When I walked into my follow-up appointment, one week after surgery, I felt strong and confident. Many days earlier, I pre-determined the outcomes for all six months of my recovery. I would wow and impress my surgeon and dazzle my physical therapist. I would be so inspiring to my friends that they would tell their friends about my mind-blowing accomplishments, and sooner rather than later, I’d have fan mail from the far reaches of the Internet declaring me to be an orthopedic rehabilitation guru, the woman whose progress and grace would forever be the benchmark by which all others be measured.
As I hobbled down the hallway on my crutches, unconcerned by my persisting awkwardness, convinced of their imminent disappearance from my routine, I proudly celebrated stage one of my hero’s journey complete.
Lesson 1: managing expectations
“Because of the nature of your repair, I’ve decided you’ll stay on crutches for six weeks.”
My instinct is to turn and look out the sealed glass window because he can’t possibly be talking to me.
“6 weeks?” I repeat, my disbelief tempered by distant hopefulness. My dad is a surgeon and when I was a kid he was often so tired he “couldn’t remember his own name.”
There has to be some mistake.
“6 weeks on crutches, yes.”
“Do you have any other questions?”
Uh. Yeah. What the fuck and are you bloody kidding me and do you even understand who I am?
My inner voice is still strong and confident by my actual voice is silenced by deep disappointment.
I stagger towards the lobby to meet my mom’s anxious gaze. She recognizes immediately: my recovery goals have not been met and she’s in for a doozy as soon as we’re alone together. 20 minutes later, I slide across her passenger seat and burst into tears.
Lesson 2: shave your legs in the bathtub and do everything else your mom tells you
I’m 31 and before I consult the Internet about anything I call my mom. Can I eat this food that’s been in my fridge for three weeks and will I die if I consume warm yogurt? How many cups are in a gallon and why are my cookies spreading and what do you think of this blog before I post it?
When I was younger my mom would occasionally squeeze in twelve minutes of “alone time” to take a bubble bath. I’ve always needed her unwavering attention so more often than not, her alone time included ten minutes of entertaining my needs and inquiries.
Especially, “why do you shave your legs in the bathtub?”
To me it was only practical and possible to shave my legs in the shower. Long strokes from my ankle bone up my thin, repeated methodically In a circle around my leg. When showering became less a satisfying hygiene ritual and more a death defying act of grit and courage, my legs went unshaven for over a month.
Then, from a hotel bathroom in downtown Vancouver, shameful and desperate, facing an imminent poolside gathering with my new coworkers, I attempted my mom’s lifetime ritual and discovered ease and satisfaction.
In the soft, soothing, warmth of the moment I am reminded that my mom is my spirit guide. That in the four weeks since my surgery she has answered every call, catered to every whim and supported my recovery in physical and emotional ways I both knew, and didn’t know, I needed. In the meantime, she took care of her own dying mother, babysat my sixth month old nephew, maintained her demanding volunteer schedule and put dinner on the table, every night.
She is a living miracle, as all mothers are.
Lesson 3: the kindness of strangers
I hate asking for help. I am stubborn and relentless and egotistical and anyone who has worked for me, been in a relationship with me or stood within three feet of me in a grocery store could tell you I am fiercely independent and determined to do “it” myself.
My perception of my limitations on crutches was something like, “I can’t walk.” My reality was something more like, “I can’t do anything.”
Enter strangers. Many of them. Leaping up from their seats at coffee shops to grab the door as I struggled through it. Holding the elevator and offering to carry my groceries and appearing out of nowhere to support my slow progress everywhere. It was remarkable. Even on the last day of week 6 I continued to be surprised, and moved by it.
In my gradual return to normalcy I am aware of the immediate change in my relationship to the rest of the world. Where I have been open and vulnerable and exposed, I am quickly returning to the narrowness of my own experience. My head is down and my pace is as fast as my recovering legs will carry me. I am not available for assistance.
The strangers are the same. I am different.
It’s clear that our ability to work together and collaborate is determined by the extent to which we soften, and accept help. If we seek connection, we must slow down, look up, and open to it. We are only as available as we are vulnerable.
Lesson 4: (try and) stay grateful
but give yourself a break when you don’t.
My life is a self-development paradise. I’ve been practicing yoga for almost a decade, I am a yoga teacher and I live in a city where there is an equal number of yoga studios and bars in downtown. I work for lululemon, a company that is casually making extraordinary athletic clothing as a side hustle to providing the tools, space and resources to help everyone who touches it live their best life.
I can’t see a sunset without confronting a conversation, quote, insight, friend or situation that challenges me to be a more powerful, compassionate, enlightened version of myself.
In the last six weeks, I have been repeatedly overwhelmed by the generosity and support of every, single, person in my life. Humorous anecdotes about the shared struggle of resting an injury; loving offers to help me: travel, shop and feed myself; wise words about patience, grace and the beauty of stillness.
I welcomed, and appreciated all of it.
But sometimes I just wanted everyone to shut up and let me be miserable.
Allow me to indulge in self-pity and struggle and deep, deep sadness. Tell me it sucks, and it’s so hard and let me feel normal for the anger and frustration I felt all over the place. When I got sick of hearing “it’s only temporary”, I wanted them to just hug me and say, “I know, it feels like forever”.
Gratitude, even more than patience and lightness and happiness, escaped me, over and over again. When my body achieved a new milestone-like bending my knee or standing on two legs- I experienced a wave of victory, however gentle, and fleeting. In moments of laughter, I felt swept up out of my broken body and into the wholeness of my spirit, lifted by joy, and hope. Occasionally, I observed the smallness of my injury in the vast, terrifying, scope of the human experience and felt grounded in a healthy perspective.
But gratitude, evaded me.
And the harder it was to feel grateful, the worse I felt about myself. Ingratitude transformed into judgement and anxiety and the fear that my heart, like my right knee, would never work right again.
On the other side of, what I hope to be, the worst of it, the gratitude is creeping back in. As I’m challenging myself to be grateful, I’m also letting go of measuring how much and how often. I see how everything in my life, including my spiritual practice, requires energy, and that even I, especially right now, have a finite amount of it. If I choose to channel my energy to my job, my friends, my recovery, I lose the bandwidth to focus on everything else. Gratitude is not a permanent result of a long-term yoga practice, or meditation ritual or journal keeping. It is a daily, hourly, dedication of time and focus. It is not a reflection of who we are as much as a reflection of how we do things.
Lesson 5: remember, you are beautiful
Week 5. I’m sitting in a plastic chair on the sidewalk of a busy Vancouver street. It’s the middle of the day, during summer, on a weekend. People, mostly families, are charging past me, intent on swiftly reaching their next destination. In front of me, an old man appears. He materializes from thin air and is gliding towards me as if strolling through sand on a quiet beach.
He asks me about my leg and I tell him what happened. He asks me how long since surgery and I want to tell him three lifetimes.
“Almost 6 weeks,” I choose instead.
“That’s a miracle! Look at you!”
I know he’s right but I’ve trained myself to believe my progress is uncommonly slow. I’ve spent several months trying to protect myself from disappointment.
He tells me a short story about his long life and I recognize immediately he is tender and wise.
Before he disappears, he grabs my hand, looks me straight in the eyes and says:
“Remember, you are beautiful”
For six weeks I’d been feeling weak and helpless and burdensome to the people around me. I’d felt ugly and incompetent and like I was running a marathon against my former self, weighted down by 100 extra pounds.
He held up the mirror I’d been avoiding. Just in time.
Lesson 6: my brother is (still) my hero
8 years ago my brother paralyzed his right arm in a motorcycle accident. I remember he spent two weeks in a hospital bed in the front room of my dad’s house then promptly returned to his normal life.
I see now that the transition he outwardly made effortless must have been excruciating, and maddening, inside.
The world is built for the able-bodied. I am not acknowledging this for the first time, but I am experiencing it that way. I feel, not see, how life on the margins is invisibly difficult, in ways I never imagined, because I didn’t have to.
I have been in awe of my brother before. Today I don’t have the words to describe my admiration.