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Lesson from Mary-Jo
Posted March 27, 2004

For several weeks I've been expecting to start writing this any minute. For a while I was busy changing my mind about what I thought. Then I was busy changing my mind about what I was going to write about. Then I was busy thinking it was going to be too hard to put into words. Then, in a fit of impatience, I wrote an outline while waiting for a hamburger to arrive.

I planned a trip to Victoria so that I would have a few hours to spend in Vancouver. Everyone else in Nelson was raising money for Mary-Jo after her ski injury. I thought it would be a good idea to visit her. She's one of my most influential yoga teachers: I hadn't even been to her yoga class since last summer, but I hear her voice in my head all the time. I had read her cheesy diary and it gave me THE SHIVERS. The good kind.

I walked into Vancouver General and asked where to find Mary-Jo. The receptionist looked her up in the computer and directed me to the G.F. Strong rehabilitation centre, a few blocks south.

I walked into G.F. Strong and asked where to find Mary-Jo. The receptionist said "second floor, room 226." I was amused, but not surprised, that she could tell me the right room number without looking at her list. Mary-Jo is pretty popular.

I poked my head into her room and tried to figure out which of the two beds belonged to Mary-Jo. I had just decided that the person in the nearest bed was too small to be Mary-Jo when she said "oh, hi Tom." I hadn't seen her in months, and I thought I was going to surprise her, but for all the surprise in her voice you'd think I had been visiting her at the same time every day for a month.

I talked and talked and talked for a few minutes. Lots of smiling was done by all. Then she was getting out of bed, which was a process requiring machinery and trained personnel, so I got out of the way. Kevin and I followed her to the doctor's office to see some computer-mogrified X-ray pictures of her spine before and after her operations. We laughed about her wheelchair-driving skills and speculated about how our ears give us such good clues about what's going on behind us.

We got tea at the cafeteria, and talked about our beloved government's plans to close the cafeteria and bring in airplane food instead. We tried to put Mary-Jo's coat on without doing something silly like dislocating her shoulder. I was very scared that I was going to do something wrong because I just have no idea about this sort of stuff.

We got outside. Apparently you don't tend to spend much time outside right after a spinal injury. Vancouver in February is much more springy than Nelson in February, so I was pretty excited about it too.

Up to this point, I had been suppressing my habit of busting yoga moves in every spare moment. For some reason I thought it would be mean to do that in front of a yogi in a wheelchair. Somehow I got over it (probably by forgetting) and did plank pose on the lawn.

Within about two seconds, Mary-Jo started giving me lessons: "Push your heels back. Push your fingers down. Raise your rhomboids." ("Where are my rhomboids?" "Between your shoulder blades.") "That's right. Push your fingers down." I was surprised that she could see through the layers of fleece to determine where my rhomboids were.

Kevin is a chiropractor. He added, "you can strengthen them by doing reps, lowering and raising like you did just now." This is definitely the best student/teacher ratio I've ever encountered.

While this was going on, Mary-Jo dropped her weak "careful not to overdo anything" voice and turned on her calm, matter-of-fact yoga teacher's voice. (The one that makes me feel really silly for being unable to "curl my tail" any more after doing three reps of her Unbelievably Difficult Abdominal Exercises.)

I stuck around until it was time to leave for the Vancouver Island ferry. I spent the day following Mary-Jo to various appointments with physiotherapists and such. She spent the day reassuring me that everything is okay. She didn't come right out and say it, but she got the point across somehow. Before I even got to my car, I felt ridiculously happy about life, the universe, and everything. A month later, the feeling hasn't worn off.

Over the next few days I tried to figure out what made me so damn happy.

The staff at G.F. Strong were awe-inspiring. I don't even know where to start. They're just the best.

Mary-Jo's roommate, Christine, is a laugh and a half. I had the impression that she was thankful for her spinal injury, because there are so many ways to have a good time at G.F. Strong. Is she like that all the time?

Mary-Jo showed no trace of frustration, regret, or resignation. I kept expecting something along those lines (despite having read her diary) but nothing ever came. She behaved as if everything was developing exactly as she had planned it. I arrived thinking that her injury was the most horrible thing that could happen, but to her it didn't seem any more horrible than a telephone call at dinner time. Is she really good at hiding those feelings, or does she really not have them? Perhaps I'm really good at not seeing them.

Eventually it occurred to me that I have been in (vaguely) similar situations before. My father died when I was "too young" (according to Sherry, at least). At the time, my friends seemed to find it hard to know what to say to me. I spent a fair amount of energy reassuring them that they didn't have to worry about how to behave. I never said "don't worry about it." That wouldn't have been quite right. I certainly had some things to worry about myself, but it wouldn't have been especially helpful to have my friends tiptoeing around trying not to have too much fun lest they offend me. It was good to know that they cared, but I found it unusual that the don't-have-too-much-fun act was the easiest way to show it.

The night before, I had stayed with some people who work for Vancouver Co-op Radio. I had planned to drop by the station in case I could help them with the computer adventure they were having that day, but I didn't. Last week I received a card from someone on their board of directors, so I'm assuming they still like me anyway.

I did headstands on the ferry on my way back from Victoria.