There is so much that leads up to every little thing in life. No one thing stands wholly apart from the rest. It is never so simple as that. The line is continuous, like the line you see on a heart monitor, and although the spikes and the dips, the peaks and the valleys seem to stand out--and do stand out in their own way--they remain part of the same line, and their meaning lies within the context of the entire line.
Where do we begin, therefore, when we set out to talk about a single event? We like the notion of suddenness in life, whether the subject be negative or positive. I was just sitting here doing nothing, we say, when suddenly the heavens opened and blessings descended upon me. I had given up on love, I was no longer even looking, when suddenly this woman, this man, appeared. I was minding my own business, just the same as ever, when suddenly my heart stopped, when suddenly the cancer appeared, when suddenly the aneurysm exploded in my brain.
I will say therefore, knowing the same to be essentially untrue, that I awoke one morning in the spring of 2007 to find that suddenly my left foot had died. I had done nothing to cause my foot’s demise, or so it seemed to me at the time. I had not so much as stubbed a toe or stepped on glass or twisted an ankle, or even clipped a nail in the recent past. Why then had my foot died?
This I wondered as I sat on the edge of my bed. My side of the bed, that is. My wife was yet sleeping on her own side. Had my foot had some unfortunate adventure of its own whilst I slept. Had the dead foot itself now awakened me? But how can the dead wake the living? Lazarus in reverse? From the grave my foot said Come forth?
Maybe you have slept on your own arm in the past, and awakened to find the thing quite absent. You pick up the arm with your living hand from the other side, marvel at the sensation of having lifted the arm of someone else altogether. But of course you know it is your own arm, as familiar and well beloved as any other part of your body; and you also know that this is a temporary anomaly, for it is something that happens, and has happened before, and will no doubt happen again in the future.
You marvel, as I say, at the sensation of death in a member of your body, and yet remain comforted by the full confidence that the feeling in your arm will soon return. You are 99 percent certain of the thing. The only thing that is interesting, really--the only thing that is marvelous about the thing--is that one percent which lies in doubt.
I wonder if this might be the seed from which Mark Twain’s well known story of the Golden Arm arose.
Once 'pon a time, Twain says, dey wuz a monsus mean man, en he live 'way out in de prairie all 'lone by hisself, 'cep'n he had a wife. En bimeby she died, en he tuck en toted her way out dah in de prairie en buried her. Well, she had a golden arm -- all solid gold, fum de shoulder down. He wuz pow'ful mean -- pow'ful; en dat night he couldn't sleep, caze he want dat golden arm so bad.
There is no doubt that we want that golden arm back--the precious one, the one of value, the one that lies temporarily dead on the bed sheets.
Who took my golden arm!
And so we wiggle the fingers, difficult at first, but sure enough sensation begins to return. Using then the good arm and hand, we shake the slowly awakening, temporarily foreign appendage. Feeling crawls up from wrist to forearm, forearm to elbow, elbow to shoulder, and by and by the old arm returns, able straightaway to do all the old arm things it had done before.
But this, in my case, was a foot, not an arm, and feet are not generally known, or commonly known anyway, to fall asleep at night. One does not sleep on his foot. How would he? Rather, if one wakes to find his foot missing, it seems clear that something rather more unusual has occurred.
Paresthesia--a loss of sensation or a sense of tingling in the skin of some part of the body--is a symptom found in a number of disparate problems. Hyperventilation syndrome, for instance (or the panic attack), may temporarily result in a lack of feeling in the hands or the feet. But you breathe into a paper sack and it passes, right?
Of a more serious, intransient nature is chronic paresthesia--a problem with the functioning of neurons. Peripheral vascular disease, or narrowing of the arteries, results in an inability of the blood to supply sufficient nutrients to the nerve cells in the extremities, which causes in turn--what else--a numbness and tingling in the feet and hands.
Ah, but the possibilities go on, marching to ever more obscure tunes. Allow me to hum a few.
There are the inflammatory diseases, for instance--rheumatoid and psoriatic arthritis. There is clinical anxiety, excessive mental distress, bone disease, poor posture, whiplash, frostbite, Lyme disease, transient ischemic attack, lupus erythematosis, Guillain-Barre syndrome, Fabry disease, herpes zoster, sphingolipidosis, alcoholism, hyperglycemia, hypothyroidism mercury poisoning, rabies, sarcoidosis, decompression syndrome. Oh, and menopause.
My occupation for the last twenty odd years had been as a Health Information Specialist for a large medical center in Portland, Oregon, where I, and notably my foot, had lived the 53 years to this point without experiencing a serious health problem--in fact without suffering so much as a broken bone. I was aware, therefore, of all of the maladies mentioned above--as well as many more which surely could have nothing whatsoever to do with feet, sensation, or the lack of sensation. I felt no pressing need, for instance, of a paper sack to breathe into. I had no pain in the chest, no headache, no shortness of breath. And of course there were some things that could be fairly certainly ruled out according to odds that were simply too long. Menopause, for instance.
What I did note however, as the minutes passed, and as I cataloged and interrogated the various conditions which might have been and yet could not be applicable, was that my right foot had now begun to reduplicate the troubles in the left.
What? Is this happening? It can’t be! But it is.
First the big toe, then all the toes, then the forefoot, the heel, the ankle. It felt for all the world as if an invisible stocking, thick, tight, had been pulled over each foot in turn, cutting off circulation, smothering all familiar sensation. I sat there staring at the things--my feet--so suddenly mindless, foreign, seemingly detached--two lumps sitting side by side on the carpet, just below the bed skirt, as if they were no more part of me than a pair of buckskin slippers yet unworn.
And my wife slept along on her side of the bed, and the dog at the foot, curled snout to tail, snoring.
On the one hand, I’m thinking Hey, you guys are missing the most amazing thing here.
And on the other, I’m finally beginning to panic a bit.