The woman at the grocery store tried to take my cane to the Lost and Found as I swiped my debit card and chatted with the clerk.
“Wait! That’s mine!” I called to her.
“Oh… I mean… I… uh… Sorry… It’s just…” she stammers and tries to explain.
“No really, it’s fine! It’s an easy mistake to make.” I giggle a little uncomfortably. “But can I get that back, please? I can’t, you know, go anywhere without it.”
I’m halfway hoping she’ll ask why I need a cane in the first place, seeing as I am an otherwise able-bodied-appearing twenty-something. My boyfriend and I decided we would say that I was a ballerina, that he doing a lift with me, that an angry ex-girlfriend sabotaged us so that he would drop me. But she doesn’t ask and I don’t offer. The woman and I both blush a little. I lean against my cart and slowly push it outside, taking one slow, careful step after the next.
The truth is that I never was a ballerina. My attempts at dancing ended somewhere around age four. The truth is that I fell a long, long ways. The truth is that I had an accident, a sudden, traumatic accident. The truth is that I have over a dozen fractures, from my back to my ankle. The truth is that I’m learning to walk again, one slow, careful step at a time.
The accident happened like most unexpected changes do: at a time when you feel like you have it all figured out. I was weeks away from graduating college, I had a job in foreign country, had plane tickets in my hand and a scholarship in my bank account. Then I fell. When I hit the bottom after dropping a bit over 30 feet, it took a second for the pain to sink in. I remember thinking that maybe it wasn’t that bad.
That’s when I learned that when something hurts, really hurts, you don’t cry. Not really. You scream.
I yelled for help. A security guard with kind eyes stayed with me, talking to me quietly and quickly in the tone of voice that people use to calm skittish horses. The EMTs loaded me on a stretcher, tied a sheet around my hips to keep my broken bones from moving, and ran with me to the ambulance. I remember shouting phone numbers over and over again until someone said they would call my roommate, my mother. I could taste blood and my broken body felt like someone was shaking a box of sharp puzzle pieces under my skin. They cut my clothes off of me, asked me how I would rate the pain on a scale from one to ten, and kept running, running, running with my body secured as best it could be.
The next week or so is fuzzy at best, partially because of the trauma and partially because of the copious amounts of morphine they were giving me that couldn’t ever completely get rid of the pain. I remember my best friend gently cleaning my face. I remember asking where I was and when someone told me the ICU I said “That means it’s bad, doesn’t it?”
I remember having my head held when the nurses came to move me and my broken pieces hadn’t all been set yet. I remember waking up and seeing my parents and sister curled up together, sleeping in my ICU room and not wanting to leave me for even a second. I remember them using words to describe my body that would be better suited for a rock concert: shattered, exploded, pulverized. I exploded my femur into three pieces, my hip socket into four more, I shattered my pelvis, my ankle, my tailbone, and a vertebra in my lower back. I remember when I finally looked at myself in a mirror and saw black eyes and a line of stitches on my nose.
I spent a month in the hospital, all in all. I went to my commencement in a wheelchair, a little too groggy from the narcotics a nurse insisted I take. I stayed in that wheelchair for 11 weeks total. My parents got ramps built into our house and rearranged the furniture. I spent my days in physical therapy, sleeping, and sitting on our porch, looking at the mountains and wishing I could hike them like I did every summer. I also spent a lot of time thinking about how terribly, terribly lucky I am.
Frequently, people stared, asked me invasive questions, or tried to blame me for what happened so they could keep thinking something like this couldn’t happen to them or someone they loved.
One time, at a roadside produce stand, the older mountain man working behind the counter half-shouted, “Why you cripple, girl?” as I inspected tomatoes. That one was more funny than offensive. Another time, I watched a woman pull her son toward her and whisper a command in Spanish not to stare. That one was more sad, more tragic than anything else.
But for every person who did that, there were three more that didn’t. There was a police officer who stopped traffic so I could take my time getting into a car, friends who acted like I was just me with a little extra metal installed. My best friend was the one who had to break the news to my mother. Later on, she cleaned the blood out from under my fingernails and insisted on painting them bright colors. A small army coalesced in the waiting room, just lingering for news and refusing to go, while I was in surgery for several hours.
While the doctors gave me the tools to heal my body, these people gave me the strength to hold onto my heart, my spirit.
Recovering has been one of the hardest things I've ever done. My body has forgotten how to move after so much time. I first stood, on wobbly, too-thin legs, with a set of parallel bars at physical therapy. I’m always the youngest person by a few decades. I graduated to a set of crutches and eventually a cane.
I’m now walking short, careful distances unaided. I looked up videos of people walking to try and get some idea of how it felt before. I still can’t figure out what to do with my arms and have a tendency to leave them stiff, like a toy soldier, at my sides.. I still feel like I am practicing a dance that everyone else knows the moves to. They say I’m growing by leaps and bounds.
I’m just doing the best I can for where I am. It hurts and it’s scary. I get frustrated and tired with the healing process and the looks people give the young and disabled. I know airport security will be fun now that I have all this titanium installed. My physical therapist had a severe accident when she was younger and went on to become more athletic, stronger than she was before, even with her once-shattered leg. But she says you carry more from this sort of thing than just an occasional limp when it’s cold outside.
Even though many elements of this are outside of my control, I know what I will make sure I carry with me. I will appreciate every stride that I make. I’ll remember the joy I felt when I took my first coltish step. And I’ll remember realizing that walking is really, really hard and being surprised that any of us decide it’s a good idea in the first place.
I’ll remember deciding that everything doesn’t happen for a reason. Everything just happens. It’s up to you to find a reason.