The decision to do it, to go for the new hip, had not come easily. Back and forth I went over the previous winters: I’m too young. I can still ski. (I was 59 at the time.) I can barely walk back to the car after a morning on the slopes, but I can still do it, damn it!
Then on the other side: I’m bone-on-bone. I’ve seen the pictures. Yoga isn’t doing the trick. I’m eating ibuprofen by the handful, day and night. That can’t be good. That isn’t good.
I can still sleep. Pretty well. Most nights. Except when I can’t because there are no more positions to try, no way to silence the ache.
But what if the new hip turns out to mean an end to skiing? It could happen. Isn’t skiing, even skiing in pain, better than not skiing?
One surgeon rolled his eyes when I said it was important to me to be able to keep doing this thing that I loved – the reason, in fact, that we’d come to Western Colorado 35 years ago. He didn’t get it. I found another surgeon.
But I’d never had any kind of surgery before. What if I didn’t wake up? It’s happened. Yes, I knew hip replacement is one of the most common elective surgeries in the world. Hundreds of thousands of us used-and-abused Baby Boomers do it every year. The new parts are made of titanium alloys and third-generation, cross-braided polyethylene and the hardest, smoothest ceramics known to man. The on-line testimonials were legion.
I researched all of the options. Each surgeon has a preferred “approach,” cutting you open from the front, the back, or the side. Each approach has advantages and disadvantages.
Failure rates overall were low. But there were any number of ways a new joint could fail. The one recurring bugaboo was dislocation. Artificial hips don’t have the range of motion your original equipment affords. You’re going to have to be careful, my surgeon said, for the rest of your life. “You don’t ski in the backcountry alone do you?” No. “Good. Because no one should die of a hip dislocation. But if it happens, I promise you, you won’t be able to move.”
The pain was turning me into an old man before my time. My daughter Cloe, who’s a doctor, said she could see it in my eyes. She mentioned the d-word, depression. “Dad,” she said earnestly, “pain is bad.”
Then Cloe told us she was pregnant. The same Cloe whom Ellen and I taught to ski at age 3 by scooting her back and forth between us as we ping-ponged down the beginner meadows at Telluride. Cloe bubbling with pleasure in our backwards-snowplow arms. Cloe was going to have a baby, and that was the kicker. I wanted to ski with my grandson. And for that to happen, I was going to have to trust in modern orthopedic miracles.
Alexander was born in September 2008, a month into my rehab. We were there. Cloe and her husband Adam wanted us in the room with them. Three generations now. The cycle of life continuing.
I could walk. Carefully. In the hospital Cloe put Alex in my arms and I rocked him in place, whispering sweet powder nothings to his perfect innocence.
At four months out, in early December, I decided to test the new hip on the slopes. After the first run I knew. On the second chairlift ride, I relaxed as I hadn’t in years. I conjured a ski day with little Alex just a few winters hence.
My lift-mates on the quad chair must have wondered about the head thrown back, the closed eyes, the long involuntary smile of relief and celebration.