Part 2 “In a New York Minute”

The X-rays Dr. Barria wanted me to get in December had to be postponed until January 27 due to the resurgence of the Omicron variant. The Bocas hospital was full of COVID patients and half of the staff was out with the virus also. But with the patience I had already acquired in dealing with this injury, I kept my nose to the grindstone every day concentrating on my therapy exercises, eating well and getting plenty of rest. And I always had a good book going so the days passed rapidly. The wait was worth it as the news was good from Dr. Barria. He called me immediately after Jacy had once again sent him photos of the X-rays.

“Hello, Clay,” he said. “I’m glad to tell you that your fracture is healing very nicely and we’re at the point where I think you can start trying to walk unassisted. If the leg is too stiff and painful at first, use a cane for two or three weeks to make the transition. Keep doing the exercises and I want you to get X-rayed again the first week of April.”

This was exciting news and I was elated to get rid of the one crutch. That afternoon I tried walking on my own but it was a little too painful. Allene and I both have a set of adjustable trekking poles that we use when hiking in rough terrain so I adjusted my right-hand pole to the length of a cane and tried walking with it. I was pleasantly surprised. I had been skeptical that a cane would make much difference but I was wrong. With the cane, I could walk easily with no pain.

In about three weeks I was doing my laps around the porch and ramp without needing the cane. However, I did continue to hold it in my right hand without it touching the floor because my balance had not returned well enough yet and I wanted to plant the cane in case I stumbled or lost balance. I felt it prudent to err on the side of caution.

At that time I ventured out to our driveway to try walking on uneven terrain. I definitely used the cane for security. After a week or so, I was walking laps briskly back and forth on the part of our driveway that’s along the side of our house. I was still holding the cane but not touching it to the ground. In case I tripped or slipped I could easily plant the cane and catch myself. My balance, along with my confidence, was steadily improving.

On February 21, I took my first shower standing up and with no need of assistance from Allene. Yay! More freedom for her, and more independence for me.

In the second week of March, when I went out to do my morning walk, there was a good-sized tree branch that had fallen during the night and was blocking my way. I started to holler for Pepito who was working on the back side of the property but I changed my mind. I walked to the bodega to look for my machete. I hadn’t touched it in six months but there it was, right where I had left it. Oh man, I can’t tell you how great it felt chopping up that tree limb. To those reading this story, it might seem like such an insignificant event. But it wasn’t to me. To do something strenuous with some strength behind it was a major step forward. Later on when I was telling Allene the story, I broke down in tears. She gave me a big hug. (Side note: Don’t ever underestimate the power of a hug.)
One major side effect from using the walker for 5 ½ months was that I destroyed the use of my hands. Per instruction, I had to put 75% of my body weight on my hands and I’m a big guy. After a while, I could barely hold my eating utensils and couldn’t unscrew the top of a jar. So all during that time there was no way I could play my guitar. I couldn’t make a chord on the strings with my left hand or hold a pick with my right. I tried hard to not let it bother me by telling myself that everything I was currently doing was to help me recover as fast as possible and to be patient. Finally, after ditching the walker, my hands started healing and on March 17 I was able to play the guitar for the first time. My voice was ragged as hell, I could barely hold the pick, and the calluses were gone on the fingers of my left hand. So I couldn’t play very long as my fingers got sore quickly. It was probably the worst I’ve ever sounded but still, it was a glorious occasion. And Allene teared up on that one, so it was my turn to give her a hug.

On March 22, I did away with the chair that I had been sitting in to do the dumbbell exercises during the morning therapy sessions. Standing up for these upper body workouts seemed to benefit my overall physiology. After I finished that morning session, I felt so good that I texted Dr. Barria and told him of my improvements and asked him if I could get down on the floor and add my sit-ups and push-ups to the routine.

He wrote back immediately saying, “You’d better hold off on that a while longer, Clay. I want you to wait until we get the X-rays the first week of April before we make that decision. Keep doing everything else though.”

I wrote him back to thank him and assure him I would.

Two days later I was feeling confident enough to do my laps on the driveway without holding the cane. My balance seemed to be fine as I hadn’t had to plant the cane even one time for stumbling or slipping. The cane was put away for good that day.

For those of you reading this, you might be thinking, “Boy, ‘ol Clay must sure have a memory to be able to keep up with all these dates and details.” Well, you’d be wrong about that. Although I am a stickler for details and getting the facts straight, my memory is no better than anyone else’s and maybe even a lot worse than most. But being a songwriter and now also a prose writer, I always bring along a notebook or note pad everywhere I go. You just never know when a thought or idea may pop into your head so I want to be ready if and when it does. Allene and Jacy know that about me. So, on my second day in the hospital they returned after one of their shopping trips and presented me with a small red notebook and a new Bic pen. It was a very thoughtful gift and I have been using it daily since the day they gave it to me.

Anxious to get the next X-rays done, I made an appointment with the radiologist at the Bocas hospital pretty far in advance. I was counting the days to the April 6 date and after what I thought was forever, it finally arrived. Rolando picked me up in his taxi and drove me to the hospital where I was met inside by Jacy and the radiologist. There was no one else waiting for X-rays so we were able to get right to work. It went fast and Jacy once again had the radiologist put the images on the big monitor so she could photograph them and send them to Dr. Barria. Jacy said she would drive me home and before we could exit the hospital parking lot, her phone pinged and she had a texted message from Dr. Barria. Jacy pulled right over so we could read it together.

“I assume Clay is walking close to normal again as the fracture is healed completely. He is free to do whatever he wants.”

Final X-ray shows the bone has healed

On hearing that news, you’d think I would have been overjoyed but in reality I was confused and kind of flabbergasted. Dr. Barria had told me the day after he did my surgery that the femur fracture I had was the most common one they see and that it would take ten to twelve months to completely heal. That was confirmed many times in all the research I’d read online about healing bone fractures. Also, my leg did not feel even close to being healed completely. On arrival at our house, Jacy and Allene visited on the veranda and started playing a game of cards. I went in the house and phoned Dr. Barria.

“Hello, Clay,” he said, upon answering. “How are you feeling?”

“Well, to be honest, you kind of caught me off guard by saying my femur is completely healed. You told me in the hospital that it takes ten to twelve months. And my leg definitely doesn’t feel like it’s healed. It’s still stiff and sore when I’m walking or exercising.”

“Well, normally it is ten to twelve months, Clay, but sometimes bones heal faster and sometimes it might take even longer than a year to heal. It depends on a lot of different factors. You obviously did everything right, plus you’re a fast healer.”

“Why doesn’t my leg feel like it then?” I asked.

“You probably still have some trauma in the muscles, tendons and nerves. That is normal too, so keep exercising and that will eventually go away. But the bone is healed and you can do whatever you want.”

“So I can do my push-ups and sit-ups now?”

“Yes you can do those.”

“What about walking up and down stairs and driving?” I asked, still a little skeptical.

“You can do all that and go surfing too if you want. But please take some photos when you surf the first time and send them to me.”

“I’ll do that, no problem!” I said with enthusiasm. Now that I was convinced I thanked him for all he had done for me and expressed my sincere gratitude for his and his staff’s excellent care.

“Thank you, Clay. Our patients’ well-being is by far our greatest reward.” With that, he bid me a warm “Good luck” and “Goodbye.”

After telling Allene and Jacy what all Dr. Barria had said, I told them I was going to walk down to the beach. They said to take it slow and easy and to be careful, and went back to their card game.
I walked across the veranda, down the front stairs and crossed the yard all the way to our beach stairs, like it was the most natural thing in the world. I was totally aware though, that the last time I had walked down any stairs was on the fateful day seven months before when I’d fallen onto that hard rock.

The stairs to our beach were more of a challenge than our house stairs, having 63 steps from the cliff to the beach. I made it down with no trouble and was happy to see Whitey and Junior coming down the stairs behind me. We spent a lovely half hour taking it all in, with Whitey chasing sand crabs and Junior fetching sticks.

Going back up the stairs was much harder of course, and on reaching the top I was out of breath. Even though I had been doing exercises nearly every day since the day after my surgery, it was all directed to rehabilitate the leg, with nothing being aerobic. I knew that I needed to start doing something to get my heart pumping, and I realized these beach stairs would be the perfect fit, with gradual increases in speed and in the number of round trips. That, and a daily walk on the jungle road which connects all the properties here at Drago would suffice for aerobic exercise.
When I got back to the house Jacy was ready to leave and I hugged her and thanked her for all her help. When she left, I sat down and told Allene of my new plan. My parents would be celebrating their 75th wedding anniversary on June 4 and it had been doubtful that I would be strong enough to make the trip. But now, with the new developments, things were looking much more promising. My new goal was to be able to navigate stairs and walk through all the airports we would have to go through to get to Maui, Hawaii, where my parents reside. I told Allene that starting the next day I would get out the exercise mat and start doing my push-ups and sit-ups with the morning routine. Then I would start doing reps going up and down the beach stairs and add distance and speed to my walks. It felt so good to have a goal and a plan to reach it.

I was doing 100 sit-ups and 25 push-ups every day before my accident. That first morning I could only do 30 sit-ups and no push-ups at all. It had me worried when I couldn’t even push myself an inch up off the floor. But the next morning I was able to do two and by the end of the week I could do eight. Also, by the end of the week I could do the full 100 sit-ups. I told Allene to go ahead and book the trip.

We got it booked with help from our good friend Traci, who is a wizard at finding the best deals and routes for the different airlines. Our departure date was set for May 14. I continued to exercise every day and soon was up to my regular 25 push-ups every morning.

A couple of weeks before our trip I felt I was able to do a little work so I drove our truck over to Traci’s property to see what needed to be done, as she would be coming to house-sit for us again while we were in Hawaii. I noticed right away that her gate needed repainting. I had Allene buy the paint on her next trip to town and then I spent a few hours getting the gate painted. The next day I drove over to Wiley’s place and did some carpentry work on the shutters. Boy, it sure felt good to get back to work after the long hiatus.

By the time Traci arrived, a couple of days before our departure for Hawaii, I felt I could make the trip with no problem. But I wanted to keep exercising and working on my music while we were at my folks’ house so I wrote my sister Annie and her husband Jim if they could loan me an exercise mat and a guitar for me to use at the family home. Jim is an entertainer and great musician and has a lot of nice guitars.

Finally the departure date arrived and Rolando came to pick us up in his taxi. After giving hugs and kisses to Traci, Whitey and Junior, we were “off on another adventure,” our signature quote every time we start out on a trip.

After two days of travel and going through 3 airports without a hitch, our plane touched down at the Maui airport at 8:30 p.m., Hawaii time, which was 1:30 a.m., Panama time. Traveling light as always, we had only carry-ons and were curbside quickly. Allene used her Uber app and we had a vehicle pick us up three minutes later. We made the drive up the slope of Mt. Haleakala to my parents’ home in less than 20 minutes, thanks to the lack of traffic and expert driving. The folks’ place is between the small towns of Makawao and Pukalani and we were full of anticipation as we approached the house. Pulling into the parking area we could see my parents through the window. We quickly got our bags, thanked the driver and walked up the stairs to the door where Mom and Dad were waiting just inside the open door.

After surviving a pandemic, a broken leg and a long, exhausting trip to Maui, being able to put my arms around my folks was a great emotional release. There were hugs, kisses, laughter, tears, some words, but mostly just a few minutes of pure joy. It gave me reassurance that everything was going to be okay. After staying up for a good while visiting and catching up, we all decided it was past our bedtime so we turned in.

Allene and I woke at 6:00 a.m. to help get the folks up and start the breakfast of a large fruit plate, scrambled eggs and buttered toast. (Actually, I’d awoken at 3:30 a.m. and couldn’t get back to sleep. Damned jet leg.

After breakfast I checked out the guitar that Jim had left for me in the bedroom. It was a fairly old Martin D-28 and played and sounded like a dream. Thank you, Jim.

Then I noticed in one corner of the room were two exercise mats rolled up that my sister Annie had brought over. I took them out to the front porch and then went up the stairs to the apartment that used to be my old bedroom, found my 10-pound dumbbells and brought them downstairs. When I was up there I’d noticed some old bed boards with attached nylon straps that were stashed in the closet. That gave me an idea so I took the straps off the bed boards and hung them down through the slats in the upstairs porch. I went out to the old shed behind the house and rummaged around until I found a piece of one-inch galvanized pipe about 3-feet long. I found a stepladder behind the shed and brought it and the piece of pipe out to the front porch. I climbed the ladder and tied the nylon straps to the ends of the pipe and Voila! I had a chinning bar!

So everything was set for my morning workout right there on the front porch. I also continued with my walks twice a day. From the back fence of the property to the fence along the road is about the length of two football fields. I would do 6 round-trip laps in the morning at a brisk pace and do the same every evening.

With everything coming together nicely, I reflected for a moment on the fact that I had set a goal of recovering enough to make the trip to Hawaii for my parents’ 75th anniversary, and I’d achieved it. It was a very good feeling and I thought, “Man, I need another goal.”

And right then it came to me. My birthday is June 27 and every year on my birthday I do a “Skin the Cat” gymnastic maneuver that my Dad taught me when I was a kid. I do it to give myself an indication of where my fitness level is after another year has passed, but I never practice it during the year because I want it to be a true and honest test. Five years ago I started filming it and posting it on my YouTube channel and Facebook pages. So my new goal was to be recovered enough and strong enough to Skin the Cat on my upcoming 72nd birthday.

The weather was very nice the whole time we were in Hawaii and the days seemed to fly by. My Dad spent a lot of time every day working in his raised-bed gardens. Mom would come out and help him with the watering. We ate a lot of vegetables out of the garden while we were there, augmented by some avocados that I picked from their orchard on the property. It was off-season for avocados but I hunted around in the trees and found a few good ones left over from the last harvest.

June 4 was the big milestone 75th anniversary party. In the afternoon we hung lots of colorful decorations. Later on towards evening we had take-out delivered from our favorite local venue, Casanova’s Italian Restaurant in Makawao. Allene had also made a large decorated carrot cake. Someone opened a bottle of wine and even I decided to have a glass. It was the first time since my accident that I’d had any alcohol but it was the perfect occasion to imbibe.

After the meal was over we moved into the big front room and I grabbed the guitar and got the music started.

While we were singing songs, of course my Mom got up to dance because that is what she does. It’s in her blood and she can’t help herself. My sister Annie and her daughter Elaine quickly jumped up and danced with Mom, holding her hands to insure she would not fall. It was such a beautiful thing to witness. My 92-year-old mother, my oldest sister Annie and granddaughter Elaine with her extended belly from the great-grandbaby inside that is due in August. I glanced at my younger sister Cindy and our eyes connected as we both knew it was a poignant moment. I looked away quickly because it choked me up but I recovered enough to finish the song.

We kept the party going late into the night until we all realized we had celebrated enough. The event itself was so remarkable (How can people actually be married for 75 years?!) that we could add nothing more to the occasion than we had already given, which was just more family love.

75th Anniversary Party

Surprisingly, everyone was up fairly early the next morning. My two sisters came over after breakfast and we spent the morning taking down the decorations while laughing and talking about the night before. The music and dancing took precedence in the conversations.

That evening everyone came over again and we ordered take-out from Amigos, our favorite Mexican restaurant on Maui. It was a good meal but kind of a somber occasion because Allene and I would be flying out the next day to return to our home in Panama.

The next morning we were up at the crack of dawn. We had an early flight departure so right after breakfast, Allene and I got our showers, packed our gear and then tried to gather ourselves for the dreaded goodbyes. It’s always difficult to have to say goodbye to Mom and Dad when we leave Maui, and now their age has made it harder than ever. I always cry like a baby and even right now as I’m writing this my eyes are misting over just thinking about it. I guess I’ve become a sentimental old fool.

My brother-in-law Tim drove us to the Maui airport. The check-in went smoothly, as did the TSA precheck, and in a few minutes we walked on to our gate. As we sat there waiting to board, Allene and I reflected on how great a trip it had been. Everything had gone well, the anniversary party went off without a hitch and it was a phenomenal reunion with all the family. Mission accomplished.
When the announcement came that it was time to board, we stood up and high-fived, clasping hands at the end and saying, “Off on another adventure!”

After a grueling overnight flight we arrived in Panama City and our taxi driver there, Ruben, picked us up and drove us to the regional airport where we caught our flight to Bocas del Toro. Allene’s sister Lynn was there to greet us at the airport. After gathering our bags and giving hugs, we exited the airport where Rolando was waiting faithfully by his taxi.

We made the hour-long drive to the other side of the island and as we pulled up the driveway to our house, Traci, Whitey and Junior came out to greet us. After hugging them all, I paid and thanked Rolando and he headed back to town. Allene and I quickly unpacked our bags and after changing into more comfortable clothes we made our way out to the veranda where Traci had set out a freshly opened bottle of wine and wine glasses. Everyone settled in their regular places: Allene at the back center of the table, me on the left, Traci in her hammock and the dogs at my feet. I marveled again at that view that never gets old … the beautiful blue Caribbean with Isla Pajaros just offshore.

View that never gets old

Allene poured the wine and we toasted to being home. At that perfect moment, the old cliché “There’s no place like home” couldn’t have been any truer or more profound. Traci was going to hang out with us for a couple more days to visit and play cards with Allene and our neighbor Roger. We were home, and life was good.

The day before Traci left, the surf started coming up in the morning but it was very windy. By the late afternoon the wind had died and there were consistent sets arriving in the waist- to chest-high range. I suddenly decided to go surfing for the first time since my accident. The waves were small, the conditions were nice and I thought it would be the perfect time to give it a go. I told Allene and Traci what I was going to do and they got really anxious and nervous but not nearly as much as I already was. I tried to hide my nerves as I asked Allene and Traci to come down to the cliff with their cameras and take some photos. I got my board out from under the house and headed down the trail to the beach stairs. About halfway there I glanced over to my right and burst out laughing. Allene and Traci were carrying lawn chairs, wine, plastic cups, camera gear, sun screen, their phones, sun hats, and who knows what else. These ladies never do anything halfway and I love that about them.
Trepidation returned as I was walking down the stairs to the beach but that dissipated as soon as I hit the water. The paddle out was fairly easy but when I reached the lineup and tried to sit up, it was extremely painful trying to spread my legs far enough to straddle the board. It took a few minutes to get used to the position and for the pain to subside.

Then a wave came and I went for it. I had no problem catching it but as I tried to pop to my feet I realized it wasn’t gonna happen. I fell right off, but I wasn’t too disturbed. Hey, I had caught a wave! I paddled back out and waited for a smaller and gentler wave thinking it would give me more time to get to my feet. The wave came and I caught it and sure enough I was able to struggle to my feet and make a small bottom turn and ride the wave out. Hallelujah! I did it. The girls up on the cliff gave me pumped fists in the air when I got back to the lineup. The third wave was bigger and it broke before I could stand up so I had to ride it on my stomach. The fourth wave was the best. I was able to get to my feet faster than on Wave 2 and made a fairly good bottom turn and a couple of pumps on the face before kicking out.

“Okay,” I told myself. “You can still surf.” That meant just about everything to me.

Surfing – first day back

I went for a couple more waves but missed them because I was already pretty tired. I finally caught another wave and couldn’t get up before it broke so I ended up riding it to the shore on my knees. Getting back up the stairs was extremely hard due to exhaustion and pain but the girls were waiting at the top to greet me with hugs and high fives. They assured me that they both had good shots of me standing on the board. It was a happy walk back to the house.

Later that night I was sitting alone on the veranda with a glass of wine and reflecting on the irony of my surfing earlier in the day. On one hand, I thought that was probably the worst surf session of my life, and I’ve been surfing avidly since I was 12 years old. But on the other hand, due to the circumstances, it very well could have been the best surf session of my life. I was still on an incredible emotional high. At that moment I made the decision to get in better shape before I try it again, especially because I knew I’d be going out in bigger and more powerful waves.

The next day, Traci bid us adieu and caught her plane back to the States. Thank you, Traci. Once again you helped us out in a tremendous way. And we miss you terribly when you’re not here.
By the third day back I was finally getting over the jet lag and readjusting to Panama time. I continued with my morning workout routine and started taking a long walk in the evenings and then going up and down the beach stairs.

I drove our truck from our house down to a distant neighbors’ driveway and back and it was 1.3 miles. So that is my route and it has a lot of hills and valleys so walking it briskly does gets my blood pumping. It’s mostly all jungle and a great nature walk. The dogs usually tag along and we see parrots, toucans and lots of other birds, monkeys, sloths, agoutis and occasionally a big snake. After completing the walk I head straight to the beach stairs and go up and down four times. Whew. That really gets the heart rate up. And it’s definitely helping my leg get stronger. Actually, both legs need to be stronger after the long layoff. Leg strength is crucial in surfing.

On Sunday I called Ariel and asked him if he was ready to do some work. He said he was so I told him to take the 8:00 a.m. bus to Drago in the morning and I would pick him up at the bus stop. Wiley had written saying she had clients coming to stay at her place for the whole month of July. We had to do some small maintenance work and generally get everything shipshape for the renters. The next morning I met Ariel at the bus stop, got him and his tools loaded into the truck and we drove to Wiley’s. I showed Ariel a few things that needed to be done and I quietly slipped away to go down to the beach and face my nemesis.

When I had gone over to Wiley’s to work a couple of days before we left on our Maui trip I didn’t have the nerve to walk down to the beach. That sounds kind of funny saying it now but I admit it’s true. Now, enough water had passed under the bridge, so I needed to do this. I made my way to the bottom of the stairs and as I stepped out onto the beach I had a big surprise that made me laugh out loud. That big bad black slab of basalt was gone. All the sand had returned to the beach and the rock was buried several feet below it.

“Just as well,” I thought, but I could still feel its presence, even covered with all the sand. So we did make our peace. I felt it was an important part of the healing process.

But enough of that. I was ready to do some work.

Over the next couple of weeks we finished up the work at Wiley’s and then did a lot of work at our house. At the end of that week, when I paid Ariel, I told him I wanted to take a few days off until after my birthday on the following Monday. He said, “No problemo,” and I drove him to the bus stop. As always, I thanked him for the good work.

On Sunday, I was already getting apprehensive and tense about doing the Skin the Cat video the next day. I really had doubts that I could pull it off. After about the third time I’d asked Allene questions about her camera, its battery, lenses and other things, she finally got frustrated. “Clay, would you please stop worrying! The camera, battery, SD card, and everything else is ready to go. You just need to relax and chill out. The video will go fine.”

She was right of course, and I did take her advice. Thanks, Allene, for setting me straight.

The next morning we were up early and had a big meal of fresh fruit and breakfast tacos. A great way to start my birthday. Well … we did start my birthday off with something else before breakfast but that will have to remain private.

We prepared to do the video soon after breakfast as Jacy and the boys would be coming out later and we were going to grill burgers on the BBQ pit. Normally I just ad lib what I’m going to say during the video and usually end up doing several takes because I mess up. But today we did it in one take by default. After I spoke a while, I turned, went to the chinning bar and asked everyone to wish me luck. As I pulled my legs up to put them between the bar and my head I had a bit of a falter getting through the space but managed and then lowered them down behind me until they were perpendicular to the floor. Now the hard part. Could I get them back up and then back through the bar and back down to the floor? It took every bit of my strength but I did it. Afterwards, Allene took the SD card out of the camera and inserted into our laptop so we could watch the video on the large screen. I wasn’t happy with the talking part at all. Allene said, “Okay, let’s do it again.”
I looked at her like she was nuts and said, “As much as I’d like to redo the talking parts, there’s no way I can Skin the Cat again. We’re gonna have to go with it.”

It has to be obvious that it’s all done in one take. So I apologize for that. I’m not very good at public speaking and even though it’s just Allene and me in the room, I know in my mind a lot of people will see it. I promise to do better next year. Some idiot even wrote me and said, “Next year you should do it naked!” I told him I’d think it over.

So I am exceedingly happy about meeting my goal, but now, after accomplishing that one, it’s imperative to set another one. And I know exactly what it will be. Also, the one after that.
My new goal is to get my fitness level and my leg rehabilitated to what it was before the accident.

The next goal will be to get in the best shape of my life and start riding big powerful waves again. And … if the good Lord’s willin’ and the creek don’t rise, I’ll see you again on June 27, 2023 with another Skin the Cat video.

Until then … Never Stop Surfing.