I have never felt at a loss for opportunities to bring my Stoic philosophy to bear, but I have recently had special need for it, as I have been in the throes of and am slowly emerging from what would generally be regarded as a tough time. On the surface, my circumstance is not particularly noteworthy—I can even remember at least one time more challenging, so I would not be tempted to say that fate has doled out any trump cards; however, it has been a protracted and stressful time. The mere statement, “I broke my ankle,” does not reveal the variety or depth of the experience: the pain and suffering, the mounting costs and inconveniences, the perceived lost opportunities, and the drawing down of blinds on a way of life—that last vicissitude being for me the worst. I broke my ankle on July 30th and now on October 16th, I think I might have chronicled the stages of my ordeal, like Aaron Ralston in the cave (although I readily admit he, as well as innumerable others, had it far worse). I question whether it is pointless to reflect and attempt to commit to paper the experience. I can think of no immediate purpose, except that, as a Stoic, the only real reason to learn anything or to write is for yourself, and I, myself, have a hankering to spend time remembering.
Life always changes in an instant; however long the preamble, there is the defining moment. My moment came without warning, I might say, except as a Stoic I know that anything can happen to me if it can happen to others. Also, horseback riding is dangerous and the horse involved was not fully known and had hinted that he had a quirky side. Without provocation during a forward but controlled canter up a slope in a familiar field, he made a sudden, violent, dip and dart out to the right, leaving me suspended in mid-air waiting for gravity. My position changed so little that I landed as if still in the saddle, except that my right leg was lightly more extended than the left. Maybe if my knees had been equally bent I would have broken two ankles instead of one. Falling entirely on my right foot, the ankle snapped into pieces on both sides. I knew instantly of course that a dreaded event had befallen me. While the ankle swelled my mind calculated the most pressing logistical problems: I was over an hour and a half from home, with my puppy; I needed to get to a hospital and then find an orthopedic surgeon as quickly as possible. I made my phone calls for help, to my husband who had one foot out the door to leave town and my son who luckily was able to make the trip upstate with him to retrieve me, the puppy, and my car. I called my parents to let them know that I would have to cancel the long-awaited trip to visit them in early August, causing me to make a large donation to American Airlines.
Then comes the series of necessary events: ambulance, emergency room, getting home, sobbing at night alone with my new reality; live on the sofa in the family room; realize that this is not permanent and think about those who lost limbs in the Boston bombing– cry anyway; relive the fall again and again—the jump, the canter up the slope the fall, the snap; remember my axiom that we never know what else might have happened, that to lament one occurrence assumes knowledge of all of the other possibilities.
First visit to the orthopedist; I acquire another heavy cast that feels like a block of concrete against which the unset bones swell; days later, another emergency room for relief from the cast and better drugs where I dispense with all decorum and cry in pain with abandon. Surgery at last and the skillful and amazing fix: two little scaffolds of screws and plates on both sides of my ankle to put the pieces back together again; anesthesia dream in which I am passing over to the great beyond and don’t want to wake up; another cast; immobility, helplessness, bad detective novels—how do they get published? bad television. The knee walker arrives and I can wheel around the kitchen. Crawling upstairs works; a bath is possible. I miss the radio from the car and buy a radio. The caregiver shows up—I learn all about her pecuniary difficulties, her family, her religion, and her stream of consciousness thoughts; dispatch her to the grocery store. Fight the urge to complain—what good does it do? Remember that I must comfort myself, complaining is pointless. Opportunity presents itself: I find new dog walkers for the puppy, better than the previous one. Another opportunity: discovering who is helpful and who is not: wonderful neighbor who walks the puppy every day, not so wonderful sister- in- law who doesn’t visit. Phone calls from people who just want to check up, not helpful—have an entertaining anecdote, if not an invitation to get me out of the house.
The end of every day is the best part–another one down. I am living a posthumous existence of unrelenting dullness, marking time like all prisoners must do. Tipp over on the knee walker twice and fall for added mortification and bruising. Disregard doctor’s orders and take walking cast off at night—what a cruel proposition to sleep with a ski boot on for over four weeks. Go out with a friend, try to drink away my suffering and realize that three margaritas on one leg and crutches is a bad idea. Take recourse to the classics and find an essay by Seneca not yet read. Thoughts of how much worse it could be—at least I am at home, I have my husband and two sons, I only broke one ankle, it will heal.
I start to be able to put weight on the ankle. Weight bearing in increments over three weeks and the big event–physical therapy begins–wonderful physical therapy. Some place to go, albeit in a cab of course, still not driving. I have the distinction there of being the most injured. My fellow patients want to play tennis or get the kinks out of the neck; I yearn to get to the bathroom at night without crutches. Driving is a week away, but doesn’t happen on schedule. October 13, I can drive; October 16, take steps without debilitating pain shooting up the inside of my calf; develop deep love for my physical therapists. The bliss of putting my foot under the covers and rolling onto either side has not diminished yet. Still can’t walk the dog or make it to the basement; I ration my walking. Am I up to 100 steps a day?
Yet, strangely to me, I wonder, in the waning days of this debacle, about regaining my non-injured lifestyle. Have I become attached to my injury? It has become a way of life and has taken the place of everything else and has been self-defining. Like Byron’s Prisoner of Chillon, have I adjusted to love my confinement? What happens now that I am pretty normal, but just can’t walk very far or much? I am just a dull, slow mover missing a big part of my life. For more than twenty years horseback riding formed my identity and occupied my time. It provided exercise, activity, camaraderie, challenges, self-satisfaction, thrills, life lessons, contact with nature and animals–but also, over the last two years, particularly, it has meant frustration, difficulty, great expense, and way too much driving. How could I ask my family to tolerate all the cost again and the risk for that matter, after I put them through this? How much would I want to resurrect my old life; it is one thing to miss an aspect of the past and another to go to great lengths to revive it. A good horse does not show up like a stray cat, and even if I had one at my disposal, would my mind allow me to enjoy it?
If riding is gone, I will have to adjust to this in the same way I adjusted to not putting my leg on the ground. One adjustment after the other. Seneca noted our ability to adjust as one of the great gifts of nature: “Reflect that men newly shackled chafe at the ball and chain on their legs, but necessity teaches fortitude and habit indifference. Nature has done better by us here than in any other department, knowing that man was born to sorrow she invented habit as an anodyne to calamity, thus reducing extreme hardship to the level of the ordinary. If adversity kept the force of its first shock, no one could bear it.” Amen. By the way, if I have sounded like an underachiever as a Stoic, given I cried, had a breakdown in the second emergency room, and fell into despondency, I will point out that I could d have been much worse. At least I understand the best way to act to benefit myself and others who must live with me. I have the knowledge to try to reign myself in. Like the chubby guy at the gym, how much fatter might I be without it? I am not a sage, but as Seneca queried, “Who is?”
Soon I will return the rented knee walker and get rid of the crutches. Physical therapy will end and walking will seem normal. This episode will fade and be followed by the next defining moment of gravity, convergence, hapless timing, inevitability, or other force, already in motion.