When I was 11 years old, I broke my back running into a burning building to save a puppy.
That’s a lie.
But it sounds so much better than the truth.
When I was 11 years old, I broke my back falling out of a chair.
I was siting in one of those office chairs with wheels on them. I pushed back to get up, the wheels caught on the carpet, l fell backwards, hit a wall, crushed three vertebrae between my shoulder blades and got severe whiplash in my lower back.
It’s not a good story. In any way.
I spent about five days in the hospital, then they sent me home, wearing a metal back brace and drugged up on liquid codeine. My mother put glittery, puffy stickers on the brace to cheer me up – but the little dolphins and angelfish dotting the icy metal contraption just seemed pathetic. Depressing. Like those velvet paintings of big-eyed children. They’re supposed to be sweet and youthful but instead they stab your heart with a deep and hollow melancholy.
Months passed with me on the couch, counting the flowers on the wallpaper. I needed a wheelchair to go more than a few steps. I couldn’t lift my arms up to read, so I rigged up a cookbook holder that connected to my brace so I could read Sylvia Plath endlessly. I watched Doctor Zhivago and wondered what my recovery would look like. I wondered if I would ever be able to ride horses again (yes) or walk in high heels (no, but I doubt that’s really about the broken back). Mostly, I wondered when the pain would stop.
This Saturday will be the 24th anniversary of my injury. It is always a time of great introspection for me. I have very few lingering signs of the accident. The nerve damage has dissipated in the last 5 years (thank you, yoga) but my left leg still drags a little, zombie-like, when I’m tired. My right hip sits significantly higher than the left. But since my ability to ever walk again was once in question, it seems silly to mention such minutia.
The most notable result of my broken back is this profound sense of the tenuous nature of life. It became clear that one moment, one movement, one chance encounter, one turn to the left when you intended to go right – can change everything.
It can catapult you into triumph or catastrophe.
I know what it is to have my body betray me. To have my arms not be able to lift, my legs give out, and my back shiver with pain. And at a certain point, there is nothing to do but surrender to the tides. To know deeply that you’ll be okay, whatever happens.
So this Saturday, I’ll pay homage to my spine.
Because in many ways, I’m just learning how to use that beautifully strong backbone of mine.