A recent tumble down a steep driveway has left me with a broken foot, a painful shoulder, and a bad case of powerlessness. Shod in a clunky black walking cast, I limp through my days in search of the next comfortable chair, preferably one with an adjoining ottoman.
I’m not good at this. Limping, that is. Also appearing helpless. Also being helpless. I used to look at people in these ortho-boots and think, well, really, how clumsy. I would ask the requisite “What happened?” and make the appropriate sympathetic noises, but my interior monologue was full of judgment. Why didn’t you watch where you were going? Why weren’t you more careful? And why are you appearing in public in that ugly contraption?
The shoe is on the other foot now. I was careful. I did watch where I was going. I fell down anyway. I am appearing in public because I have places to go and people to see. And if I have to stay inside for another single second, I will add insanity to my list of ailments.
The boot is bad enough. But for real discomfort, try dependence. Grocery store? Off limits. Places accessible only by stairs? Forget it. That eliminates an entire level of my house, including the laundry room. Cause for rejoicing, you might say. Briefly. Now that it’s impossible, I find that I actually miss doing an occasional load of wash, all that goal-directed sorting, folding, putting away. Not to mention ironing, a therapeutic chore if ever there was one.
Then there’s cooking, an activity I used to fantasize about skipping altogether. Wouldn’t it be heaven, I thought at the end of many a long day, to just sit here in front of the fire and let someone else do the chopping and stirring and broiling?
Here’s a news flash: It’s not. Well, it might be if I weren’t trying to orchestrate the meal from my easy chair. Use the medium skillet, not the small one. Preheat the oven. That pan is about to boil over. You get the picture.
There’s nothing like immobility to put your character flaws in sharp perspective. Any illusions I may have cherished about patience or endurance are fading fast. Ditto cheerful acceptance of temporary inconvenience.
But of all the home truths I have faced in the past few weeks, the hardest is this: I have a deep and abiding aversion to asking for help. I don’t want to rely on the kindness of strangers. I don’t even want to rely on the kindness of friends and relations. Whatever needs doing, I do myself. That’s the way I operate, and up to now it’s worked just fine.
Only now it’s not working at all. Now making the bed or getting a cup of tea or picking up the dry cleaning are no longer the trivial tasks of daily living. Now they are requests, petitions, big, honking favors. On the balance sheet in my head, the current score is me: zero. Others: 80 million. When I finally kick the boot off, I will have to spend the rest of my days repaying the generous souls who have come to my aid in this clumsy, unlovely hour of need.
Or not. There is another option, a novel approach that floats in and out of my consciousness. I could embrace the notion of receiving as an act of grace. I could allow people to give freely, with no expectation of return. I could view this boring, limited interval as a rare opportunity for reflection. I could remember a little poem learned long ago: “Humility, that low, sweet root/From which all heavenly virtues shoot.”
We would rather be ruined than changed, wrote Auden. It’s a line that haunts me. Here, booted, hobbled, and face to face with human limitation, I wonder again if it’s true.