One day this past January, chuffed about having received my first Moderna vaccine the previous morning, and undoubtedly a little woozier than I realized, I had a shocking encounter with a flock of chickens. (Cue Jaws/Land Shark theme music from Saturday Night Live, circa 1975.)
It was a sunny day, and I decided to take a walk in my peaceful neighborhood. I definitely had a spring in my step, feeling a little more protected from COVID-19. But as I rounded a corner, I saw that my neighbor’s small flock of beloved chickens was loose in his front yard, having escaped their coop in the back, and they were pecking their way awfully close to the street. I called out to my neighbor, with no response, and like Sylvester Stallone in Rocky II, I ran over, waving my arms like a maniac, with the goal of herding them back through the gate to safety.
In my haste I failed to see the tip of a sprinkler head peeking up from the grass, but my clever toe managed to find it, sending me diving downwards, where I simultaneously face-planted and smashed my knee into the sidewalk. The jarring sound of the impact and the searing pain in my left knee were powerful affirmations that gravity is one of the four fundamental forces in the universe. From that moment on, my life ceased to be my own.
THERE’S A SONG in the Passover Seder that enumerates the many gifts that God bestowed on the Jewish people during their hazardous journey toward freedom. It’s called Dayenu, which translates from the original Hebrew as “It would have been enough.” It’s a celebratory song with a catchy refrain that’s typically sung with great exuberance, listing such blessings and miracles from God as freeing the Jews from enslavement in Egypt, parting the Red Sea to give them safe passage, and feeding them manna on their way to their spiritual home.
But in case you hadn’t noticed, there is no light without darkness. Dayenu also gleefully extolls God’s capacity for vengeance, and the Seder service lingers schadenfreudishly on the ten plagues God inflicts upon Egypt to persuade the Pharaoh to let the Jewish people go. Like a grisly horror film, they include Boils, Locusts, Frogs, Lice and Gnats, Hail and Fire, not to mention Killing of the Egyptians’ Firstborn.
As we endure our own modern plague of COVID-19 (not to mention climate change and a confounding devolution from science and compassion to ignorance and hatred), ordinary life still sticks up its head from the cracks in the concrete like Fleur’s favorite weed in The History of My Body. Some work actually manages to get done, babies get born, lovers still love, and some of us find a way to break our kneecaps in two. I won’t belabor all that’s transpired in the history of my own body since the bifurcation of my patella, but suffice it to say, this period has been marked by a mortifying inability to do almost anything for myself and the kind of pain that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
But just as death serves as a physical and psychic frame for life, suffering offers a window into opportunities for reflection, new perspectives, meaning, and even an occasional pinch of wisdom. My own miseries this past nine weeks have taught me that the dread that dogged me for years over the possibility of becoming a burden to my adult children turns out to have been misplaced. As a mother and Jungian analyst, I’ve tended to identify (and undoubtedly taken some unconscious hubristic pride) as a giver. But as my kids have attended to my every need with astonishing generosity of time, spirit, kindness, and attunement, I’m learning that it can be as sacred to receive as to give, that it’s a kind of gift to allow my Chris and Claire to experience their own beauty and strength in coming through for their mama and for us to enjoy, albeit wearing masks, a physical closeness we three haven’t shared for a year. Dayenu!
In a more general way, I’m discovering the life-expanding properties of dependency. As Harris, my gifted torturer of an in-home physical therapist, said to me just this past week, “I would never have met you but for your injury and the work I do.” I felt so touched that this man who’s returning movement to my brace-stiffened knee was inspired by our relationship to reflect on the mystery of interconnection. My knee and Harris are teaching this intuitive type to pay attention to all the discrete details of her body: how much pushing to regain lost strength and flexibility is too much, sending me into anguished cries in the middle of the night, and how much promotes progress and healing. (Alas, sometimes they are one and same: two steps forward and one step back can sometimes feel like two forward and three back.)
Harris hasn’t been my only teacher in that department. Just this morning, I said a fond farewell to Natalie, the soft-spoken young student nurse who’s been one of my nighttime caregivers for these nine weeks, ferrying me from bed to loo, bringing me ice packs and Tylenol, dressing me, witnessing me from the early days—when I was still in shock, my face a ninety-year-old’s and my leg a heavy log, immobilized in a brace, sometimes merely uncomfortable, sometimes a fiery ten out of ten on the pain scale—to my present relative deftness at maneuvering around the house solo using my walker. With her long, wavy hair, her winglike brows, and her dark, soulful eyes, she’s a natural beauty with a hint of Basque in her background, and her sweet nature is evidenced in the home-baked goods she’s brought us, her love of the family she still lives with, and her adoration of her new kitten. Tonight will be my last one tended to by Sophia, the gorgeous Jamaican firecracker, who tucks her braids in to a shower cap before bedtime, shows me ultrasounds of her first grandchild, due in just a few months, and has been a dab hand at giving me sponge baths and washing my hair in a portable basin as I’ve lain prone on the sofa. Tomorrow morning will be yet another marker on my long road back to independence, which will ultimately be achieved thanks, in part, to these kind souls upon whom I’ve depended. I’m so grateful to each of them. Dayenu!
Harris and Natalie and Sophia move me to reflect more broadly on the helpers who keep us all afloat, especially during COVID-19: the caregivers and doctors and nurses and grocery clerks and stockers and Amazon delivery people: well, you know, the list goes on and on. They’re risking their very lives to serve us and have been too often repaid with poor wages and a terrible lack of communal concern by superspreaders and anti-maskers. Often people of color or recent immigrants, they’ve been the objects of unspeakable hatred and violence. I don’t know about you, but I find it shameful and heartbreaking.
The fact is, I try to stay away from the news as much as I can right now. I need virtually all my energy for teletherapy sessions with my patients and my own healing. I can move about indoors with a walker, but I’ve achieved only about 80 degrees range of motion, am still sleeping in a hospital bed, can shower only with my daughter’s assistance, can’t get myself outside, or even ride in a car, let alone drive one. The recovery process is pretty consuming, and I’ve become a rather tedious conversationalist. As one of the members of a Facebook group I’ve joined for people who’re suffering fractured patellas put it: “I feel like I’m turning into a knee.” That group, by the way, has been a godsend; every person there “gets it,” which is actually quite rare, as kneecap breaks account for only 1% of skeletal injuries. My compassion for people with physical disabilities has increased immeasurably, as has my respect for the humans who meet that fate with courage, determination, and the kind of acceptance devalued in a culture devoted to the delusion that health and able-bodiedness are equal to godliness.
Which brings me to the larger experience engendered by disability that has been familiar to me in the psychological realm, but less so in the physical: the experience of the self as broken. I’m grateful for previous acquaintance with the Hindu goddess Akhilandeshvari, whose name translates as She Who Is Never Not Broken. I was introduced to her years ago by Julie C. Peters, who did a lovely job of articulating that the souls’s developmental journey is very much one of sequentially falling apart and coming together again in new incarnations of wholeness. I’m quite curious to see who this next version of “Sharon” will be, and feel heartened to learn, with the return of my ability to sit at my computer this past week, that she’ll still be Fleur’s writing partner. (I’ve got about a hundred pages written of a sequel to The Fleur Trilogy, and I’m so looking forward to sharing it with you when we dance our way to the story’s conclusion.) Dayenu!
As for my Post-Traumatic-Chicken Disorder, I must confess that I don’t much like seeing images of chickens anymore. Even though my neighbors’ flock strutted around me as if they actually cared that they’d landed me on the ground, blood streaming from my brow and yowling with pain, just thinking of them inevitably brings the trauma of my fall right back to me. I turned on All Creatures Great and Small the other night and had to fast forward through a barnyard scene with scores of the cluckers. But I do find myself tucking into my chicken noodle soup with a little extra gusto these days.