Crutch and Go

Here's the thing I didn't know before I blew out my kneecap: We're all leaning on something, or someone

My daughter weaned herself from her pacifier on the New Jersey Transit line to Trenton.

She spit it out and I reflexively plucked it—warm from her lips and sticky with drool—from the train's vinyl seat, ready to pop it into her mouth before the desperate wail ("I need that!") broke loose.

But when I offered the binky back to her, she batted the thing out of my hand. I watched the pacifier bounce on the gritty floor before vanishing into a thicket of briefcases and feet.

And that was that. After months of being—well, pacified—by this factory-made plug of rubber and plastic, my toddler was suddenly, inarguably, instinctively done.

I thought about that moment last Thursday, when I crutched my 351,556th step. I know this astonishing number because my phone has been logging every hit of rubberized crutch tip against pavement, cobblestone, linoleum and hardwood since I fell out of a loft bed (well, hopped ... or groggily attempted to hop) while at a conference in the pre-dawn hours of June 12.

In the emergency room of Yale New Haven Hospital—after a painful X-ray ("What do you mean, curl my toes to keep them out of the picture?"), a blunt diagnosis ("Yep, you broke your kneecap!") and a $67 cocoon of stiff foam and Velcro to immobilize my leg—an orderly eyeballed my height, handed me a pair of crutches and pointed me toward the door.

I wobbled onto the New Haven sidewalk, into sine waves of heat, and called a cab.

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For the duration of the conference, I earned the right to use "crutch" as a verb. I hitched, thousands of steps every day, up ADA-mandated ramps, through Gothic archways, over flagstone paths, into the elevator that led to my basement seminar, from my bed to the wheelchair-accessible bathroom and, finally, three days later, onto a southbound train.

At home, a dear friend, a veteran of five knee surgeries, taught me how to use one crutch as a leg rest by laying it flat on my chair and sitting (not cozily, but functionally) on the padded crosspiece, then lifting my foot onto the extended arm of tubing. She was the one who suggested that I personalize my crutches with bright duct tape, and she ordered me a neoprene crutch pouch just the right size for my phone, a debit card and keys.

I added more accessories for ease and delight: my daughter's old terrycloth hair turbans, wrapped around the crosspieces for extra cushioning; a small, mirrored disco ball that a friend had snagged at San Francisco's Gay Pride march.

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For the next month, my crutches clattered along as I butt-scooted down our wooden stairs; they jutted into the aisle on the 23 bus and poked like weird antennae from the cart at Trader Joe's.

First, they were a hindrance: How do I walk uphill with these things jammed into my armpits? How do I hobble across Chestnut Street without landing a crutch in that pothole? Raw patches bloomed under my arms; calluses marked both palms. But slowly, slowly, just as my veteran-of-five-knee-surgeries friend had promised, I learned. I figured out how to walk without hunching, how to speed-scan the ground for loose gravel or crutch-sucking crevices.

Crutching became a form of athleticism, a point of pride. I challenged myself to go faster by tapping only my uninjured leg to the ground. I braved staircases, grasping the left banister and holding both crutches in my right fist as I limped down. Once, I crutched 20 blocks in an afternoon squall, my yellow poncho ballooning wetly as I frogged my way around puddles and storm grates.

I used the crutch pouch to carry my reading glasses, a quarter-pound of sliced provolone, a bottle of Kombucha. I took the train and the bus and went grocery shopping, shouldering a backpack stuffed with dish liquid and organic chard.

I forgot how to ambulate any other way.

That's how adaptable we are; that's how evolution has wired us for constant, un-chosen change. A person loses her sight, and her hearing grows exquisitely acute. A quadriplegic grasps a paintbrush in his teeth. The brain, more plastic and resilient than we used to think, can grow new pathways to recoup from trauma.

Two weeks ago, the physical therapist announced it was time to start weaning from my crutches: First, I'd try just one, holding it on my unhurt side, putting partial weight on my left. Once I could balance on my injured leg, I'd walk with just the brace.

I felt a belly-caving clench ("But I need them!") in response. When I thought of walking without my props of aluminum tubing, my tricked-out, terrycloth-padded pals, I felt stripped and vulnerable. My crutches had become … a crutch.

Here's the thing I didn't know before I blew out my kneecap: We're all leaning on something, or someone—if not at the moment, then eventually. Meantime, we're somebody else's ballast. It's a myth, this standing-on-one's-own-two-feet; at best, it's a temporary tale, one that serves only until you crack a bone or suffer a loss or, god willing, grow old.

There's nothing wrong with having a crutch; it's good and necessary to give in to the ferociousness of need. But in time, some crutches become their own kind of obstacle, the thing that holds you back from being whole.

Then, letting go feels wrong, like ditching the dead-end relationship or the nightly Jack Daniel's or the soothing plug of rubber (or tobacco) you hug between your lips. You didn't always have this crutch, or need it. But now it's laced into your every day, so deeply ingrained that the thought of life without it makes you want to wail.

Until you decide, slowly or in a bold and sudden vault, to leave it behind. You walk out of the soul-killing job, you pack your duffel and say good riddance to that loser, you spit the pacifier to the floor because you're finally done with being pacified.

That's how it happened, last Thursday, at the corner of 8th Avenue and 42nd Street. I'd crutched up from the Megabus stop at 27th, dodging tourist families and bus-waiting queues and crazy people muttering to the breeze.

Then I was done—suddenly, inarguably, instinctively. I grabbed both crutches and held them in my right hand, parallel to the sidewalk, while I walked lopsidedly uptown, the little disco ball bouncing gently against my thigh.

Tags: health