Last month, I went for a ride on a beautiful Indian summer afternoon. The horse was a tall chestnut mare, new to me but a true pleasure to work with—until she decided the ride was over and bucked me off. One ground rush, one somersault, and one rather sickening snap later, and I was lying on my back in the red dirt with the end of my collar bone almost jutting through the skin of my shoulder.
This was not, in fact, my first ride in an ambulance. In my first semester of graduate school, I had been hit by a minivan while crossing the street (well, jay-walking across the street, if I am being perfectly honest—and I have the ticket to prove it). That incident resulted in a much more serious injury, as one might imagine: concussion, nerve damage, and a pelvis broken in three places. Oddly enough, upon waking up on the road, my biggest concern was that my sneaker had been knocked off by the force of the impact. Someone was kind enough to find it for me and put it in the ambulance when it arrived.
As a generally healthy young person, I had previously had very little cause to reflect on what it means to be helpless or in pain. In the wake of each of these incidents, I had plenty of time to ponder both.
First, I came to the conclusion that our souls are really not glued very firmly to our bodies. I had the distinct impression after my first accident (having passed out a second time in the ambulance) that I could just as easily remain in the cool, comfortable sea of unconsciousness as come back to the waking world. I floated for a few moments just under the waters, but finally I bobbed to the surface and opened my eyes to the fluorescent institutional lighting flicking rhythmically above me as they wheeled the stretcher into the hospital.
I never lost consciousness in the fall from the mare, but as I lay in urgent care (which everybody called the E.R. until, I suppose, the television show spoiled the respectability of the name), I had the same sensation as I did when I woke up after being hit by the car: my soul was still the same, still familiar and my own, but my body was a completely foreign thing. I felt, unaccountably, as though what I consider “myself” had been put into the wrong container. Could I move my legs? Yes. I suppose they are still mine, then. Can I move my arms? Yes—well, one of them. Only they had put an I.V. in my good arm, which meant I couldn’t move it much for fear of disturbing the tubes that were coiled all around it. Could I lift my head? I wasn’t supposed to; they had me in a neck brace. But in both of my accidents, the brace was far too big for me, and so I did a good deal of swiveling about anyway, just to make sure I still could. Limb by limb, muscle by muscle, I slowly reclaimed my body, stretching my soul back out into my extremities and telling myself that this was still home; we had just knocked over all the furniture.
Injuries do not end when they release you from the hospital, of course. In many ways, the hardest part is still to come, because recovery takes much longer than anybody is willing to wait for you to get “back to normal” (whatever “normal” will be for you thereafter), and unlike in hospitals, you don’t have anybody in charge but yourself—you’re back in the “real world,” only you’re about half as capable of handling it as you were the day before you were hurt. I was fortunate enough in both instances to have supportive and extremely patient loved ones to take care of me until I could take care of myself again, but the experiences left me wondering, as my aunt put it, “How does one convalesce without a family?”
It also made me appreciate how incredibly easy everyday activities are when one is not injured. The simplest tasks became mammoth endeavors for me—oddly enough, more when I was in a sling than when I was on crutches. Who’d have guessed it would be more inconvenient to be without one arm than it would be to be without two legs? If I were an amputee or if I had been born without an arm, no doubt I would have developed work-arounds—would have figured out ways to “Frankenstein” a solution to the problems of the one-handed. I have, after these incidents, not just a theoretical and emotional respect for such individuals, but a profoundly palpable sense of awe in their ability to overcome the biases of a world designed for two hands and two feet, all of which work as directed.
Here is just a short list of things I (being a neophyte in the one-handed world) could not do at all, or found incredibly difficult to do, with a broken collar bone and its attendant arm immobilized in a sling:
· Do dishes
· Floss (whoever designed those little disposable handles with floss on the end deserves a medal, possibly sainthood)
· Tie shoes
· Cut my toenails (I had never before realized that this was a two-handed operation)
· Open a door and turn on the light at the same time
· Hold a cell phone and do anything else
· Drive (it is, the orthopedist told me, illegal to do so with a sling)
· Put on a coat I intend to be able to take off again
· Sleep on my side (For me, who have never been able to sleep comfortably on my back, this translates into not sleeping at all. The daily act of going to bed became a desperate ritual in which I courted Morpheus with a mountainous offering of pillows, and nightly I became a Jacob wrestling with the angel. Morpheus proved implacable, and the angel always beat me.)
· Blow-dry my hair
· Sneeze (this is not a problem with a sling; it is, however, very painful with a broken collar bone)
· Crack an egg
· Open pill bottles (How cruel is that, separating an invalid from her pain medication by the barrier of a childproof cap?)
· Type at more than about 20 words per minute
· Adjust the volume on my laptop, as this requires one hand to press the Function key an another to press F12
· Move two-handled things (When my mother made a pot of stew, she left it on the stove to cool. As bedtime approached, I went to put it into the refrigerator—only to discover that I couldn’t move the thing. It was astounding to me how entirely insuperable this barrier was: I could put the lid on it, I could spin the thing uselessly around on the burner, but I could no more move that pot than a dog can open a combination lock.)
When it comes down to it, I suppose I didn’t really have much to complain about. My soul, after all, was at least stuck enough to my body to stay there; my crutches are gathering dust in my parents’ garage, and eventually I’ll fold up my sling and put it in the bottom of that Tupperware bin in my closet where I keep my spare pillowcases, ratty towels, and other things I don’t have any use for. Other people are not so lucky as to be only a little bit broken.
I hope I’ll never forget that.