In late January, 1967, three months after my back had been broken in a car accident, the radiologist and orthopedic surgeon decided I could move gradually from being prone to upright and walking. First I had to sit on the side of the bed, dangling my legs. But how to get there? I couldn’t remember what a body has to do for the three dimensional movement of coming to a sitting position while swiveling. My physical therapist, Jim, had to talk me through it: you roll onto your side at the very edge of the bed, but without falling off and you fold the arm that’s under you into a triangle and push up on it at the same time as he gently pushes/twists your other shoulder upwards toward the edge of the bed and you gradually let your legs tip over the side, and there you are, upright, actually balancing, legs dangling, heart pounding.
After just a few tries, Jim’s physical help became coaching and I could do the maneuver myself in a way that felt spontaneous. I had to be rebooted and then some ancient body memory kicked in. Some years later, I cautiously got onto a bike low enough for both feet to be flat on the ground at once, put sneaker to pedal and instantly remembered how to balance and move forward, at least when the path had no slope.
I sat a few minutes that first day, a little longer the next, and then I was allowed to stand. I have a Polaroid of myself leaning heavily on a walker, wearing a red-and-white striped nightshirt, a fading abrasion over one eye and two broken front teeth in my smile. I am skinny; I had lost the weight of the body cast, 25 pounds, while encased.
The next hurdle was getting back into bed. I had no bounce in my feet to elevate my bottom the few inches from where it was when standing to where it needed to be when sitting. Jim cranked the bed lower until I descended rather than ascended onto it. Later that day, an electric bed was delivered to my room.
That bed was an example of the individual treatment I got at Stillman Infirmary, then a full floor of Harvard’s Holyoke Center where students recuperated from a range of problems, viruses to routine surgery to mental health matters. No one woke us in the middle of the night; the curtains were opened quietly by an aide about 7:30 each morning. The food was really good –rumor was that the chef had been Rommel’s cook in North Africa—and the visitor limits often ignored. I even had someone I called my morale doctor, one of the head doctors, who sat and talked with me every day. The only part of my body he ever touched was my earlobes, which he pierced, quoting Blake: “and neither mortal hand nor EYE (right ear) can frame thy fearful symmeTRY (left ear).”
Soon I walked the few steps to the end of the bed, Jim right next to me. My range extended daily, to the door and then the hall. I reached the nursing station, fifty feet away, and got a standing ovation. I learned how to get from bed to bathroom alone, pause near but not in front of the door, let go of the walker with one hand long enough to open it and sidle through, lower myself onto the high toilet, use it, and then reverse the process. The bedpan became history and with the electric bed I was freer than I’d been in what seemed like forever.
I began going to the physical therapy department by wheelchair two hours each morning and each afternoon. I practiced walking between parallel bars. One day I attempted jumping and hopping –in my imagination, I would rise like a bird above the bars. But my jump and hop were a toddler’s, lots of knee motion with feet rooted to the floor. I told myself that levitation would come, but I suspected it wouldn’t.
I was finishing a fall term class which I hadn’t attended since October, glad to have a little schoolwork, a little normality. The professor, Erik Erikson, had lectured on his theory of adult psychological development. In February I wrote the final paper, going for a few hours at a time to a floor of empty infirmary rooms, kept in reserve for an epidemic. I typed with my little Olivetti on the bed tray, pleasantly alone, a call button linked to the nurses’ station above. I wanted to write about what had happened to me, so I shoe-horned it into Erikson’s theory, calling it “Making a Meaningful Moratorium of Lengthy Hospitalization.” I felt exposed writing about myself for a class; I feel embarrassed even now by the pretentious title.
I had been eager to move from the Bronx hospital to the Cambridge infirmary and be around friends for the last semester of our senior year, but I was more focused on recovering from my spinal cord injury than I was on my visitors. Still, two students I knew slightly came regularly and became special, as we focused on their crises in addition to mine. They could relax with me and not be the upbeat students required by the outside world; I could think about someone other than myself. One was Toby, whose mother was dying of cancer. I’m sure we talked about her impending loss and my present one but all I remember is feeling peaceful when she was sitting in the chair next to me, wearing informal clothes gracefully on her tall frame.
The other was Don, like me a transplant from the Pacific Northwest to Cambridge. He was moving toward seeking conscientious objector status in the Viet Nam War, which would cause a serious rift with his father. Sitting in the same chair as Toby, he radiated anxiety, his face furrowed. He obsessed about his decision and I listened, hoping that his presence was also due to a romantic interest in me. I had not dated much and felt undesirable to guys even before breaking my back; I always wanted them to ask me out, but was too stiff to show my ambivalent interest. Now my mind dipped intermittently into awareness that being handicapped would make me really undesirable but my emotions were the same as ever–hoping against hope that Don would see me as date material.
In late February I took my first walk outside with Jim, bundled up against the Massachusetts winter and trudging along with my forearm crutches in a four-point gait. I wore beige orthopedic oxfords with a right ankle brace plus compression stockings. These were attached by pink garters to my back brace and seemed so much more powerful than my legs that I was sure one of my heels would suddenly snap to attention at my bottom. I began to attend my weekly seminar on abnormal child psychology. I occasionally went for a day to my dorm to have lunch in the dining hall and enjoy my sunny room with its orange bedspread and grass-green rug. I then retreated at night to my Stillman cocoon.
Jim had become as important to me as my first physical therapist at Misericordia Hospital in the Bronx; I had a vague wish he’d take home with him and absorb me into his four-child family, though really I wanted him all to myself. When he suggested I meet a patient who had jumped from her second floor window and broken her back in a way that didn’t involve spinal cord damage, I agreed. Then one day as I entered the PT room I saw a young woman in my place between the parallel bars. I immediately knew who she was and walked out, crying. Jim followed me, saying “it’s because she’s going to walk normally, isn’t it?” His words were a comfort; he absolutely knew what I was feeling, even though neither of us had spoken it aloud before then. I had no empathy for the other young woman’s psychological state and couldn’t fathom why anyone would deliberately risk a broken back. I refused to meet her, because, I told Jim, I would trip her with my crutches.
In early April, five plus months after being admitted to the hospital with my spinal cord injury and nine weeks since I stopped being bedbound, I moved back to my dorm. It was vastly different being out and about. Stillman had fostered my independence while letting me slip back into patienthood when I needed. Outside I was so slow and felt old. People’s lives were fast; dinner in the dorm was a social event for me, a pit-stop for them. It made my relationships with friends more complicated, rather than less. When I had been in the infirmary, classmates could decide when and how much time to spend with me. In the dorm, it was more awkward. My friends now had to figure out how to fit me in and how to leave when they had to; it did not seem to be something we could talk about. Some people avoided me in the way those of us with a visible disability know well, but at the time was a painful surprise to me. I sat with Toby sometimes in the dining room and although there remained a quiet bond between us, we didn’t spend time alone. As for Don? I don’t remember whether I saw him again or not.
My life did have its own routine, even though I was in the dorm a lot more than others. Another Pacific Northwest friend announced he would drive me to and from my weekly seminar in his old VW. I felt grateful that I didn’t have to decide what I needed and then ask for it. I was writing a paper on the Chagga of Tanzania for an independent study, so I needed to go various libraries for research. And of course I took a taxi most days to Harvard Square for a couple of hours to do PT exercises, talk with Jim, and relax, not feel on display. He and the other PT and I were the real occupants of the department, others just interlopers.
Often I was overwhelmed by things that had once been simple: can I put laundry in the dryer without falling on my face? Can I manage to walk to the post office for stamps? How, with my green book bag, can I get these library books back to the dorm? People were glad to help but I was driven to do as much as possible on my own, often not realizing I needed assistance until I was in the middle of something and got stuck. I was depressed at the difference between me and all those young people: would I ever get up to speed?
Sometimes I definitely overshot my abilities. In May, I flew to New York where my father was now working. Friends and I took a cab to Logan Airport, then another from LaGuardia into Manhattan. Where our routes diverged, I told them to drop me off. Once on the sidewalk with my crutches I couldn’t lean down to pick up my small bag (my Olivetti case stuffed with clean underwear, toiletries, and a nightgown) much less walk with it. I was physically powerless and felt emotionally so, unable to open my mouth to ask for help. Some people walked around me but after I started crying, a man in a suit asked me what I needed, hailed a taxi and put me in it for my twenty block ride to my parents’ apartment.
Back in Cambridge life got even faster as the school year drew to a close. I took an exam for my seminar and finished my independent study paper. At the class of ‘67’s graduation my friends marched and then dispersed for grown-up jobs and graduate school. I felt very low but hid my mood in order not to affect their excitement. I really felt I shouldn’t be moody–I too would graduate the next January. I had deep doubts that I was ever going to hop, walk on stilts or run again, with or without parallel bars to catch me. I continued to act as though all I needed was practice and will power.
I scaled back to one crutch, then to just a cane, dumped the rigid orthopedic shoes for more flexible and marginally better-looking ones. That fall I went to classes full-time. When it snowed, I got rid of the cane because I thought that I’d fall harder entangled with it than without it. Jim, ever gentle, told me I didn’t need more PT, my leg and glute strength had maxed out. It hurt to be told what I already knew but I still visited him as often as I could.
When I graduated in January of 1968, I decided with unconscious bravado to carry out my original post-college plan to volunteer in East Africa. I studied Swahili, had my shots and looked forward to being where it was always warm. I told no one, not even Jim, that I felt what I still feel: I was completely altered by breaking my back, and hadn’t changed a bit.