Friends and even strangers have taught me a lesson about my limp
After a brain injury, I thought I knew what to expect from life. Twenty years later, it’s clear I was wrong.
All my stories start with an accident I don’t remember. It was almost 20 years ago, but people still notice that something’s wrong when they see me walk. The occasional stranger will ask if I’m all right, or the dreaded question: “What happened?” My replies, long at first, have gotten briefer over the years. These days I’m tempted to answer, as a friend suggested, that it’s just a paper cut — aren’t those the worst?
I limp with the help of an electronic leg brace and my right arm is barely functional, relics of a brain injury I sustained in high school. For years after that, I was convinced that terrible, random accidents were waiting around every corner. I gave up feeling that I had much power over my future. Knowing there was nothing anyone could do to stop calamity from barreling down on them, I waited for the next knockout blow.
This state of mind long outlasted my year in a wheelchair, but I slowly realized that steeling myself against the fates every day wasn’t necessary. When I showed up at college, head shaven from my latest surgery, walking with a cane and wearing a big plastic leg brace, I expected the cold shoulder from my classmates. I was surprised to find that those who studiously ignored me were remarkably rare. Most people just wanted to make friends. Best of all, my adventurous roommate couldn’t accept my physical weakness as an impediment of any kind. Kim and I went on overnight road trips and to raucous concerts while my parents peeked through their fingers. Somehow, instead of falling, the sky raised itself a little higher.
I’ve had many physical therapists who looked at me as a six-week project. Because they see dozens like me, they don’t try to do the impossible. It makes sense. The impossible is left to inventive and persistent friends. Back when I could barely walk for an hour at a time, Alice insisted on hiking with me, pushing me, sometimes literally, up every steep hill. Andy taught me to swim again, gripping my hands and walking backward through the pool as I kicked. Just last year, I sat on a bicycle with the help of Kim’s husband, who did his utmost to hold it upright and jog alongside while I clung desperately to the handlebars. Since my injury, I’ve found myself in a shopping cart, a mosh pit, a mildewed rowboat borrowed from the shore (we left a note) — all more or less accidentally or as a last resort, and thanks to resourceful friends who didn’t see why I shouldn’t come along for the ride.
Granted, I would probably be dead in a ditch right now if my life had been all unexpected mosh pits. I’m fortunate to have friends who, consciously or not, protect me from difficult situations. I’m also lucky to have met many strangers who went out of their way to help me: the old man who spoke no English and simply led me by the hand to his own subway seat; the woman who sprang up and raced out of a cafe to rescue my thermos when she saw it catapult out of my grasp and onto a busy road; everyone who’s helped me across the street when my brace wasn’t working quite right; on and on. I remember these people even years later, though some disappeared without telling me their names.
Now, I live alone, drive, work, travel to different countries. I still need a hand every now and then. It may take a few minutes, but I can always get the help I need, and I do what I can when I see someone else struggling. I used to believe I was alone against blind chance and the unknown. Thanks, stranger, for the lesson. Thank you, friend.