your legs over the edge of the bed, feet thumping heavily to the carpet like a couple of bricks. You are still sleepy, still shaking it off. You wonder why these bricks had been brought to bed, then remember that these are in fact your feet, because they are tingling slightly and the toes are moving (something you know by sight, not sensation).
Sitting on the edge of the bed, you plan your next move. You’ve learned by now that the simplest things are in need of your attention. Things like standing to your feet, things like putting one foot in front of the other. It is not as if you can simply rise and walk, the way you once did. No, you must push on your knees as you rise to height, then immediately lurch toward the clothes rack, catching the bar with your left hand. If you miss, you fall. Reminiscent of Frankenstein—the Boris Karloff version—you thump away toward the bedroom door, stiffly, unsurely to the hallway. The dog comes along, amused as always. He stops at the bathroom, sticking his nose in the door. He knows your routine like the back of his paw.
This morning the dog has decided to work on the tunnel he has going in the yard. I’m sitting on the porch watching, smoking a cigarette, waiting for muscles and bones and joints to get their act together. They always loosen up with time. Well, always so far.
I am impressed by the work the dog has done on this project. If he were to concentrate more consistently on the effort, day after day, he would certainly have struck oil or gold by now. Either case would be a happy blessing, for the proceeds could be used to defray the costs of this damn illness of mine. The front half of the dog’s body is in the hole, the back half obscured by the cloud of dust he’s kicking up.
Now an enormous truck pulls up in front of the gate. A man climbs from the cab, comes around to the fence, and asks where I want the load dumped.
I’m thinking maybe down the block a piece, in front of someone else’s house. I’m wondering why he is asking me, why he should care what I think. It’s not my business, is it? Cognition struggles through a couple more clumsy summersaults before finally retrieving the recollection that my wife had ordered dirt and gravel for the yard.
The driver asks his question again, believing no doubt that I had not heard him the first time. The dog has stopped digging and now he and the driver are both looking at me, waiting for an answer.
But I’m stuck on this question. It appears to me that the yard is pretty well chock full of dirt already. Where exactly would more dirt go?
Wouldn’t the substantial amount of dirt in the truck make our yard several inches higher than the neighbors’ yards on either side?
“Ah,” I say finally, as if recognizing the presence of the man for the first time. “Yeah, just dump it right there.”
“Here? In the driveway?”
“You betcha, right there.”
“You’re the boss,” he says.
That is where he’s mistaken. The boss, my wife, is still asleep.
So came my opportunity to see how serious manual labor and multiple sclerosis would mesh.
But mesh is the wrong word. It is completely inappropriate, wholly unfitting. This much I learned from the outset. This is more like war, a battle to the death, a grimy choke hold of fatigue upon willpower, locked in running combat between the mounds of dirt teetering over so many newly dug graves.
Trip after trip with the wheelbarrow results in barely a dint in the mountain which sits in our driveway.
Faith. I will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible. But that is not how it happened. Oh, I did try the incantation, make no mistake, yet something was lacking. Faith, I would suppose. The mountain did move, but not all at once. It moved shovel by shovel, barrel by barrel, to the far reaches of the yard, which seemed with each trip to reach farther again than they had the last time. Man, shovel and wheelbarrow became one, a sweaty, creaky, dusty sort of trinity, with the wheelbarrow taking the predominant role, for I became not so much the driver but driven, stumbling numbly behind as it careened about the yard. More often than not it dumped its own load wherever it would, along with its driver.
I close my eyes at night and I see dirt. I dream of dirt, rolling dunes, purple mountains majesty, a parade of shovels struggling toward the promised land. And what am I to these mountains? A speck! A grain! How am I to meet, let alone survive, a challenge of such enormity.
Shovel by shovel.
Before leaving for work the next day, my wife suggests that I try to finish the job in my spare time if I can. As an added bonus to our effort, she has made a garden for me. Rather she has marked off a 9 by 4 foot trough near the back of the yard in which I am to plant my own garden.
I’ve never had a garden before. I’ve never had an overwhelming desire for one. I know nothing about gardening.
“What would you like to grow,” she asks.
I can’t think. I’m busy trying to catch my breath.
“How about cheese?” I answer.
She has also added cement to the overall landscaping plan. A lot of cement. In 80 pound bags. Our Labrador weighs 80 pounds also, but the thing is, when I lift the dog, he helps me out by poking my eyes with his front paws and scrambling up my crotch with his back ones. Cement is just dead weight and lends no assistance at all.
They say that exercise is good for MS. One reads so in all the books. Exercise in general, or so it seems, is good for everything. That and fruit.
My conclusion on the matter is this: It is not that exercise is bad for MS, it’s just that MS is bad for exercise. This may be too fine a distinction to make, but there it is, nonetheless.
And so I return to the mountain, faithless, yet determined.