Well, here I am again. The familiar position I find myself in is one that I have discussed before. Come Monday, as you read this, I will likely be in a recovery bed at the good old Hospital for Special Surgery, less one right ankle. The surgery is going to be a long one, for it serves two purposes. As those of you who read my column know, not only will I be getting the ankle replaced but my surgeon will also be correcting the bones in my foot so that the ankle sits properly. This means the operation will probably last six hours or more, one of the longer surgeries that I have endured. All surgeries are risky, and this one is no different. Despite the risk, though, I am not afraid. In fact, I just keep thinking about one thing – how life goes on no matter what.

As you all know, in the last two weeks, Superstorm Sandy and then Nor’easter Athena pummeled New York and the surrounding states. I live on Long Island, so we were at ground zero. Granted, we were a few miles away from the coast, so there was no flooding here, but we did live without power for seven days. Power was then returned to us for just two days before we lost it again for another day due to the nor’easter.  In other words, we have had electricity for just 8 of the last 15 days. While living like a pioneer is quaint for a day or two, after 48 hours of freezing your butt off and making like Abraham Lincoln with the firewood, things begin to get a bit dicey. We had no other choice but to buy an axe and a hatchet and begin to chop up all the fallen trees in the neighborhood. One or two of the nights were so cold that my entire family had to sleep in the living room in front of the fireplace. Anyway, my point is, the storm was like nothing else I’ve ever experienced, and I learned several important lessons from the events of the last few weeks.

Above all else, and I don’t mean to scare anyone by saying this, it shocked me how fast things around here deteriorated when the gas stopped flowing. Within 72 hours, people were stabbing and shooting each other over a few gallons of fuel. I personally witnessed three separate fistfights. Three elderly women in the area ambushed a teenager and stole his FEMA food package. Trust me when I tell you that there was a day or two around here when conditions were akin to the apocalypse. We had to purchase a locking gas cap and make sure there was always a bat in the car when we went out. My brother and I would venture outside each day to see what supplies we could scavenge from the limited shipments arriving. Ice to keep food cold, batteries to power flashlights, gasoline to power generators and cars, food that wouldn’t spoil, firewood and starter logs to keep warm, and, believe it or not, milk. Milk was the most difficult thing to find during the disaster. Fortunately, we ended up purchasing the last four half-gallons of organic milk at the food store, but we certainly got some dirty looks from those on line behind us.

Now, this was only a short-term problem, so the fact that people knew the shortages would eventually end helped to temper the behavior of normal citizens, but things could have been much worse. All I kept thinking was what I would do if it wasn’t a short-term issue, and the shortages lasted months. Someone like me who relies on monthly medicine refills and doctor visits would be well and truly screwed. I might be able to get regular medication, but my narcotics? I’d never be able to obtain the amounts I’d need to stave off withdrawal. Short of knocking over a pharmacy, I cannot figure how I’d be able to survive. I won’t lie – thinking about it scared me, and still does even now. People who are chronically ill are inextricably tied to their local pharmacy and are anchored by the need for medicine. If something were to disrupt the flow of medication for any prolonged period of time, those of us who are ill would be in serious trouble. It’s a scary proposition, I know, and the entire ordeal served to remind me just how reliant I am on modern medicine.

While the medicine problem did weigh on my mind, I also inadvertently proved to myself that I just might be able to survive, come what may. As I said, when you have no power, you spend most of the day trying to prepare for the coming night. I understand now why pioneers rose at 5am and went to bed at 7pm – they were literally exhausted. First of all, when there are no lights to speak of, 9pm feels like midnight, and with nothing else really to do, you go to bed. So, because you went to bed so early, your body automatically wakes you earlier, and the day begins at 9am. Mine went like this: Wake up, take a shower, wake up my brother. Drive around for an hour and load up the truck with tree branches that littered the roads around here. When we got home, my brother would take the axe and split the logs down the middle, just as they did in the 1800s. Watching him, I understand now why the men from that era were tough as nails. Try swinging a 16-pound axe all day and you’ll understand too. Once we finished chopping enough firewood for the night, it was almost dinnertime. Yes – it took that long. For those of you who don’t know, firewood might as well be newspaper for how fast it burns. I’d say, conservatively, you need about 25 logs per night to keep the fire going. Add another 30 to last the day, and you have yourself quite a task to complete before dark. You can buy the logs at 8 dollars for 5 logs, or you can cut your own. Since we didn’t want to go broke buying something that was lying around the neighborhood, we opted to chop.

After the firewood was done and we brought it all inside, we’d make sandwiches or try to cook something on the gas stove for dinner. It never quite worked out, though, so mostly we just ate junk or nothing at all. One night I had sour gummy worms for dinner. Another night, I heated frozen waffles in the fireplace, wrapped in tin foil. Let me tell you, smoky Eggos aren’t as good as they sound, trust me.

Anyway, after dinner was completed, we’d all gather in the living room in front of the fireplace for an hour or two and either play a game or read books by flashlight. This was one of the few benefits of the storm. I cannot remember the last time the family regularly gathered in one place for hours at a time. Honestly, it was nice. Before we knew it, though, 9pm had rolled around again, and the cycle began anew.

Somehow, I was put in charge of keeping the fire going. Since I had to get up every four hours for pain meds, I guess I was the natural choice. Tending the fire was no easy task, though, let me tell you. I had to make sure that there were always logs on the fire to burn, and I had to make sure that the flame never went out. Since the fireplace filled up with ash quickly, this was a monumental task. Sweeping out the ashes each day become a ritual. In the end, though, we survived, kept warm, and were no worse the wear at that.

All of this seems like a lot of hard work, and it was, but I proved something to myself. Medicine aside, my brother and I did what we had to do to keep our family safe, and honestly, we did it well. My R.A. was always a factor, but I proved that I could overcome my disease to do what needed to be done. This is something that I always liked to think about myself, but I never had a chance to prove it in an actual life and death situation. Not to sound over-dramatic, but that fire kept us from freezing one or two of those cold nights.

So, I can proudly say that I was able to do what needed to be done, R.A. be damned. It fills me with a feeling of accomplishment to know that my disease didn’t keep me down, even with three joint replacements and a heart attack. As those who read my column know, lately I have had some insecurity about marriage and raising kids. I wasn’t sure if I could do it, with all that is required of a parent. Now, though, I know that I can overcome anything that I deem important enough, and
it is a great weight off my shoulders.

Ultimately, though, I am reminded that life goes on no matter what. Despite the destruction that is still visible around here wherever you look, I have a surgery scheduled for Monday, and it is going to happen this time. Yes, there are people who still have no homes, and there are people who still have no power, but business must go on as usual.  As someone smarter than me said, “time waits for no man.” It’s true, and things must get back to normal. Heh, getting an ankle replaced equates to “normal life” – imagine that!

So, come Monday, a little bit more of my normal routine will return, and a little bit more of my body will be replaced by machine. This a good thing, I’ve come to realize, for as long as events like ankle replacements can take place, it means that life is getting back on track here in New York. Yes, we will be cleaning up from the disaster that was Sandy for years to come, but just like those of us who are chronically ill, we will survive, and we will rebuild. The lessons I learned about myself during six days in the dark will stay with me always, and now that I know I can survive, I just might try a few of those things I had previously written off. Skydiving

CreakyJoints wishes our good friend Dan a speedy recovery from his ankle replacement surgery. Daniel Malito is a true lesson in courage.