This image of Colin Craven from the best movie version of The Secret Garden (fight me) is posted here utterly without permission.
I don’t quite have my head together yet, but here goes.
I turned 35 a few weeks ago. I hadn’t made any plans for my life past the age of 30, so I’m five years off the map. I have spent the last five years toddling into long-range planning I should have been doing when I was in my early twenties. It’s never too late to start a savings account, right?
By age 30 I expected to be three things: 1) published, 2) using a cane (maybe even a wheelchair), 3) dead.
But, hey – I got published!
Dead is a long story for another time. (tl;dr: depression.) Or maybe, never.
Using a cane – or rather, not using a cane – is what I’m writing about today.
When I was a kid, like most kids, I loved to run. My friends and I would burst through the doors at recess and just run as fast as we could around the perimeter of the elementary school campus until the bell rang. I can still vaguely remember what it was like to take great lungfuls of air and pump my arms and legs with abandon and eat up the ground with giant leaping strides. But the memory is faint and fading and that part of my mind itches, like it’s an old scar that’s been irritated by a new lotion or too much sun.
Sometime in the third grade I hurt myself. I cracked both knees good and hard on some lumpy asphalt in the playground. I started kvetching about it immediately (stoicism was anathema to me – I was an extremely dramatic and self-centered child, which is a very large part of the reason that I’m not having kids of my own). My knees hurt. Every day. All the time. More so when I was running, kneeling, or jumping, but still, all the time. Everyone assumed I was crying wolf. Something was always wrong. My needs were always greater than those of my four brothers. I was always more tragic than my (truly) tragic friends. I wouldn’t have believed me, either.
So I didn’t get the X-rays I had been moaning about until I was in middle school. The X-rays got me sent to a specialist. The specialist had MRIs done. I was informed that I had two different conditions, one in each knee. In the left: Osgood-Schlatter disease. In the right: Osteochondritis dissecans of the medial femoral condyle. In both cases, a chunk of bone had broken off of my knee area. On the left, it was a piece of my tibial tubercle under my patellar tendon, and in my right it was inside the joint, on the one of the knobs of my femur. The broken bits of bone were inside lesions, which took up extra space and caused inflammation and discomfort. Both conditions should have healed themselves but hadn’t because although I was in constant pain I didn’t alter my activities. It was at this point I was finally waived out of PE and advised not to run or jump unless it was vitally necessary. (Like if I needed to run for my life.) I was told that I was going to develop arthritis earlier than other people. And someday I was going to need a cane. Maybe a wheelchair. Maybe arthroscopic surgery with debridement and a graft of cadaver cartilage. Maybe a complete knee replacement.
I remember looking at imaging of my right knee – where the lesion was weight-bearing and the pain greater – and burning the image into my brain. I also committed my prognosis and the spelling and definition of both conditions to memory. My tragedy was real now. It had a name. You could look it up in imposing, fat, medical tomes and no one could deny my pain anymore. I was not crying wolf. I was looking at a future full of walking aids and surgeries and every step I took ground dead bone into living bone and cartilage and brought me closer to that end.
I was as sure as Colin Craven that I was going to be a cripple. After all, the doctor had told me so.
(Like I said, I was a really dramatic asshole kid. The goths wouldn’t have me but I would have made a great emo if they had existed when I was a teenager.)
At this point in my life all my heroines (when I finally graduated from anthropomorphic animals to writing about human beings) were tragic in the way that I imagined I was tragic. They always took long, painfully slow walks down cold beaches, leaning heavily on canes and grimacing through their pain, looking off through the mist and the veil of of their absurdly long and curly hair, to think about what might have been, had they been able to walk normally. They always died virgins and were mourned by great crowds of admirers. (They also had ridiculous Victorian-era names like Cordelia, Philomena, and Felicity.)
Fast forward a little more than 20 years. I am 35 years old and hopping over a baby gate to escape my five month-old puppy just long enough to take a shower in peace. When I come down on my right knee I swear I feel something move in a way that is both new and wrong. I have recently stopped exercising after years of on-again off-again regularity with low-impact aerobics because my knee was getting “upset” more and more easily.
It was finally time to go back to the doctor.
I went with a heavy heart. I had spent decades putting the old me behind me (as best I could) and ignoring my knees (as best I could) was part of that work. But the inevitable was finally here: surgery. How was I going to afford surgery when we needed a new roof and we already had a second mortgage? How was I going to get groceries to the house, five miles from town, if I was stuck on the couch for weeks or months? How was I going to walk the dog, who still would not pee off-leash? What if I was crutching my way into the kitchen for a glass of water and Geordi came tearing around the corner during his afternoon freak-out and tackled me and I had to call 911 for an ambulance? (I long ago traded extroverted drama for obsessive, introverted anxiety.)
I went back to the same specialist facility where I had gotten my diagnosis in the 90s. My old doctor had been, well, old, back then and had long since retired, so I took whoever was available. That guy manhandled my knee in exactly the merciless manner I had been panicking about (and which every doctor who has ever touched my knee has done, and which I asked him please not to do) and, days later, it still throbs like someone hit it with a sledgehammer. I can feel the exact spot beside my kneecap where he dug his thumb in until I thought I would scream. (But introverts are fanatical people-pleasers, so I didn’t say anything but “hey, um . . .” and I did my crying after he left the room.)
He talked me into getting an X-ray that very day. The cost of X-rays has plummeted with the advance of technology on and what I had anticipated as being a fee I’d have to scrape together for weeks ended up being about on par with my internet bill.
The images were revelatory. My memory of the imaging done in my teens had been deeply flawed, probably skewed out of all proportion by my retellings like a one-person game of telephone. The lesion did not take up the entirety of the bottom surface of the condyle, like I remembered. Instead, it was a small portion of the condyle, not broad and flat, but narrow and triangular. It was tucked up inside the lesion (and my living bone) pretty neatly, and didn’t look capable of escaping its little den. The doctor told me that the large dark areas between my tibia and femur indicated a healthy amount of cartilage.
“It looks good,” he said. “No sign of arthritis. No chance it could migrate. I don’t see a reason for more imaging or anything. Go home and work on that garden you were telling me about.”
I didn’t realize I was crying until he made a weird face at me when he reached out to shake my hand. I felt kind of like I was having a low-grade panic attack and my eyes were leaking as I left the building and reparked my car in front of the Natural Foods Co-Op to get a celebratory bar of fancy chocolate. As I dabbed at my eyes before sending the above tweets I realized I was happy-crying.
But, of course, nothing is that simple. We all know there’s never really a happily ever after. Writers, I should hope, most of all. I know nothing in life is permanent, and yet somehow I also thought this was something I’d never escape. OK, I haven’t escaped it – my knee is still broken – but what I thought was a tiger stalking me through my life has turned out to be a mangy alley cat.
Life goes on as usual: I cook, I plot, I throw sticks at the dog, I blather into my voice recorder about the half-dozen books I’m not writing. But it’s like I’m forgetting something important. Not like there’s an actual hole in my life, not like that feeling after a breakup or a death, but more like I’m keeping busy and being nagged by that creeping dread that I’m supposed to be doing something else, something much more important. Like someone is standing just outside my line of sight but every time I turn my head they have moved.
When you Google “redefine yourself after loss” you get articles about how to recover from losing something good. When you then Google “recovering from loss of something negative” Google assumes your grief is affecting your typing and suggests articles about dealing with death and divorce. No matter how I phrase it I can’t get what I want.
But I know what I have to do. I have to wait. I have to feel the feelings and think the thoughts and give my mind the time it needs to adjust to the new state of things. I need to rework my stressor list. As they say, the only way out is through. (I could write a whole post about the origins of that saying, btw.) Time and fresh air will fix me as surely as they fixed Colin Craven.
But now I wonder, how have others dealt with this kind of thing? There are too bloody many of us on the planet for me to be the only one who has felt bewildered after losing something negative that they wanted to lose but which also formed a large part of their identity. Comment below. Shoot me an email. Tweet @ me. Let me know.