Many moons ago (I just learned that Earth may have had a second moon) I experienced my first knee dislocation. I was in Little League in the late 70’s. I just went down hard to the ground and didn’t know why. I came to recognize the feeling, when your kneecap slides out of place and you just fall wherever you are. It didn’t stop me from running around back then, though each time it happened more damage was done. Both my knees would dislocate. In high school the backwards diagnosis was for me to wear knee braces with metal bars on both sides. In theory, if the kneecap dislocated and slid out of place, the metal bars would hold me together somehow. The braces were something out of the movie Forrest Gump but smaller. The other kids called me things like robo-knees.
I had knee surgery on my right knee in 1985 I think, and to this day it’s holding on with just the barest amount of cartilage as I understand it. The dislocations in my right knee stopped. My left knee was worse and I didn’t help when I tried to play with the football team without pads on a dare. (The guys in the band were supposedly soft) I carried a few guys a few feet before they piled on. Sometime after this I woke up one day and went right to the basketball court outside and tried to bust some moves. My knee popped and I went down hard and couldn’t get up. I laid there until my father found me. I went to the hospital for surgery number 2, which worked. 6 hours of reconstruction I recall. The surgeon told me that someday I would have to deal with this again and that he wasn’t able to fix the things he wanted to entirely. Something about a tendon and my legs just not lining up right. I also had no insurance and went into debt for $80,000 or something and declared my first bankruptcy before I turned 20.
Fast forward to the 2000’s and a diagnosis of the evil Osteoarthritis, which just eats knees. I spent a year on a cane, lost weight, did physical therapy, had gel injections, steroids for pain, and even an experimental treatment at a stem cell clinic that I paid for with my tax return. I rejected 2 surgeons telling me to replace my left knee. The turning point was learning about Hot Yoga from my future wife Sue. Hot Bikram Yoga is hardcore, but all the muscles around my left knee got stronger. I did it over 300 times and got several more years of walking out of that. Then Covid came and ended Hot Yoga. I tried to practice at home, but my condition worsened. I tried bike riding which seemed to help. I then went to see my brothers super cool Rottweilers and made the mistake of thinking I could play with them. I tried to make the same moves I made playing basketball back in the day, and that was it. My left knee had reached the end of the line. I tried physical therapy but was soon on crutches. It still stings to hear the words my surgeon told me soon after.
No problem I thought, it’s time for that replacement that I have been fighting off for about 15 years. The previous surgeons told me if I said no, to try and make it to 50, and I turned 50 this year. Covid has me out of work, but this time I had insurance. Let’s rock, Aries style. I didn’t hesitate to decide to do it, but the truth is I had no choice. My mobility was gone.
The most pain I had ever had prior to this moment was playing a gig with appendicitis (that I didn’t know I had). I went to the hospital from the gig and made it just in time. I’ve never sweated more on stage. It was like the guys in the NBA in the finals sweat. It was a duo with bassist Matthew Heyner from the band TEST, and a live radio broadcast in Brooklyn. The operating table was like laying on ice, and the lights blinded me. I couldn’t move for a week after that. Getting snaked by the nurse was terrifying for us both, and I resisted.
Back to the present and I’ll never forget what happened next. I was wheeled into another super bright room, but there were like 15 people there. They took my glasses, leaving me only able to see a few feet without a blur of reality. My surgeon was not there. A man I don’t know propped me up and held me there as the anesthesia was already starting to kick in. He was like a boxing coach right before I went into the ring for the fight of my life.
I got you
You’re not in this alone
You’re going to be OK
I can’t explain how much that meant. An injection of humanity into an environment and moment that was actually terrifying.
It’s not easy having no control over your life and being totally helpless, forced to rely on people you don’t know to do something so extreme. I knew that a robot saw was going to cut out my old knee entirely and had read descriptions online using words like amputation. Next thing I knew I was waking up and my surgeon told me that Osteoarthritis had actually consumed my knee cap entirely, and my old knee was completely destroyed. The surgery was a success. The narcotics started flowing. What I didn’t know was that the master of all pain and suffering laid in wait for me that evening.
From him, there would be no escape.
I’ve noticed that in Hospitals there are two kinds of people in my experience. True healers, and people who are at work and just want to get the next task done so they can get back to their phone, aka that digital dope. You can tell people you’re hurting but not everyone can see or feel what you’re going through. There’s also the reality that some people have seen so much pain that they become desensitized to it for their own emotional survival. I’ve learned that when pain hits on the deeper levels, the most important thing you need is to know that you’re not alone in the struggle. Like my previous knee surgeries, I expected a point when I would be maxed out on painkillers but they wouldn’t be enough. The pain keeps you from sleep so you just lay there and cook all night long. I knew this moment was coming, but I didn’t know it would be the most severe pain I had ever experienced in my life, far beyond what I experienced back in the day.
My night nurse Dawnette carried me through that first night. I’ll never forget what she did for me.
She saw me. I knew I wasn’t alone in the fight.
I was still intact that next day, or so I thought. The next Sunday morning was where I was pushed past a line where I felt I was somehow coping with the pain. I was in and out of delirium that night when they woke me at 8am to eat. Morning also brought a new level of stiffness that made me feel like my leg might have almost died. I had to go to the bathroom, and couldn’t get out of bed on my own. I called for help, but none came. I forced myself to what was called the commode. After that I again couldn’t get back to the bed. I called again for help but none came so I forced my way to a chair by the window. A physical therapist showed up and explained I would be tested to walk stairs later. But as soon as he arrived, he left, and I was still in the chair. I realized later that he left me there on purpose. I couldn’t reach the call button so I just sat there as wave after wave of pain started flowing over me. After about an hour, two younger student physical therapists showed up. At this point the pain had moved past every wall I had tried to put up. I remember the way they looked at me, like they were afraid. They asked me how I was. With no defenses left, I told them my truth.
They quickly left, and I was still in the chair by the window. That’s when I realized how to survive the moment. I needed only to reach my phone and headphones. I got them and turned to John Coltrane.
As John Coltrane’s music played (live at the Vanguard) everything started to come into focus. Now I saw that I was on the path to myself, and that this was the only way forward. I started to see who I was, and what my purpose in life was. I understood on a deep level that if I allowed it, music could carry me through to the other side of this wide river. His music told me that the body can break, but not the soul. The more I believed in the music, the more I seemed to be getting away from the pain. The music had the power to shift my focus and to remember to trust the process of life. I felt like nobody in the hospital could see me, but somehow that John Coltrane could, and did. His music made me feel like I wasn’t alone, and that together we could survive this Sunday morning trial together. Survive I did, even somehow passing the stair test and heading home later that day on surgeon’s orders.
A key moment was about a week later, when I just drowning in more waves of pain. I reached out to a friend who gifted me with a Buddhist chanting technique to survive that carried me past another barrier. At the core of this process was experiencing deep humility and gratitude for being able to have my knee replaced, and knowing that I would be able to walk again. I continued to listen to John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Charles Gayle, David S Ware, Sabir Mateen, and Ras Moshe. Now a few weeks past the surgery, I’m grinding away at stiff and stinging physical therapy, but I feel like I’m on a mountain path moving slowly, with the sun and wind at my back. I’m taking it one day, and one inch at a time.
As I toil and boil I’ve been able to ask myself what I’ve learned by this experience so far. My primary understanding is that I can longer deny the spiritual power in my own music. The pain has worn away all my levels of defense the same way Osteoarthritis ate my knee. Music was there to pick me up and carry me through. I have always believed in the power of music to heal as Albert Ayler told us, but now I have had the actual experience. Part of my responsibility now, is to convey that message to others through my own music. As a result of this spiritual transformation through music and physical rehabilitation, my own personal music is changing on deep levels. I’m pulling water from a deep well, somehow connected to an eternal reservoir.
The body can break, but the soul is indestructible
Music will be there for you
Today I have a new knee
Today, I start a new life
For Sue Nyoni, Dawnette, Adam Cohen, John Coltrane, Albert Ayler, Giuseppi Logan, Charles Gayle, Sabir Mateen, Tom Bruno, Daniel Carter, Gary Lavelle, Theresa Beck, and Mama Nyoni