Five years ago yesterday, I was using a walker to move.
With great effort, pain, and fear, the walker would allow me to get to the bathroom from the hospital bed we had rented and installed in the adjacent living room. The dark thread used to close up the surgical incisions to my left leg looked like an arrangement of spiders on my knee, shin, and ankle. I do not remember if there were 11 incisions or 13. The hair has grown back and the scars have faded enough so that I can no longer count them, though the big one on my knee is visible from across the room. The muscles in that leg had begun to atrophy, which would continue for months. I eventually moved on to crutches, then crutch, then stiff, careful stride. I believe that I finally walked without crutches about November 18, but, like the lesser scars, that once acute memory has also begun to fade. It may have been the 23rd.
Zero years ago yesterday, I woke up at the Joe Dodge Lodge at the foot of Mt. Washington.
With great effort, some pain, and some fear, I climbed it. It took me and my two high school classmates 7 hours to get up-and-back; we went past the tree line and right up to the ridge line before admitting that the weather reports of “violent” winds, thunderstorms, rain, and hail meant that this novice hiker was going no farther. Okie, the obvious head of our expedition, who has climbed Mt. Washington about 10 times (among other peaks,) took stock and gave us the “about face.”
Around ten minutes after beginning our descent, the promised hail was pelting us and making our walk down across wet rocks even more tenuous. If the universe was trying to convince us not to second-guess our decision to forgo the summit: Message received.
I structure my exercise life around the fear of re-breaking my ankle. My physical therapist and physician made it clear that although there was titanium assuring that neither my tibia nor fibula would ever break again, the four screws in my ankle offered no such guarantee. They are a patch and not a fix. I am not Achilles, it is not my heel, but it is my Achilles heel. As my knees and feet took the pounding of stepping down, down, down wet rocks, I heard my Bronx-born physical therapist’s voice in my head: “I didn’t fix this for you to break it again.”
Favoring my left leg sometimes means punishing my right, and sure enough, I eventually tweaked my right knee. That shortened my stride and slowed the group down even more. From the first steps, I was the limiting factor for speed and rest. Now, after less than a day off the mountain, those pains have dissipated.
This was my first adult attempt to climb anything higher than the Great Blue Hill – which is kind of like skiing the bunny slope. In hindsight, it was at least a little foolish to agree to make my first-ever climb, this deep into my 40s, on the highest mountain this side of the Mississippi. In posting the pictures to social media, I wrote that Craig, Okie and I were all keeping old age at bay with exercise and friendship.
There is more truth to this than my trite phrasing betrayed. Another of our classmates circulated a Boston Globe story (back when it came out) headlined: The biggest danger facing middle-age men isn’t smoking or obesity. It’s loneliness.
He was right. I see it all around me. It is not a problem on par with a cancer diagnosis, eviction notice, or unemployment, but it is still real. Because mine was an injury that would heal, I have the luxury now of making movement and physical work part of the work of staying connected. And feeling alive.
On the one-year anniversary of breaking my leg, after three months of zero-weight bearing and six months of rehab, my daughter and I went to the local high school track. Because I had decided to run. I looked, from a distance, precisely as you would imagine Fred Sanford would look if he broke into a jog. I believe I ran exactly one mile. After the first lap, my daughter asked me to stop and then sat down in protest; she said my running looked so painful she would have no part in me continuing. And sat she did. But run I did. And finish my pre-planned mile I did. I would go on to run three 5K races over two years before deciding that I should be done with high impact exercise.
Margaret Atwood’s poem “Spelling” contains the famous line “A word after a word after a word is power.”
Yesterday reminded me that a step after a step after a step is also power.