Reaching twenty-one was a monumental milestone in my life, but for reasons not typically associated with a person’s entrance into adulthood. My birthday always fell on final’s week at University, so I hadn’t been able to celebrate because typically I would be cramming for an exam. There was a rather zaftig and pushy young woman in the theatre department named Ronnie, who shared the same birthday with me. She had been insisting for over a week on buying my first drink on my twenty-first birthday. I tried to explain to her this certainly would not be my first drink, since I had been boozing shortly after arriving on campus. Well, she showed up at my apartment anyway around 9:00 p.m. on our shared birthday, insisting on taking me to a bar where the theatre crowd hung out to buy, what she now termed, my first legal drink. I had literally just begun typing a final paper due at noon the next day for a Modern Poetry class (my topic: Comparing THE LOVE SONG OF J. ALFRED PRUFROCK With the Beatles’ WHY DON’T WE DO IT IN THE ROAD). I told her I would go, but for only one drink and she would have to promise to bring me back by 10:00.
Off we went and by the time we arrived at Carson’s Bar, loads of friendly faces were there and we ended up taking over this big booth – me in the middle and crammed on both sides with good friends. Ronnie ordered me a Harvey Wallbanger, which might have been my very first. I remember drinking it quickly, sensing my time constraint, while other offers were being politely turned down with ‘my final paper needing to be written’ excuse. But there was an insistent somebody, I don’t quite remember who anymore, who sent a second drink my way. The lovely, fruity concoction did go down so very easily. We all of us got to carrying on, having lots of fun as we always did, and it was about 10:30 and my departure deadline had now been postponed to 11:00 p.m. – no later! It was at this time that the fatal third Wallbanger arrived, I believe from a theatre professor named Duane, and I finished it quickly, just in time to start for the door with Ronnie, car keys in hand. The last thing I remember is standing up and pulling on my winter coat. Then came blackness.
Early morning winter sunlight was glaring into my left eyeball and the ugly Harvest Gold carpet of my apartment through my right. I was lying face down on the living room floor, only a few steps beyond the front door. Still in my coat, Ronnie or somebody had literally dropped me off and I had collapsed in a drunken heap exactly where they’d left me. It was early morning and evidently I had fallen asleep with my right arm twisted underneath me and there it had remained until I groggily attempted to pull myself up into a vertical position. Surprisingly my wallbangered head seemed relatively fine. The only thing on my mind, as I was slowly getting my bearings, was the paper which was still in draft form all over my tiny kitchen table next to my antique Royal upright typewriter. Thank God I’m a fast typist (65 wpm), I thought. I had to have this in my English Prof’s mailbox in a few hours. This was the last day of finals; my roommate had gone home the day before as had many students, since it was Christmas break. I needed to make some coffee and take a fast shower to get going on the task at hand, so I started moving, waiting for my arm to join the rest of my awakening body, but the familiar pins and needles sensation seemed not to be kicking in as Nature had ordained.
I struggled to execute the once simple task of setting up the electric coffee percolator, this time one-armedly, and then dragged my lifeless right appendage along with the rest of my body into the bathroom. A wonderful hot shower was all I needed to get the blood flowing, I thought to myself. Twenty minutes of hydrotherapy and rubbing and slapping, yet it still hung lifeless and limp at my side like a flaccid donkey dick. Oh my God I was crazed! Damn that obnoxious Ronnie – this was all her fault and now what the hell was I supposed to do? I was naked, wet and literally wailing, struggling to dry myself off, totally unable to cope in my new left-handed world. I was still waiting for either my arm or myself to wake up from this nightmare, but neither happened. It took me over three hours to type the eight double-spaced pages with my left hand/one finger technique, but I made it to the English building about a half hour before deadline. I was relieved but desperate to find a friendly shoulder to cry on about my affliction. I headed for the Theatre, in hopes that someone would be there to commiserate in my hour of need.
The usually busy lobby would typically be filled with students coming and going at lunch time, but it was nearly empty save for a few staff members. I headed towards the Green Room and met my friend Dennis milling about himself. His parents lived in town, so he wasn’t going anywhere for break. I asked if he had time to get lunch and in minutes we were out the door and off to our friendly diner. On the walk there I gave him my drunken night before’s tale, explaining the infirmity I was now left with. He was actually the perfect person to deal with in this instance because he was cool-headed and no-nonsense. He told me just what I wanted to hear: “It’ll go away”. Here was a theatre person, so he could easily filter out the drama of the situation from the reality and stated that obviously I would live to see another birthday and eventually everything would be all right. My parents were coming to pick me up the next morning to drive me home. Moms usually manage to make things better, we decided, so we enjoyed our lunch together as I bassackwardly attempted to eat and drink with my left hand. The only thing I could accomplish successfully now was to light and smoke cigarettes and Dennis and I did a lot of that whenever we were together.
The next morning my arm seemed a bit better. At least I was able to feel the presence of it pulling on my shoulder, but I could not make it move at either elbow or wrist without manipulating it with my good hand. The right hand was useless, literally 100% dead. Now I was not only worried about my arm, but about how and what I would tell my parents. They arrived at the apartment early and wanted to go out to the Pancake House for breakfast. I said I’d rather just go straight home. They were taking my suitcases and all the stuff I gathered together for the next three weeks at home to the car, so I was able to hide my incapacity from them. I sat in the back seat, with Dad at the wheel and Mom in the passenger seat. I felt about eight-years-old again, but at least at that age all my limbs were totally functional. I wanted to cry. I was so scared to tell them my news because I was afraid of what came next, certain now that this drunken consequence had to be permanent.
“I can’t use my right arm at all”, I told them, condensing the story as much as I could. Dad enjoyed the fact that I drank so much I passed out – some sort of rite of passage badge, apparently. My mother had turned around in her seat and was questioning symptoms: how long had it been like this, just how dead was it, even resorting to feeling my forehead testing for fever – pulling out all her Mom-as-nurse protocol. “Do you think it could be something serious?”, I spit out the question that had been stuck in the back of my throat since this had all come to pass. “Well you know”, she deliberately paused for emphasis, “your great-grandfather had his stroke in his early forties”, as though he and I shared some genetic family curse. “But I’m only twenty-one!”, I nearly sobbed. She knew I might legally be an adult, but I had just shown I was still her baby. “We’ll go right to Dr. Grayson’s office. He’ll be able to squeeze you in at some point today”. I felt better already. Although I didn’t want to admit it to my mother, I knew my great-grandfather had a stroke very early in his life, and I did fear that this was the reason my arm still lay dead in my lap in the backseat of the car.
The good news was it had nothing to do with the Harvey Wallbangers or a stroke, my doctor explained to me early that same afternoon. I had lain so long on my poor arm with the weight of my body cutting off the circulation, that I’d killed a large nerve center in the elbow which fed most of the arm. It would take weeks for the nerves to regenerate, and there was a slight chance of some nerve loss, but the arm would regain its full function and I would soon live an ambidextrous life once again. I had to go through physical therapy throughout the three-week Christmas break, graduating only when I could successfully squeeze a soft rubber ball, making a fist with the reawakened hand. And, by the way, I got an A on my Modern Poetry paper.
We are so often a bit too eager to reach adulthood, looking forward only to the freedom and independence that we believe it will afford us. There I was, finally twenty-one-years-old, and all I still really needed was for Mommy to kiss my boo-boo and make it all better.