At my gym, the physical therapy department is housed at street level, behind floor-to-ceiling windows, on an urban block also occupied by a flower shop, a community theater and a pub where vats of cleverly named IPA ferment in the basement.
I used to saunter past, glancing at the PT patients' slow, effortful pedaling on stationary bikes, their grimaces as they struggled to balance on one foot or raise a bent arm overhead. Inside, a woman in sweatpants is doing knee bends on a rubber dome, a man is rolling a yellow ball up and down the mirror. Someone else lies on a green vinyl table, wincing while the therapist kneads her neck.
I'd shoulder my backpack a little more firmly and quicken my steps, as if their infirmities might be catching. I was all vim and purpose, hoofing uphill to the bank two miles away while listening to a podcast and planning upcoming dinner menus. The physical therapy tableau left me riveted and a little repulsed: an endless march of the injured and the ill, their tipsy walks and their weird equipment. Bolsters. Straps. Small orange cones, like traffic markers sized for a city of dolls, to bend and pluck up from the floor.
And then, last summer: I tumbled through the looking glass. I fell from a loft bed, shattered my kneecap, underwent surgery, wrangled with my insurance company and wobbled over to the gym, my scar still taped and crusty, for my first session of PT.
Now I was the one watching passers-by stare with curiosity or puzzlement or pity. I wanted to catch their eyes, to let them know that a mere second—one freakish fall, one twisty landing while going for that jump shot in the pick-up basketball game—separated those of us on the sidewalk from the ones inside.
That's how it happens. One moment last June, I was a person planning a six-mile morning run, sitting on a window seat in my flamingo pajamas, legs dangling above the hardwood, about to hop down for a 4 a.m. trip to the bathroom. The next, I was crumpled on the floor, the pain a white-hot hatchet in my knee.
Weeks later, my left leg in a black carapace of stiffeners and Velcro, I sweated and despaired. I would never reach the magical 90 degrees of flexion, the ticket to getting my brace's hinge unlocked. I would never squat on my heels. I would never run.
"My knee feels like there's a bony hand clawing it under the skin," I told Cheryl, my stalwart, smiling PT. "Like someone's shoved a ruler down my calf."
She was unaffected by my lyrical descriptions: "Uh-huh, that's what it feels like. It'll get better."
Physical therapy demanded faith in something I could not perceive or believe. And my sense of self, I learned, rode hard on being whole: vigorous, limber, a person who could run a 5K in under 25 minutes. I'd worked for that kind of victory. I'd earned it. I thought it was mine to keep.
Doing PT—twice a week, an hour each time, for seven months—stripped that sense of entitlement. The other patients and I, people of all ages and races and body types and gender expressions, formed a club of the lame and the lost, the weakened, the scarred.
We watched each other. We taught each other. When I couldn't bend my knee past 35 degrees, I saw a woman in soccer shorts bounce briskly through her routine, jumping two-footed on and off a platform. A scar like mine snaked over her kneecap. It's possible, I thought. At home, I watched my housemate, a veteran of five knee surgeries, fold herself into an origami-like squat, then rise up on the once-injured leg. It's possible.
During one especially excruciating PT session, I yelled and sobbed aloud, tears streaking hotly from my eyes, my anguish so much bigger than my shame. A patient around my age touched me gently on the shoulder as she left. "We've all been there, honey," she murmured, as I wept into a wad of tissues.
Slowly, so slowly, my knee learned to be a knee again, to flex and bear weight and hold my body in flamingo posture on a quivery rubber dome. By late winter, I was the one bouncing—feet together, feet apart—through the squares of a flexible ladder laid out on the floor, hopping one-legged on the mini trampoline.
Years ago, when a friend graduated from rabbinical school, her partner gave a toast about continuity and change. "This is a threshold," she said, "from one holy place to another."
In February, after 45 PT visits, I was officially discharged. That's the word they used, "discharged," which sounds like effluent. I prefer "graduated," though there was no cap and gown, no slo-mo walk down an aisle. I wrote my last co-pay, did my last set of jump squats, received a certificate and a list of exercises to do at home and gave a goodbye hug to Cheryl, who'd bent my knee back into functionality and made me believe in a body that can heal.
Being physically able is transient and relative. Compared to someone debilitated by a stroke, I'm agile and robust, a miracle of locomotion. Compared to my housemates, trapeze artists who hang in midair by their ankles and hold handstands for long, marvelous minutes, I'm limited. There's talent, sure, and training, and hard-earned pride. But there's also the lightning stroke of luck—good or devastating—that lands us, for now or forever, on one side of that glass or the other.
On the morning of June 12, though I hadn't consciously clocked the date, I found myself gently massaging my kneecap in the shower, giving it a little extra love with the oatmeal soap. Happy kneeiversary, a friend texted later.
It's been a year. My left knee reminds me, sobers me, humbles me, murmuring its presence—hey, something happened here—with every step, as I walk to the co-op or the post office or the bank and pass by the gym, stopping for a moment to peer inside, knowing the glass is not a shield but a window through which, if we're brave enough to look, we can see each other, can see ourselves, in all our fleeting wholeness, our holy coming-apart.