Last Thursday morning, I took a couple of slurps of coffee and set out to ride my bicycle to work. There was nothing in the least remarkable about that. It was maybe the 2,700th time I’ve started a morning that way in the last 25 years. A round figure, but it’s pretty close. And there was nothing remarkable about the morning except for its loveliness: summer warm, but you wouldn’t have to be a poet to discern the merest whiff of fall in the air.
The morning left nothing to blame for what happened next. A flat, dry residential street without traffic, hardly more than a block from my house, offers no suggestion of adventure and allows no room for a very good story, even if I remembered it better. What I do remember is some difficulty with my helmet’s chin strap, a front-wheel wobble, perhaps an overcorrection, and that dismaying, embarrassing, but never scary realization that, dadgum, I’m going down again. It happens once every year or two, and usually the only concern is how badly I scuff up my clothes. I don’t really need clean clothes today anyway, I thought, as I descended to the asphalt. I thought that, and “I hope no one’s watching.”
The impact was not painful, as impacts go. I stood up, relieved that my trousers weren’t too badly implicated. But then I had some difficulty picking up my bike. I looked down at my right arm and couldn’t help noticing that it looked peculiar. My forearm is usually straight, probably like yours is. But on that morning it had a neo-Cubist zag to it. It looked less like a human arm than like the foreleg of some aquatic creature, one designed for scuttling.
Understanding that my morning was unlikely to go as planned, I picked up the bike with my left hand and began walking it back toward my house. Encountering a pedestrian walking a little dog, I was nonchalant, shielding my weird amphibian appendage, dreading the sound of a stranger’s scream. But near my house, I encountered my wife on her way to work. It didn’t seem like a good-luck morning, but when you break your arm and the first person you encounter in a car is an occupational therapist, any complaint about bad luck requires a big footnote. She ferried me to the handiest emergency room.
I figured they were old hands at this sort of thing. Another broken arm. I underestimated my shock value. The X-Ray technician said, “I’m sorry, I don’t think I can even look at that.” They stuck an IV into my good arm, and over the next few hours I heard the names of several controlled substances most familiar for the frequency with which they’re mentioned in news stories about pharmacy robberies.
There followed one strange scene after another. One Mafia scenario of burly men wrapping my arm and twisting it. An X-ray of bone fragments like Tollhouse chips, and a doctor saying, “It’s just mush.” Exotically provocative terms like “the Carpal Tunnel” “Bone Matrix,” “the Styloid Process,” perhaps a lesser-known thriller by Robert Ludlum. And “the Frykman Scale.” As in, “On the Frykman Scale, from one to eight, this is a seven. Maybe an eight.”
Twelve hours after I noticed my anatomical anomaly, I woke up in a stark surgical chamber with 13 stainless steel screws and a custom-warped piece shaped just like a bottle-opener in my forearm, along with some other hardware I prefer not to think about.
Still, maybe the strangest memory of my narcotic weekend was cable television. The hospital room had no radio—I asked—but it did offer more than 100 channels of TV. At home, after all these years, we still have just the rabbit ears, but I sometimes hear a rumor about higher-quality stuff on cable. I spent much of the weekend looking around for it. The History Channel favors subjects that are either campfire-spooky or Nazi-related, preferably both. The Travel Channel, every time I encountered it, was all about chubby men challenging themselves to eat more fried food. And nearly everything up and down the dial, animals, weather, plumbing, fried food, ghosts, Nazis, was busy with a disco beat.
You’d think being the subject of a whole roomful of concentrated effort and learned speculation would make you feel kingly, but your opinions and observations concerning the proceedings are not likely to be relevant or useful and are, at best, amusing to these strangers who know things about you that you don’t.
A hospital stay is an effectively humbling experience, abolishing illusions of pride and independence. We’re all more dependent than we like to think, not just on each other, but on all these knobby protuberances we never see, if we’re lucky—things we wouldn’t recognize if we found them out of context, in a mailbox or in a parking lot. If I found a healthy, intact styloid process on the sidewalk, I’d discreetly kick it into the gutter, and then hose off my shoe.
So much depends on these soggy bits of bone and cartilage, with names we’ve never heard before. They make possible our cherished illusions of autonomy. A random breath of friction and gravity can yank them away, just like that, and turn them into mush. And when that happens, we find ourselves at the mercy of strangers, and too distracted to notice whether they have references or licenses or diplomas or clean fingernails, too groggy even to remember their names. Never mind whether we can make an educated guess about what insurance will pay for. That mail always brings surprises.
And after reduction and surgery and intravenous antibiotics and blood thinners and, still to come, a casting and months of therapy, the best I can hope for is that my right arm may someday be almost as good as it was last Thursday, on that perfect late-summer morning when I felt my front tire wobble.