“Because We Can’t Be Trusted to Hurt Ourselves,” by Roblin Meeks
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I start my twenty-second session of physical therapy, as I’ve started the twenty-one others, by paying upfront. I have myself and pickup basketball to blame for my broken wrist and the surgery to correct it, but many people recovering here are in the middle of legally faulting someone else, and who knows when those lawsuits will result in costs being covered. I use my hurt hand to hold the check down while I sign it with the one that works.
The office specializes in hands, arms, and shoulders, and today, like always, it’s nearly full of managed hurt. Most people spend many weeks in physical therapy, and I recognize almost everyone: the Belgian high-school girl who hurt her pointer finger playing varsity volleyball pokes neon-colored putty to work her grip. The two female police officers sit together as usual, cracking each other up with cop-speak jokes and comparing workman’s comp attorneys. The young guy in the Oxford-cloth button down with two phones, talking to a series of people about money stuff while a therapist uses a machine to send a current through his forearm. I haven’t seen the woman with the plastic-surgeon dad in a while, probably since she can get cortisone shots at home. My first day, a patient with a heavily wrapped shoulder waiting next to me asked, “What are you in for?” Recovery is a sentence; best settle in.
I find an open seat in the room where each chair is paired with a wooden TV-dinner tray, rickety as the limbs that lean on it, under a lithograph of Escher’s hands drawing each other to life. I prefer it to the other room with old elementary-school desks for tables and a framed close-up from Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, the really famous part where God reaches out to Adam’s limp (injured?) hand. The entire place has an oppressive level of metaphor density, and this print definitely isn’t helping. The woman who works me over twice a week asks how my wrist feels, and I say “fine,” probably to offset all the meaning. She’s good at juggling patients, has to be, and she lays a big blue bag of hot sand on my hand to loosen it up and returns to nursing someone in the other room.
Therapy sessions have the same conversational context as haircuts, only your hair is broken and it hurts. My therapist and I have been through so much small talk in two months that I have a fuller picture of her than my coworkers and neighbors. I know that she plays Mahjong with her friends twice a month and that she picked up the game pretty quickly from her grandmother. I know that her husband is finishing up his MBA and has an enviable ease with foreign languages. I know that his grandmother is a surly Holocaust survivor. Right now they’re childless but thinking sometime maybe eventually. She’s left-handed and forever after whoever borrowed her special tape scissors. We’ve told each other our stories, including what we’ve done more or less every weekend for the last two-and-a-half months.
After she returns and removes the heat, she has me do some wrist curls with a five-pound weight, then squeeze a Charles-Atlas-style gripper thirty times. Once I’ve limbered up a bit, my therapist gives me what she calls a “strong stretch,” which involves me looking away and down from the pain while she applies her full body weight to my hand, aiming for ninety degrees of wrist flexion. I try the Zen thing of detaching myself from the material experience. I imagine my arm as cold dough that grows more pliable as it’s kneaded and rolled. A car door iced shut overnight finally forced free. An iron bar glowing orange on an anvil, muttering sparks at each hit but slowly taking a useful shape. I am the Tin Man rusted still, already possessing a heart but needing oil and adventure to discover it.
The purpose of physical or occupational therapy arises out of the fact that adults can’t be trusted to hurt themselves after injury. Each of the three times the cast came off my son’s arm, he was unleashed back onto the baseball field and into the schoolyard and the swimming pool without need for therapy. His body knits bone constantly anyway, and he, like most kids, can easily forget hurt. Adults, though, have vivid memories of pain and tend to convert pain, and the anticipation of it, into suffering. We quickly restrict or retire hurt limbs, which in turn leads our bodies to slowly give up on them. After I fell on my wrist back in May, I wrapped and iced and defended it for several weeks to give it the time I thought it needed to heal itself, but time instead eroded my range of motion. And then the surgery and the pins and the screw permanently through the bone and the nine-week cast all conspired to fix my hand straight. Now it has to be bent further than I want it to if I want it to come back to something like normal.
The Zen thing fails. My wrist pops and smarts like hell but won’t be pushed past my best angle reached a few weeks ago. My therapist reminds me, again, of how I first arrived with flexion and extension of basically zero, to make me feel better about today’s fifty and sixty degrees. It occurs to me that the old saying really should go, “Time fixes all wounds,” with ‘fix’ smuggling in all its senses.
All the effort going on in these rooms makes them stuffy, and my therapist cracks the window near my seat. The days have gotten glorious, and I’m glad to welcome in the loud, warm air of 57th Street, to look away from the scar. I think of my kids and their classmates running in the schoolyard this morning before the bell called them inside, how they left their coats in piles and let out their bodies.
“We’re all done for today,” she says. “See you next week.”