Grief and Loss, Grief features
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Relearning how to walk

“Limping is in the mind.”

This was one of my physical therapist’s pronouncements earlier this month.

I find physical therapy a deeply frustrating process. Progress is slow, so slow that it is impossible to tell the difference from one session to the next, requiring that you keep showing up only on the faith that ‘this’ is helping.

I am re-learning how to walk. Having no memory of the first time I learned how to walk, given that I was about a year and a half old and such a chubby baby that I took longer than my peers to conquer this milestone, this is an unnatural process the second time around. The physical capabilities are slowly returning: I can lean on my left ankle and foot without wincing in pain. I have left the orthopedic boot behind, and I spent a whole afternoon on my knees scrubbing the grey-ish, rubbery marks that my days on crutches had imprinted on our wood floors.

But, I am told, limping is in the mind.

I remember that in the middle of December, I could think of no greater freedom than being able to walk barefoot to the kitchen (this coming from a Greek woman whose mother irrationally but effectively drilled into her head that she can’t ever ever walk barefoot lest she contract some unidentified uterine pain from such activities). I longed for the freedom of bare feet, for not having to plan my every step methodically. For not assessing whether the patch of snow on which I was about to steady my crutches hid ice underneath it. I also longed for vanity: for pretty shoes that matched, for suits and heels, as opposed to suits and a grey astronaut-like boot that, at best, made me look half like a bionic superhero and half like a stocky, wobbly young professional. I longed for things I do not wish for now that I am mobile and not entirely dependent on everyone around me to fetch me a glass of water.

When the first barefoot day came, I was elated. It did not matter that my broken side had atrophied to the point that my foot was tiny and limp, or that I was under strong advisement to “take no more than 1,000 steps a day.” 1,000 steps were better than 1,000 crutch hops or 1,000 wobbly orthopedic boot limps, and I was determined to cherish each one. It almost felt like showing off: “Look at me, I can walk to the coffee maker! (and none of you have to walk behind me to carry my coffee back to my desk for me while I crutch along.)” My demonstration of my newly re-acquired skill was met with exclamations that I’m sure my younger, chubbier self got when she first started walking: “Lookatyou! Walking on your feet!”

***

I did not notice the limping at first. I am sure everyone else did, but like me, they were too excited to see me regain a level of mobility that was unattainable during earlier stages of recovery. I first started noticing when crossing the street. Cars would fail to slow down because I crossed the street more slowly than the driver expected when she or he looked at a twenty-something girl standing at the edge of a crosswalk.

Strikingly like the grief I have also been battling in the past few months, losing the boot and crutches meant I lost all visible injury — rendering the quieter, more invisible forms of hurting difficult to navigate.

Limping is in the mind, I am told. I have spent hours in the past month wiggling my toes and flexing my calf next to football players and marathon runners, with me being the least athletic person in the room. I overhear their conversations about plays and training routines and girls, all the while re-learning how to stretch and balance and pick up little glass pebbles with my toes so they can remember how to curl again. The physical injury is increasingly a relic of the past, but the mind is harder to recover. As it turns out, one’s brain can get used to the adjusted forms of walking — the limping and wobbling. This mental rewiring, the adaptation itself, can become the new normal and, to shake the limp, I need to think without it. Or so I am told.

My freshest memory of walking is a limped walk, with one foot dragging slightly behind the other, one hip doing more work than its counterpart, one part of the body carrying more weight. Much as I try, I cannot shift my mental wiring in a way that redistributes my body weight and allows me to walk as I did before. So my best bet, my only one now really, is to learn anew.

I do not limp when I walk slowly. Thus has commenced a new era of strolling, a pace frowned upon by New Englanders who praise efficiency and resent the frigid climate alike. I notice everything now: the buds on trees, the longer light, the shrinking piles of ice on the sidewalk. The walk to the library that previously took 12 minutes from my house now takes 27. The mile from my office to my home took 57 minutes on what felt like the warmest day of 2014 so far. I can credit not only my limp for the delay but also every friend I encountered along the way, and the conversations at street corners that ensued, punctuated by our marvel that it was, at last, warm enough to stop for a few moments and chat on a corner. I may not remember what it was like to walk before the fall of 2013 and its debacles, but relearning comes with its own exhilaration.

I do not remember what the pre-grief era felt like. I have spent the past decade steeped in successive losses, mourning followed by coping followed by more mourning, followed by a familiar recognition of the patterns and cycles of grief — a recognition that, unfortunately, brings little solace. One of the major milestones in this process of navigating grief has been not being defined by the limping – not letting the loss and the gaping holes it left behind puncture the entire narrative. Yet, as I have realized lately, there are few aspects in my life that are impermeable by it. Grief has colored the way I see.

Perhaps there is something to be learned from the process of re-learning how to walk, only to discover that I simply need to scrap the pressures of memory and learn anew, slowly. I do not remember what it was like to live without grief — it was too long ago and too definitive a series of losses to undo. I have spent the past decade attempting to fight the small pangs of pain that strike in moments when grief resurfaces: at graduations, when others’ families gather together to celebrate, or at my loved ones’ family dinners, where seemingly endless streams of parents and uncles have inside jokes from years of living alongside one another. As far as grief is concerned, I always did think that limping is in the mind — that I could train myself to not be in pain, that I could manage it if I could just teach myself how to walk again.

Increasingly, though, I am making my peace with the limping, with the lack of memory of a grief-less period. I am making peace with the idea that learning how to walk again, in life and in the shoes of grief alike, may not be a recovery that looks like my pre-injury self. I am making some slow, wobbly, fragile peace with a new gait that carries the weight, however unevenly, of the losses I have suffered.

2 Comments

  1. Steve says

    I thank you for this article. More than you will ever know.

    I broke my leg in September, and it was a long healing process. My health insurance cards finally came in, and I was horrified to see how much I’d have to pay (co-pay wise) for Physical Therapy. At this point, I’ll be able to go once a month, rather than every single week, as the doctor would like.

    My doctor told me that the limp I’m currently suffering from, is all in the mind. However, nothing stinks more than being 36, and having to walk with a cane for support.

    Sigh.

    Anyway, thank you for the read. I needed it.

    • Hi Steve — thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. And yes, physical therapy is both an expensive and a frustrating process. I’m wishing you well on your recovery, and I’m confident that it will happen… step by step, day by day. I remember feeling very discouraged, and I can confidently tell you that three years later, I am walking normally, have only very occasional pain, and this was a bleep on the radar. Good luck — I’m cheering you on!

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