I was the healthy one. That was my role. My mother nearly died from an allergic reaction to penicillin. My father suffered a kidney stone. My older sister was rushed to the hospital during her pregnancy, fibroid tumors threatening to choke off her unborn child. My kid brother was a walking accident. One night, just for fun, he bounced on the bed, bounced on the bed
— and landed, head-first, on his desk. Off to the hospital he went for stitches. I stayed home with my crayons and drew him a get- well card.
That was my role. I watched pain. I ignored it. I seemed to have an invisible shield, protecting me from harm. Once, in college, my car was blindsided by a truck and crushed into a teepee shape. Even the police shook their heads. I crawled away without a scratch.
A few years later, I fell asleep at the wheel, banged into a dividing wall, and bounced down the road on a blown tire. No cuts. No injuries.
Why I have been so blessed, I cannot tell you. But over the years, I have taken it for granted. I was the healthy one. No casts. No bandages. Healthy.
Now I am on crutches.
So much for the fast lane
It happened last week, during a pickup basketball game. I felt a sharp pain in the back of my leg, as if someone slung a rock at my calf. I fell to the floor, looked over my shoulder and yelled, “Who hit me?”
Nobody hit me. I had done it to myself. At the hospital, they called it a ripped muscle. Pretty bad. Needed rehab. Ice, therapy, crutches. “Do you know how to use these?” the therapist asked, handing me a pair.
“Well, I’ve seen it done,” I said.
I slipped the rubber pads under my armpits. I gripped the wooden handles. I pointed the tips out in front and swung my weight through like a pendulum. Crutches. For the first time in my life, I needed apparatus to get around.
I tell you this story only because the last few days have been fascinating and sad, an education in how we treat the handicapped in this country. As I hobbled out of the hospital I had two strangers open doors for me, and countless others stare at me, then quickly look away, as if embarrassed.
It was that last group that got me the most. Before the crutches, I was one of them.
As a sports writer, you lead a high-octane life style. Rush to the locker room. Rush to the press box. Rush for planes. Deadlines. More deadlines. For some reason, I always enjoyed this. It made me feel young.
On Thursday, I went to the airport, another plane, another assignment, only now I hobbled through the corridors where once I had run, using a cane the doctors had given me if the crutches proved too cumbersome. The cane was worse. I moved very slowly, one labored step at a time.
On the moving walkway I went, as usual, to the left, where it says
“walk.” Suddenly I heard the sound of feet behind me. I tried to move faster. I could hear the person sigh. Finally, he huffed “Excuuuse me,” and galloped past, a businessman with a briefcase.
I stood on the right, catching my breath. God. Had I done that when I was healthy? Later, when the plane landed, I hobbled out only to find a skycap with a wheelchair.
“Here you are, sir,” he said.
“No,” I said. “Wrong guy.”
“Didn’t you call ahead for this?”
“Me? Of course not!”
He watched me struggle with my bag and my cane. I nearly fell getting up the ramp.
“You sure?” he asked.
“Yes,” I seethed, wishing he would stop looking at me, wishing I could just dance away from the whole scene.
On the road to recovery
How many people out there feel this way every day? How many suddenly disabled people who can no longer go as fast as they used to go? Old people. Accident victims. Those afflicted with a crippling disease. We so often dismiss the handicapped as a different breed, comfortable in their wheelchairs. “They’ve gotten used to it,” we tell ourselves. We forget that many of them were once running through airports, too.
And you never get used to it.
I understand that better now. It’s amazing what a few days on crutches will do. Suddenly, I am at the back of life’s line. Last to the press box. Last to the door. On the one hand, I encounter dozens of sympathetic faces who hold doors open and offer to carry bags. But there is another group that seems uncomfortable with me now. Women who look away. Men who step around me. I know them.
They are the healthy ones.
I am lucky. I will recover. I think about the thousands who only dream of that, and all those years I ignored them. I close my eyes and see my kid brother, bouncing on his bed. And I realize even falling on my head wouldn’t wake me up as much as these crutches have.