Even looking out through the glass patio doors at another beautiful desert sunset, I was wallowing in self-pity over my lost mobility; confined to a damned wheelchair. Not only was I required to be off my feet for possibly another two weeks but I still had to carry around the damnable halo as well.
If you're picturing a sweet, cherubic winged child, erase it. My halo wasn't a luminous circle of light denoting holiness, it was a clumsy steel and leather frame sitting on my shoulders with four metal points screwed into my skull to prevent any motion in my broken neck. And I was getting damned tired of it.
Mom came into the room and stood behind me with her hands on my shoulders. "Doing OK, Honey?"
"I'm good. I just want this torture device off me."
"Soon, Baby." I felt her touching the healed incision on the back of my neck where they had gone in to repair the damaged vertebra. I knew I should be counting my lucky stars that I wasn't a respirator-dependent quadriplegic. Or dead.
"We'll see what the x-rays look like tomorrow. You know Dr. Winslow won't keep you saddled with this thing any longer than is necessary."
"I know, Mom. You know me, always got to be out doing something. Sitting around drives me nuts!"
This was the point in our often-repeated conversation where she found a way to change the subject. "Mm. You know, I've been thinking about landscaping the back yard so it would kind of blend into the desert instead of the grass coming to an abrupt end at the rocks and sand. Maybe xeriscape it and put in a rock garden with a little irregularly shaped grassy area and some flowers around the patio. What do you think?"
"Yeah, I think that'd be pretty."
She patted my shoulder. "How would you like to be the designer? It'll be a good chance for you to use your artistic talents. You can park yourself on the patio and rough out some sketches in pencil and pastels. Then maybe we can get that guy that did John and Irma's yard. He did it beautifully, didn't he?"
"Yeah, it was a great job. Sure, Mom, that sounds like a fun project. I'll work on it tomorrow after we get home from the clinic."
We lived in a pretty nice tile-roofed adobe and stucco house – more like a hacienda - on the very edge of a small southern Arizona town. My dad had it built after he hit it big in the computer software business. We were over a hundred miles from his offices but he was a pilot and had his own Cessna 210 he flew back and forth. He developed pancreatic cancer about a year and a half ago and, unlike Steve Jobs who held out for quite a while, Dad was dead less than six weeks after the diagnosis.
Mom was going to sell the plane but I begged her not to. Dad would sometimes let me take the controls once we were in the air and I wanted to get my pilot's license and fly it myself. That's how I wound up in this wheel chair looking like something out of a sci-fi film.
I didn't crash the 210. My instructor thought it was too much airplane for me to begin with so we were in his old Skyhawk. We were on my first cross-country flight approaching a landing at our second stop. The turbulence had been fierce over the desert and we were both anxious to get down and take a breather. We had just crossed the end of the runway and I was in my flare when we got hit with some sort of a big downdraft and slammed onto the runway hard enough that it blew the right tire. The wingtip dropped and caught in the tall grass causing us to spin off the runway and flip over. I knew something was wrong right away because my neck hurt like hell and my whole body felt like it was asleep.
The NTSB investigated of course, and based on my instructor's statement and other reports of severe clear-air turbulence in the area, they decided I wasn't at fault. My instructor's plane was totaled but his insurance replaced it. While I was still flat on my back in the hospital, I got a nice card from him with a note asking me to let him know when I'd be ready to sit in the left seat again. I sent back a thank you card with a note saying I would call him the moment I had medical clearance. I was going to fly that 210 come hell or high water.
My visit to Dr. Winslow's office turned out to be all good news. The x-rays showed that the bone graft was as solid as a rock and he removed the halo. God, what a relief! I'd still have to wear a stiff cervical collar for a while but I'd be able to start daily PT and, with some hard work and a little luck, get back to full function in three or four weeks. We were introduced to the physical therapist in his office and set up a schedule for her visits. She looked like she could bend steel bars and chew nails but she was really sweet and promised she have me in shape in no time.
By the end of the day, I had eight sketches of various landscape designs to present to Mom. We discussed and fussed over them until they were whittled down to three that we'd show to the landscaper. We got his number from our neighbor, Irma across the road and made an appointment for him to come over the next afternoon.
I was still feeling like I'd been machine-washed and tumble-dried from my first session with the physical therapist when the landscaper, Mateo Marquez arrived along with a younger man he introduced as his son, Miguel. After we traded handshakes and names, they followed my wheelchair through the house and out onto the patio. Before they even sat down to look at my sketches, they both took out their wallets and showed us their green cards.
"What's this for?" I asked the older Mr. Marquez.
In heavily accented English, the older man said, "Theese to show you we are legal."
I couldn't pass up an opportunity to show off my Spanish. "Bueno. Le señores cuidado para algunos té helado?"
The older Mr. Marquez said, "Si, gracias."
The younger Mr. Marquez said. "Yes, thank you. Iced tea would be very nice." He didn't have a trace of an accent.
I must have blushed because he flashed a beautiful smile and said, "I've lived here most of my life."
Mom laughed. "Show them your sketches, Honey. I'll be right back with the tea."
They studied all three ideas for some time. Miguel looked up at me and asked, "Did you do these yourself, Miss Oakley? They're very good."
"Thank you, Miguel. I'm an art major at ASU. On temporary hiatus as you can see. And please call me Sarah."
"Sarah, a beautiful name. Let's go out to the end of the yard and look at it from another angle. May I help you?" he asked, glancing at the wheelchair.
My fiercely independent self almost refused his help but then relented to the kind gesture. "Thank you, Miguel."
After more discussion, Mateo said they could do it and that it would take four or five days to complete. He and Mom went into the house to discuss the costs and Miguel pushed me back to the patio to finish our tea.
Nodding at the collar, he asked if I had been in an accident. I told him about the plane crash, vowing to be back in the air within a month.
"I'm envious, Sarah. I've always wanted to learn to fly but I doubt that will ever happen."
"Why is that, Miguel?'
I felt a little ashamed for being so cavalier. "Yeah, it ain't cheap. Don't give up hope though. I'm sure there are ways. More tea?"
Mom and Mr. Marquez came back out to join us. He rattled off a few sentences in Spanish to Miguel, who responded with, "Por favor, Papa. En inglés!
He turned to Mom and me and said, "I'm sorry. Sometimes it's just easier for Papa to explain things to me in Spanish. What he said was we have another job going right now but that he could finish that one by himself while I got started on this one day after tomorrow. That's if it's OK with you, Mrs. Oakley."
Looking at me, Mom said, "Well, I suppose that would be all right. I need to drive up to Phoenix on business for two or three days but Sarah will be here. Is that OK with you, Honey?"
"No problem. I'm looking forward to being a sidewalk supervisor." Three of us laughed. Mr. Marquez senior wondered why.
The next afternoon after Mom headed north, I was lying on a chaise on the patio recovering from my second PT session. It wasn't any easier than the first. Dr. Winslow still wanted me to use the wheelchair as much as possible. It's not that my legs didn't work, it's just that after nearly two months of relative immobility, they were still weak and he didn't want to take the chance that I would fall and undo all his hard work. Anyway, the therapist helped me walk all over the house so I took that as tacit permission to abandon the wheelchair from time to time.
As I lay on the patio enjoying the warm spring air, I was thinking about the landscaping and the landscapers. Mateo and Miguel were both very handsome men but in different ways. I guessed Mateo to be about fifty but it was hard to say because his face was weathered from working outside his whole life. Still, you could tell he was probably a real babe magnet when he was younger. Miguel was just plain yummy. The Indian heritage was quite pronounced with his skin as brown as toast and his ebony eyes and glossy black hair. I didn't doubt he had a string of girlfriends around the county. He might have even been married but I didn't see a ring on his finger.
I was curious about his education because he was so articulate and well spoken and didn't fall into the patois you often hear among the migrant workers. I intended to find a tactful way of asking him about it the next day when he showed up to begin the job.
In the meantime I lay there thinking about wearing something nice, maybe vaguely provocative without being slutty. A girl could always dream, couldn't she?
.... There is more of this story ...