ART BY AUDREY NJO
I can hear the fan, perched precariously at the top of a haphazard stack of cotton cushions. It taunts me with its noise, its abstract buzzing and whirring and whining piercing through my eardrums like a microscopic arrow. I am acutely aware of the waves pulsing through the air, travelling faster than I can comprehend from the hard plastic blades to my ear.
I glance at the crutches propped up next to the bed I am currently lumping on (lumping being the term my ever loving sister has coined for my current existence). I stretch my arm, extending my fingers as far as they can go. In my mind, I am mimicking the Michelangelo painting, my searching fingers reaching out to a supernatural deity (my crutches). In reality, I raise my arms about 30 degrees off the mattress before bringing them back down to my sides with a thump of disappointment. Brow furrowed, I reach for my phone.
I suppose it’s my own fault, really.
In May 2022, I went to a playground with my friends. We jumped from play structure to play structure, marvelling at the sheer joy simple bits of plastic and wood could give us. We frolicked in perhaps pale imitations of our pure childhood joy, remembering how fun it could be to simply let loose and jump around. I shimmied up a staircase intended for children one-tenth of my age, squeezing my gangly, awkward adult limbs into tiny openings until I felt a cool breeze on my face. I finally made my way to the top of the little castle by the banks of the Charles River. Although the skies were cloudy and dreary and the day wasn’t perfect, the moment was. I beamed at my friends running around below me, content to forget about finals for a few moments and simply run around, laughing as they got gravel and turf particles into their sneakers and made core memories with each other.
I saw a little pole on the side of the mini castle, but I knew from hard-won experience that my palms might not survive the encounter.
I smiled, deciding instead, to jump. It’s barely four feet. What’s the worst that could happen?
As I laid on the ground, I realized that perhaps I should have more faith in my ability to jinx things. I felt a sharp jolt in my left knee, throbbing and pulsing and making its way up my spine to transform into blinding pain.
I limped around campus for a few days, eventually finding a time when Tufts Health Services was open. I dragged myself over to their building, the doctors giving me comforting smiles, reassuring me that it’s just a sprained knee and that I should be better in no time.
Six months later, I can tell that I will not be better in no time. My parents urged me to see an orthopaedist, who promptly sent me to get an MRI. After navigating the serpentine hallways and seemingly never-ending paper forms that make up American healthcare and its bureaucracy, I finally got a diagnosis—torn ACL, torn meniscus, twisted MCL. So much for consequence-free frolicking to forget my troubles.
I am lucky that I am able to have surgery relatively quickly. I am deeply privileged to have a family that can take care of me and allow me to lump for a while as I recover. However, it’s hard to remember that as I am being carried around like a sack of potatoes from the car to the bed, as I feel salty tears stream down my face from residual pain every time I try to sleep, as I feel the insidious embarrassment creep in from when I have to call someone so I can go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
More difficult than the temporary pain, however, is the lack of dignity I feel. I cannot go to the bathroom on my own, get up to have a snack without telling anyone, and have to watch from afar as my perfectly plotted out class schedule melts right through the seams of SIS, forcing me to change things around and send desperate, pleading emails.
Still, I push down the FOMO as I feel my eyes burning from blue light. I keep my eyelids open as I watch truly insane amounts of Parks and Rec. I go to physical therapy. I dutifully check in with my friends—although to a certain extent, the more I know about their lives, the more irrationally resentful I feel of them for being able to have fun,do things, and leave their beds at their will.
Whenever I go to PT, I can feel the burn in my legs. I strain. I can feel the acrid plastic smell from the floor wafting up into my nostrils, filling my lungs with the sharp smell of pain.
I drop my leg with a grunt, heaving sighs of relief and exertion as I sit up.
Katherine, my physical therapist, is kind but firm, as she always is. Her motherly energy seems to be amplified as she helps me up. I hang my head down in frustration. She knows that nothing she tells me will be able to comfort me in this moment; I need to confront my own shortcomings. It feels like I am making progress in the most convoluted way—two steps forward, one step back. I mumble nonsensical statements, unsure of how to face my frustration at my own weakness. I want to yell at my own knees, to shake them and will my way into having them work fully again.
I continue pedalling on stationary bikes, walking from my bed to my door and back, hobbling around. I try to be kinder to my parents. They’ve put up with quite a lot of whining and me taking up random hobbies. There are half-finished crochet sets, needle felting tools, watercolour paints, and wood whittling knives, all wasting away in drawers as I flit from one distraction to the next, like a shimmering, iridescent, indecisive hummingbird that can never quite decide where it wants to take its nectar from.
I would give anything to run around without having to pause every few seconds, to jump and frolic yet again without feeling a crackle of pain from my knees. It hasn’t happened yet. But I know it will, one day. My pain-free walk will come into fruition. I keep going to physical therapy, graduating from indoor walks to outdoor walks, marveling at how wonderful the warmth of the sun is, at how beams of light brush tenderly against verdant leaves, leaving behind glowing remnants of the daytime. I, too, chase the specters of my past, longing for the feelings of freedom and opportunity I had as mini Mallika. One day, I’ll get back there, and the scars on my knees will remind me how hard I’ve worked to get to where I am.