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Thursday, April 11, 2013

One Leg Back

When I moved to Berlin last year, a friend told me to break a leg. I finally fulfilled his good wishes. 

A swift slip and fall on rock-hard ice broke my femur. I now have a proximal femoral nail. At the time, my left leg felt heavy as rocks and light as clouds and a slight turn released a gut-wrenching howl. Two neighbors Carolina and Christian, in a way, cushioned the blow— helping me up, accompanying me in the ambulance to the Charité hospital nearby. We discovered the hard way that 911 in Germany is 112.

The surgeons, who all looked like they walked off the Grey's Anatomy set, explained that a massive impaction force broke an otherwise healthy bone. They spared me the mathematics of miracles, orthopedics, angles, and turns involved. Rest assured, within six weeks I would be able to do an Iron Man if I wanted to.

Spanish bullfighters have a philosophy wrapped in a saying— "Torear la suerte"— meaning "Bullfight your fate." "Whatever bull God drums up for you, you face off against, you dance with, you dominate, and it's up to you to put on a splendid show, to use every bull as an opportunity to demonstrate all of your arte. Your valor and skill." Minus the fatalism, I tried to stick to this as closely as possible, but the putting-on-a-splendid-show part was elusive. Eating tomato soup lying down inevitably looks like a crime scene. The unfamiliar gown, bandages swelling clear-yellow and red. My leg sown up like a dramatic pork roast. The reeking cologne of stale sweat, ibuprofen, urine, and German variety shows.

The worst part of a 10-day hospital stay, aside from the caking dandruff from being unable to wash regularly, was seeing the world shrink day by day. I imagined what an epic battle this must be when putting myself in the soles of the sprightly leukemia patient I had for a roommate for a few days.

I considered myself the luckiest. My girlfriend Ling visited daily with fresh meals— peppery Chinese melon and bone soup, Vietnamese chicken ginger and summer rolls, Indian takeout, eggplant rice, chocolate mousse, and filled containers from Lindner's. And fresh iTunes movie downloads. And Head & Shoulders! Most of all, she reminded me of how big the world was. How baboons are jerks. Something on the horizon— a trip to Florence and Tuscany in May. Looking ahead, I would have marginal bragging rights—a leg-length scar and something to break the boredom for the guards at the airport security check. But, I suspect that when life is one day flattened like a pancake, this would be just a pinprick.

What I never understood was the hospital X-ray lady. Let's call her Gert. Built for the Soviet wrestling team, she was the ultimate German stereotype put in a food processor, spun down and concentrated, and placed at the helm of a cold, beige, room-sized machine. My contorted, bulbous leg didn't register in her mind. An emotionless borg, she shoved a hard blackboard under me, turned me this way and that. A human named Anne finally arrived to rein her in.

Wheeling across the radiology department, facing the ceiling, I could see the long chain of centered bar fluorescent lights like an endless upside-down highway. Thousands of white dashed lines like our family trip to Ohio to Cedar Point amusement park when I was a kid. The anticipation and helplessness of the climb, the thrill in between, and the accomplishment of conquering so many of the world's best roller coasters. For my dad at the station wagon's driver's seat, the buzz was getting there, the all-out, open freedom of driving his family across an everlasting country with the surface area of Pluto.

On the first few days, my shuffle down the hall wasn't pretty—burdened, halting, shapeless like a sentence missing words, full of typos. It wasn't until my second to last day at Charité that I finally nailed a continuous, fluid gait. It felt like my first roadtrip, you could hear the engine. I had wished there were a thousand miles of hallway ahead.


These were your sighs,
your toss,
the listing yoke
of your shoulders. 

What spars,
blades, shafts,
rigging it took
to bear the weight of your journey. 

Winds wore down the scoop
at the base of your throat.
The sun shed your sulk,
the mast of your frown. 

-Wendy Salinger