Monday, July 3, 2017

No Leg to Stand On

This is a Second Third story, but I’m going to tell it here because you need it for my next post, the Third Third version. Sometimes it’s a hilarious story that I tell when I’m in stand-up comic mode, and sometimes it’s a lesson-learned story that I need to re-tell myself. Feel free to take it either way, but it does sort of occupy an epic place in my life experience.

Thirty years ago, Tim invited me on one of our first dates. We were going to cross-country ski with his friends in the back country. His circle of friends skied better than I, a fact I discovered right away when I blinked at the trailhead and they disappeared. So I shuffled along by myself – muttering all the while this would be the last date with That Guy.

It was the kind of ski outing where you catch up with everyone else as they’re finishing lunch, and they stand up and say, “Okay, time to get going.” But there’s a mountain, and then they’re all laughing and falling, falling and laughing, which seems do-able to me. I could certainly laugh and fall. Except that my fall was accompanied by a very clear twang as something in my knee gave way.
So Tim and the rest raced back to the car to plan my rescue, and eventually I ended up at the emergency room in a temporary cast. The next day, I was fired.

I know, that seems out-of-the-blue and maybe even un-related. It was. A new mayor had been elected and, since I served “at the pleasure of the mayor” managing the transit system, I was fired. It’s political. I get that.

The day after, I went to an orthopedist. In his office, the receptionist had some forms for me to sign. As she slid the window to hand me the forms; in a freak accident, the window, the frame, and the molding fell out of the wall, landed on my good foot, and fractured it.
You read that right. I went into the doctor’s office with one broken leg and left with two. Or, as the doctor put it, the knee meant I couldn’t stand on that leg and now the fractured foot meant I couldn’t stand on that leg.

“But can I still swim?” I asked, panicking.

“Uh, you’re not going to be able to sleep in a bed,” he admitted. “You’ll be on the floor for a while.”

All this ended up translating into five months of crutches, braces, and limited mobility. My doctor made a case for conservative, non-surgical treatment so I’d have my knee for the rest of my life. In the meantime, I learned a lot:
  • You cannot collect unemployment if you are physically unable to take a job. If, as a healthy 30-something, I had not magically checked the box for “short-term disability” when I took the job; I’d be broke fast. This is how people end up homeless.

  • I felt helpless and weak, totally un-strong. I felt ugly, pathetic, and worthless. Eventually, a new definition of strength had to emerge: it had nothing to do with lifting things; it had to do with keeping my spirits up.

  • I was part of a community of friends that rose to my aid: doing my shopping, making my house a social center, installing bathroom hardware, driving me to physical therapy, checking in on me. I needed help, and they were there. “There-ness” made all the difference.

  • I was totally unproductive. When it takes 40 minutes to get to the bathroom, you quickly run out of time in your day. All I could do was Be. Amazingly, I got very, very happy. I think the universe had been telling me to slow down. When I wasn’t listening, it broke the first leg. When that didn’t work, out went the job. Still focused on too much Doing and not enough Being? There went the second leg.

  • I learned what it’s like to be disabled. I suffered through office buildings that had ramps outside yet no elevators inside, people parking illegally in the parking space I needed to get into a building, power doors that opened out and knocked over my crutches. Happily, I lived in a ranch house all on one level.

  • I had a good story. No, a great story. People loved hearing this story. Telling it helped me be cheerful rather than pathetic. There were the side stories, too: the one about the taxi driver who got lost and I, thinking he was taking me to some dark alley, extracted the crampons on my crutches and prepared to attack him from the back seat.

  • During all this, I was in new-love, and love conquers all.

As I fought my way back to mobility – passing through the stage Tim described as “might be called walking … in a prehistoric kind of way” – I set a goal for myself: I would run the Alaska Women’s Run, 6.2 miles. That would be my sign that this episode was over.


  1. You're right Barbara, people love love this story. I love this story. Can't wait to read the sequel.


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