Physical therapy has eaten all my free time.
In May, I began having pain in my left shoulder – not constant pain, but shooting pain every time I tried to touch the small of my back, or reach up to a high shelf, especially if I met with resistance in those positions. It hurt to lift myself off the couch, or put on a bra, or a belt, or a coat. I tried not to wince. I tried to breathe through the pain. I assumed it would subside. All summer, I assumed it would subside. I waited months, unwilling to consider that perhaps my body was … don’t say it! … Aging, and not healing as quickly as it used to. Each time, there would be pain and then it would be gone. It was easy to forget — until it showed up again.
I was reminded of the trip I took to Dallas to be with my stepmom a few years ago – weeks after coming home with my beautiful baby girl. She had fractured her wrist, or thumb, or – how could I have forgotten already what injury brought me from Illinois to Texas for five days, mere weeks after becoming a mom for the first time? She never actually let me help her. Well, once I got to fasten a button, and a couple times I probably fried an egg or boiled pasta, but mostly I laid my baby down on the floor to practice rolling over, and I cooed a lot. I remember falling in love with my daughter then, and I remember my stepmom being there, reminding me to be generous also with myself and the rest of my family, but appreciating my single-mindedness all the same. She bought Miss Cutie-Pie a pink silk jacket. We sat her up on the couch to take pictures. She was eight months old, and flopped forward uncomfortably. She chewed on her Abuelita’s necklace. Abuelita was impressed her granddaughter never cried; I was concerned. I read it as a sign she had not yet settled into life with her forever-moms.
I finally took myself to the doctor this August. She sent me for x-rays and prescribed physical therapy twice each week. Twice. Each. Week.
Now, twice each week for half an hour may not seem like much. But tack on ten minutes of travel each way and you’re up to nearly an hour. And when to squeeze it in? There’s the walk to school, then work, then dinner, then bedtime, and three times each week, I’m back on the computer again at night. Then, there are exercises to do at home. The pain in my shoulder was suddenly nothing to the pain in my backside of squeezing another two hours out of my week! There was a payoff, though, for this investment. Right? Improvement.
With pain comes progress. Breathe through the pain. Stretch just a bit further than you think you can go.
The week following my fortieth birthday, in the dead of winter, I slipped in the alley behind our house and twisted my ankle. While cars all around me pulled out of garages, I lay on the ground, frightened, and momentarily immobilized. I really, really don’t like to be hurt. I believe my body to be invincible, and I want my daughter to believe this about me, too. But what does that teach her? And will it be good for her in the end, or will it just teach her again to stop her tears? After her first few months with us, she did, after all, finally cry.
“How do you raise your hand in school?” my daughter now asks daily. Each time I raise it high enough, she tickles me. I throw a giant rubber band over our stairway banister while she’s brushing her teeth in the morning. Holding both ends, I pull my arm down slowly to my side. Twenty times on each side. “That’s easy!” she shouts through toothpaste. “It should be,” I finally tell her, “if your shoulder’s working properly. Mine isn’t working quite right – I have to re-train it.” “Because it’s stuck?” she says. “Yes.”
The truth is, I’m a person whose emotions get stuck, too – frozen, like my shoulder. If I don’t like something, or I’m afraid, or – who knows why? – I shut down. It’s involuntary. As with my shoulder, I hardly even notice most of the time. I have trained myself, though, to observe how family and friends react to me. If they’re sharp with me, or deflated or confused, I have to ask myself: How do I feel today? Am I irritable? Am I tired? Am I mean? The answers which rise up are never direct: I crave silence, and bedcovers, and flowers and hot-and-sour soup and mint tea. I crave oceans and forests and the sliver of moonlight you can sometimes see through the trees when you leave rain flaps open on your tent.
With my daughter, I’m more instinctive. If she’s hurt, I get her a band aid right away. I test her range of motion, check for blood. If she’s over-stimulated during the day, I remove her from the action, take her home for a cuddle, read a story, watch a show, pet the dogs, and stay quiet with her awhile. We watch the sliver of moonlight through the tent flap – or come as close to that as we can. I don’t wait ‘til the end of the summer and ask if it still hurts.
I remember a little girl with Down Syndrome I knew in my early twenties. She used to touch my cheek and look softly into my eyes when no one else noticed I was feeling down. So loving, simple, kind. She was never put off by my words. She went straight to the heart of the matter. She read my eyes. “Mami, what’s wrong?” my daughter asks me now. She doesn’t yet understand how she is like this girl.
Physical therapy will bring me back to myself again, and one day, raising my arm in the air will be easy. I tell myself: Relax. Breathe. Stretch. I try to focus on my breath, my shoulder, the pain, my breath again. I learn from my body, and if you really want to know: There are worse ways to spend half an hour than with someone offering massage, asking how I feel, and pulling on my shoulder ‘til it comes un-stuck. I feel more like myself than I have since — well, Spring.