When I was younger, as some of you readers are aware, I broke my leg (I leave the story of how that happened for another day). I remember the day the blue fiberglass cast finally came off, as I sat on the orthopedist’s table. I saw my leg for the first time in several weeks: it had shriveled. My left foot and calf were noticeably thinner than my healthier right foot. Looking at the contrast caused by muscle atrophy, at this leg I didn’t even recognize as my own anymore, I began to cry. When the orthopedist re-entered the room, he told me in a commanding voice that my leg was completely healed and to go run down the hall to the waiting room. Well, I didn’t run. I hobbled.
And I kept limping for a while. Until I grew accustomed to limping, favoring my left leg. I borrowed a cane that had once belonged to my granddad, and used this to support me for a while. The orthopedist had promised that since I was young I would probably bounce back from the injury without a need for physical therapy. Well, I remember my mom seeing me limp out from my room one day and, in exasperation, declaring that I was going to see a therapist.
So I did. The therapists put electrodes on my foot to warm up the muscles for about 15 minutes, and then I began doing exercises. Some of it was painful, and I know I cried at least once. As visits continued, I got to know several of the people at the center. There was Reneaux, the stocky therapist whose real name was Renard but insisted it was important to have a cool nickname. He recommended “Captain Jack” for me. Then there was Rebecca, another therapist who had always wanted to play the violin and actually started learning after she found out where I took lessons.
The other patients there also had their own stories. An older lady came regularly for therapy on her wrist, which she had broken after tripping on some sort of pet leash. She had an odd notch in one of her calves, and one day she explained what had happened: she had had a growth there, so she had gone to the doctor, who looked at it and then informed her that he was 99% sure it was cancerous and that he’d have to amputate her leg to keep it from spreading. “I cried the whole way home,” she said. But when she woke up from surgery, she still had both legs—apparently the cancer hadn’t metastasized, so all the surgeon’s had to remove was a big chunk out of her calf.
One patient, an exuberant woman in her late twenties, sat next to me a couple times. Like me, she was receiving leg therapy. She loved getting to know people and talking about her church, and she asked one day what had happened to me. After I told her, she shook her head, “Ahh, you’ll be all right, though. You’re young, and you’ve got your whole life ahead of you. When you get to be older, they fix you by putting nuts and bolts and rods in you.” She laughed and demonstrated by extending her leg until her reconstructed knee stuck in a rigid, mechanical sort of way.
People like this encouraged me, but looking back I still cringe thinking about how much I milked my injury. Of course, I didn’t think I was at the time, but I most certainly did.
Since then, I have had a more general realization: there comes a point where I can begin milking pain or sadness in my life the same way I milked my leg injury. Using it as a subconscious excuse to be lazy, or reckless, or rude. In reading Nathaniel Hawthorne last quarter, a quote struck me, one from The Dolliver Romance, which describes a widow (and possibly refers to Hawthorne’s own mother) “whose grief outlasted even its vitality, and grew to be merely a torpid habit” (Hawthorne).
When grief becomes habit, be careful. It might be time to say, “Yes, I was hurt, and maybe nobody expects much of me, and maybe I’m not completely healed yet, but it’s time for me to stop using this as an excuse. It’s time to move on.”