I swing into one of the stuffy rooms at the Orthopedics department on my crutches, faithful husband in tow with a walking boot that's been stashed in our closet since surgery five weeks ago. The medical assistant follows us in, "You're ready for the boot, are you? Did your daughter decorate that for you?"
"Uh, no," I flash a private smirk to Ricardo, "My friends did." She wouldn't get it, of course - the stickers of goats and hearts framed with "Ito y Ita," nicknames Ricardo and I use for each other - how they decorated it with their characteristic love and humor, just one day before the wedding. If I had to go down the aisle in a robotic boot, it may as well be fun, they said. Even in my drug-induced state, this elicited a grateful smile.
I swing my flaming orange cast up on the paper-covered table that patients sit on, awkwardly waiting. It's not long before Eddy the Incredible Cast Man comes in wheeling a "Cast Vac" and pulls out a mini saw. Another orthopedic doctor trails in behind, and I have a vague remembrance of him from surgery day. Remarkably, I'm less nervous about this method of cast removal, much preferring it to the giant, dull scissors shoved down my post-op cast the last visit, the poor assistant sweating to crack it and free my leg from its crude imprisonment, instructing me to let her know if the scissors "got" me. But I trust Eddy. He wields the saw like a pro, splicing down both sides of the cast he constructed, gently peeling the top from the rest of the plaster. I wait with a twinge of nervousness for the unveiling.
I see a swath of dark hair. Everyone assumes because I'm blonde that my leg hair will be nice and fair, but it's unfortunately not true. Ricardo chuckles and I jokingly apologize for the display to the two other men in the room. The rest of my leg is as I imagined, though more unnerving in person than in my imagination. All I can see of my "calf" is a hunk of flesh barely larger than the bone it covers. The skin beneath all the hair is rough and dry, and halfway down my calf a red rash covers like a scaly sock. The scar is black and still partially covered with surgical tape. My toes are purple, my foot like a glass of wine. At my touch, I leave a white fingerprint on the top.
The leg is free, but I'm afraid to move my foot. Not that it moves much on its own. It still seems strangely disconnected from the rest of my body, more stiff and tender than anything else. It feels vulnerable dangling there. Part of me wants it back in the cast so it doesn't have to face the real world, and part of me is eager to advance to the hard work of building it back up. And then, the doctor delivers the news I wasn't expecting, which has been typical of this journey thus far: I am not to bear any weight on this leg for another four weeks. Here I am, thrilled to think I'm leaving my crutches at the office today, yet again, naive of this whole process. Funny that I never once thought of my achilles tendon before rupturing it. Oh, I'd had a few episodes of worrying I would one day tear my ACL, but the achilles wasn't on my radar - not until I couldn't walk.
How little I knew. How little I still know.
The doctor tells me little, unless I ask. And even then, I somehow feel a little stupid for my questions, as if I'm insulting professional intelligence, though that may be my own insecurity, as he appears to be a competent and nice enough fellow. I've read so many conflicting things about a time frame and recovery "protocol" for ruptured achilles. Some say you can resume running six months after surgery. Most say it takes more like ten or twelve. Some people begin physical therapy right out of the cast. Others, like me, won't be referred to physical therapy until one month after the cast. General consensus says it's a long, rough recovery, working hard with atrophied muscle and a shortened tendon, making progress one micro-movement at a time. The good news is, most people make a full recovery without re-rupture, though it's always a possibility, even with a fiberoptic wire in my heel that's stronger than steel.
He puts a double heel lift in my boot to keep my foot at an angle, tells me he'll see me again in four weeks. I'm not to take the boot off, except to bathe, as even the involuntary leg twitches in my sleep could do enough damage to require another surgery. I think about the four times I fell during the month I had the cast on, how the layers of plaster protected my leg from injury when I didn't manage to fall on my uninjured side. I think of the time I stumbled forward and caught myself with the toes sticking out of my cast, how even that bending of the toes could have reinjured my heel and I laid in bed with my heart racing until the pain subsided. How in the world will my leg survive in a boot on crutches? Will I forget not to put pressure on it while it's resting on the ground, taunting me to stand on two legs?
I'm quiet heading back in the elevator, down the hall, through the parking garage to our car. This is not what I had in mind, and I have to readjust my expectations again. I envisioned going home and setting to work on the pile of dishes in the kitchen - on two legs. Instead, when we get home I go straight to bed. I lay with my leg propped on a tower of pillows, dazed and spent. When I get up the nerve to shower, I unwrap my leg from the boot and my sock, and I sit on the edge of the tub, staring at it like it's a foreign object. And I feel a little ashamed of myself as warm tears fall on my leg while I continue staring, cradling it gingerly, aware of its fragility. I don't have a terminal illness. I will walk and run again. One year and this will be a memory, so why spill tears over it now? It feels so ungrateful, but I can't fight it today. So I let them fall, then I turn on the faucet, swing on my one good leg into the shower and stand up. My first shower without a cast. That in itself is a milestone.
I keep telling myself this is training my character. The same painstaking process as physical rehabilitation refines the character and restores the soul to a state of dependency on God. I'm not in control and I don't have this down. I'm like a little baby, learning to walk, reaching out to take Daddy's hands. It's humbling, an affront to my adultness, my independence, my sense of security - and right where I need to be. I may have dreams in the night of running and dancing and biking; I may whisper prayers in the day of trusting God more deeply, growing in patience, enduring through pain. But all of these come through discipline, with time and persistence and faith. No, these things cannot be rushed.
And so I search for words to say thank you, here in these moments.