Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

I recently broke my kneecap, which really kinda sucks—but things could always be worse

When I tell people I broke my kneecap, they cringe reflexively, as if a mafioso had, just that minute, taken a sledge to their very own patella. "Oof," they say. Or, "Ouch, that must have hurt."

Yeah, that's the understatement of my summer. Because on the June morning I hopped down from a loft bed at Yale University, where I was attending a conference on storytelling in modern media, and landed knee-first on the 80-year-old hardwood, "hurt" lit up my brain in all-caps, pulsating, hot-pink neon.

I limped to the bathroom (the reason I roused at 4 a.m. in the first place), then clambered, sweaty and grimacing, back to my loft, where I spent the next hour watching my left knee swell like a dusky pomelo and telling myself, irrationally, that I would be fine by breakfast.

My maternal grandmother, my Bubie, used to respond to any unforeseen expense—a parking ticket, a new muffler for the car, a burst pipe calling for an overpriced Sunday plumber—by saying, "Better than on doctor bills." It was her idiosyncratic version of, "As long as you have your health …"

But what if you don't? What if you fracture your patella—a "deranged and contused" fracture, according to the unintentionally poetic MRI report—so that it has to be surgically laced back together with #5 Ethibond stitches, after being X-rayed, diagnosed and immobilized for two weeks in a chrysalis of Velcro and foam?

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What if every check you write actually is going toward doctor bills: $112 for the anti-coagulant you must inject into your thigh twice a day, so you don't get a blood clot and die; $40 each time you crutch across a doctor's threshhold, $62.75 for the aforementioned leg-casing, heaven knows how much for the actual surgery, nerve block, general anesthesia, sutures and all? If other expenditures—other calamities, really—are "better than on doctor bills," then is a medical catastrophe like mine the bleak end of the bad-luck road, where the pavement turns to gravel, then to quicksand, then to dust?

My Bubie had another saying: "It could be worse."

It could be winter, with perilous slicks of ice on my brick sidewalk, or ten inches of snow, or 19-degree temperatures with a wind chill that would bluster me and my crutches right off my precarious balance.

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I could have broken both kneecaps.

I could be one of the 28 million Americans who, in spite of the much-beleaguered, much-beloved Affordable Care Act, still do not have health insurance.

I could be alone in a fifth-floor walk-up, instead of parked in the capacious arms of a red chair in my living room, orbited by friends and family so kind and loving that thinking about them, in the moments before surgery, made my eyes stream with tears.

Does it help to remember all the ways in which my accident might have been even more disastrous? Is it a comfort to hear strangers declare that "bones heal way better than soft tissue" or tell me that this injury is my license to spend the summer reading Vogue and eating Chunky Monkey straight from the carton? Is it clarifying to remember that a broken kneecap is not famine or civil war or a village-flattening tsunami, and that I am more than privileged to have hurt myself in this particular century and place?

Or is the "could be worse" adage really a way to dismiss legitimate sorrow and longing—a way to make it not-OK to feel even a little bit bummed that I can't put on my own left sock or sit on the toilet without propping my hurt leg on the extended shelf of my uninjured one.

It seems Hallmark-esque to hunt for silver linings, annoyingly New Age to regard every loss as a gift bag in disguise. I bristle at that line of thinking. I want to stage a tantrum every time someone suggests my kneecap blow-out was a cosmic message to slow down. "No," I want to say. "Actually, it was just really crappy luck."

And yet … there are gifts. There's Yolanda, my bank teller, who congratulates me when I crutch up to her window, as if I have just won a triathalon. There's Froncine at the post office and Alphonso at the co-op, and Ray at Staples—my twice-weekly round of errands—who all ask what happened, wince appropriately and wish me well.

There are the strangers who slow their cars to ask if I want a ride, and other strangers who pause in their perambulations to tell me how they shattered an ankle or ripped an ACL or crushed their whole right leg in a car accident, and how they had surgery and did PT and gimped around for months and then healed and now are whole.

There is—bless her—the reedy woman in the straw hat, 25 years my senior and leaning heavily on her cane, who offers a rueful smile and lets me limp first up the steps of the 23 bus.

If this injury has taught me anything (besides how to crutch from the kitchen to the living room while carrying a travel mug of hot coffee), it's about cupping contradiction in the palm of one hand: One moment I feel exultant after watching "Wonder Woman," imagining myself a fearless crusader with light sizzling from her forearms; the next I am a pulp of tears after skidding my crutch on a wet spot on the restroom's tile floor.

I brave the regional rail line to venture downtown for my guitar lesson, gimping across four lanes of Market Street traffic and gamely propping my leg on a spare folding chair in the music studio. Hours later, I cannot stop weeping because my teenaged daughter has gone to spin class without me.

I feel victorious when I butt-scoot down our wooden stairs. I feel undone by a sidewalk crevice that nearly seizes my left crutch. Every day holds a sloppy, untameable tangle: grief and yearning and savage disappointment about everything I cannot do (run, swim, wear my skinny jeans) threaded inseparably with gratitude and giddy relief that I'm still here, that the world is here—for better, and for worse—and that I get to move through it at my exasperating, meditative pace, carrying my badge of brokenness.