The moment I felt myself hit the ground, I knew something bad had happened. As I landed, I heard a sound which the x-rays in the Emergency room would soon confirm, was the sound of my both my leg bones breaking.
As I sat in the dirt watching my horse slowly amble away, I wished for a rewind button. All I needed was three seconds. Three seconds ago everything was OK; it was a hot, sunny day in late summer, my horse was underneath me, I could walk... In fact, just an hour earlier, while trail riding in the woods and contemplating the year I’d experienced and the loss of my brother, I’d had the distinct and surprisingly positive thought that, “Literally anything I want to achieve, I can, I just have to do it!” But now, one hour and three seconds later, lying in the dirt, those words seemed like a cruel taunt, moving away from me as slowly and mockingly as the horse who had just caused my fall.
The next thought that passed through my mind as I sat there in the dust was to wonder how long it would be until my busted leg would be sturdy enough to step into a stirrup again and bear my weight as I swung over the saddle.
The answer to that question came a few hours later when the very nice ER doc told me that I’d broken my leg in three places and it would be at least three or four months until I could walk again. I’d need surgery and plates and pins.
I spent most of the next two weeks in the hospital. Each time a new nurse would walk into my room, they would ask what had happened and I’d tell them, dryly, “I literally fell off my high horse,” and then, with a little chuckle, I’d say, “I’m pretty sure I fell off it figuratively as well.”
The next few weeks were a haze of oxycontin, pain and feeling deeply sorry for myself. And then, after about a month of lying in bed, the hard cast came off and I paid a visit to the man who had been my brother’s spiritual guide, a Chinese medicine practitioner named Dr. Lu.
Dr. Lu has a way of answering your questions before you’ve asked them, often in a tangential way which requires a bit of parsing until suddenly you understand his meaning. As he poked acupuncture needles into my sad, still very broken leg, he asked me what happened. I gave him my same one liner I’d rehearsed every day in the hospital. He chuckled a bit and then replied matter of factly, “You should have fallen more gracefully.”
I laughed in agreement, wishing again for those three seconds so that instead of overthinking how to save myself -- which ultimately had made my fall much worse --I would have just let myself fall. Let gravity pull me down to safety without so much as a flail of an arm or a twist or lurch as I tried to control the uncontrollable laws of physic which were already in the process of bringing about my literal downfall.
Dr. Lu continued to push needles into my swollen ankle and then stopped for a moment as he told me a story of his own to make his point.
“You really should have fallen more gracefully. You see, the other day, I was watering plants in my garden. I was carrying a bucket of water in each hand when I slipped on some wet leaves. I should have just fallen, but instead I fought to stay upright because I didn’t want to spill the water in my buckets. Because of that, I fell quite hard on my back and I hurt myself very badly. If I had just let go, I would have been fine.”
I nodded in agreement, understanding instantly for once, what he was saying to me.
I told him that, in the months since my brother’s death, I felt like I’d been running from that moment, stumbling, tripping, falling, refusing to stop for fear of what would happen if I did. I was struggling to stay astride my life. Grappling, lurching, flailing to stay in any kind of control. I told him about a moment earlier in the summer when, coming out of the shower, I had slipped and crashed onto the floor before I had even realized I was falling. My first instinct was to jump right back up, but some other, wiser voice, said, “Stay down. You don’t even know if you’re hurt and you’re already trying to get up again.” I had remarked on the moment at the time, sensing it was one of those warnings from the universe, like the first tremor that barely registers on a seismograph before a huge quake.
And sure enough, just a few months later, the universe had grown impatient with me and reached out it’s fateful hand to knock me off my high horse. Doing for me what I refused to do for myself, grounding me and forcing me to sit still and deal with what had just happened.
Dr. Lu continued, saying, “You need to rest now. You need to take care of yourself. You need to let others take care of you.” Again, I nodded in agreement, this time with tears in my eyes as I registered how deeply I need this rest.
When someone close to you dies, you are knocked out of the world of the living with them. And for a while you aren’t alive but you aren’t dead either, you exist in some place in between, a place of deep loss and mourning. It’s an uncomfortable place to say the least, and I wanted to jump out of there and return to the life that I had known -- and that struggle had literally broken me. When I fell, I had to let go of all I was holding, and when I landed I couldn’t pick anything back up. I was isolated, stuck in a bed and completely removed from my normal life -- and that was exactly what I needed.
My leg became an excuse not to participate in the world and to dedicate all my time and energy to healing. I say an excuse because I realize that it was a kind of care that I hadn’t been willing to give myself and so, as much as I hate to suggest that I needed to break my leg, I suddenly began to see it as a gift.
I spent my days in bed in my parent’s house. My dog would curl up with me all day, my mom would cook dinner and my boyfriend would come over and watch movies with me at night. I had everything I needed, and I had no expectations of me from anyone else -- and most importantly none of myself.
I could heal. I could see every day how things got a little better, even if in ways that were imperceptible to others. And as I watched my body heal, I couldn’t help but feel that the physical process surely mirrored the emotional one I was going through as well.
Yesterday, I put my left foot into the stirrup and hoisted myself onto the back of a sturdy, calm draft horse in the middle of the Sonoran desert, far from the barn in the middle of Michigan where I had broken that same leg months ago. I tried to suppress any fear of what could happen once I was astride. We walked for an hour or so among the cactus and the sunshine. I remembered taking trail-rides like this with my brother just last winter when we were visiting our “snow-bird” parents in their Tucson home.
My life is very different now, in ways that I could obviously describe and in some that I have yet to discover. As I begin to return to the “real world,” one where I can walk on my own two feet, I find myself I little sad to leave my broken leg behind. My cast, crutches and limp were markers to the world -- and to myself -- that I was injured. With a broken leg you have to have to be kind and have patience with yourself -- and others do, too.
I limp less and am getting stronger every day, but I’ll always have the scars to prove how badly I was hurt. I hope when I see them that they will remind me how much love and care it takes to literally -- and figuratively -- get back in the saddle.