Hobbled by Joyce Zonana

jz-headshotJust a few months ago, not long after turning seventy, I was diagnosed with mild osteoporosis. I had thought that all my yoga, my occasional forays to the gym, my daily walking, my frequently consumed leafy greens and yogurt , my calcium supplements would protect me. I had thought I was different from most other women my age, that I could avoid taking the medication that I knew was sometimes problematic. But the bone density scan revealed what I had feared, and because both of my parents declined and died shortly after hip fractures, because I had once broken an ankle, I decided to accept my doctor’s sober recommendation:  that I begin a weekly dose of alendronate. It would be the first chronic medication I would ever be prescribed.

But right before I actually began taking my weekly pill, I noticed a strange new pain across the instep of my left foot. For the first few days I ignored it; I felt it only when I walked, and I assumed it was a strained muscle or tendon. The pain increased; when, after ten days, it persisted even when I was not walking, I decided to see a podiatrist.

She briskly and efficiently took an x-ray and diagnosed the problem—two stress fractures in the proximal phalanges of my second and third toes. The bones were still aligned, but the foot needed to be immobilized so the fractures could heal properly. She wrapped my foot and gave me a huge awkward “boot” to wear—indoors and out, she said, whenever I was on my feet. It would take at least six weeks to heal. No yoga, no swimming, no dancing for sure.


We don’t know how the fractures occurred: perhaps one day when I didn’t properly zip up my comfortable old boots; perhaps when I walked for several hours in a tight pair of new shoes. These are known as “silent fractures,” characteristic of osteoporosis.

And so, now, far more conscious of the intricate delicacy and importance of my two little feet, I’m hobbling. I cancelled two trips I’d planned this winter—one to go cross-country skiing and another to attend the bar mitzvah of a dear friend’s grandson. When I broke my ankle twenty years ago, I’d had to use crutches for several weeks; somehow I seemed to manage better than with this cumbersome, heavy boot. It throws me completely off balance, no matter what shoe I wear on the other foot. And so I list, something like a leaking ship at sea.

My hobbling has made me aware, in a new way, of my vulnerability. When I walk down the street, I’m surprised that very few people actually seem to notice my constraint. And this makes me feel even more vulnerable. I’ve been afraid to take the subway, afraid to be in crowds, uncomfortable even when I am alone at home. I worry about another break, a fall, a misstep—banging into something, or having something drop on my foot.

And I think, with deeper compassion, about my friends and acquaintances—and all the people I don’t know—who bravely endure even greater, often invisible, challenges: my wonderful friend with advanced Parkinson’s Disease who can barely walk; another who has had juvenile diabetes for fifty years and is entirely dependent on insulin; a third who has had her colon removed and must be mindful at all times about her colostomy bag. I think about my mother, who suffered for years and moved only with great pain. I look at the many people on the street with canes and crutches and in wheelchairs. I think about people–many of them elderly–with disabilities and difficulties I don’t see. And, far more than before, I honor and respect those people who carry on with dignity and good cheer. I make a greater effort to see them.

My new experience as one who hobbles has also made me wonder about the roles of hobbling figures in literature and folklore. I think of Odysseus and the Fisher King, of old witches and gnomes. Carole E. Tallant, in “Images of Elders in Traditional Literature,” writes about the “very old, white-haired beings who hobble about on crutches” and yet possess “tremendous worth and power” as they save heroes and heroines from otherwise dire fates.

And Beth Franks, in “Gutting the Golden Goose,” notes that although vaudeville villains are typically portrayed as “skulking, limping degenerates”—think Mr. Hyde, Captain Hook, Captain Ahab—in fact three-quarters of the characters with disability in the Grimms’ fairy tales play a positive role. “The study of disability in the Grimms’ fairy tales is something of an exercise in magic itself,” she writes, “as it seeks to make visible the invisible, give language to the unutterable, and make conscious the unconscious.”

Perhaps my hobbling will bring me some new powers or insights. For the moment, though, it simply makes me profoundly humble and cautious. Very slowly now, I make my way, looking forward to the day when I can stand on my own two feet again.

Postscript: Since writing and scheduling this post, I’ve been released from the boot and the soft wrap! My two little toe bones seem to have healed, and I am back on my feet again. Still limping a bit, but grateful and still very, very humbled.

Joyce Zonana is the author of a memoir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey. She recently completed a translation from French of Tobie Nathan’s Ce pays qui te ressemble [A Land Like You], a novel celebrating Arab Jewish life in early twentieth-century Cairo, forthcoming from Seagull Books. She served for a time as co-Director of the Ariadne Institute for the Study of Myth and Ritual and has translated Henri Bosco’s Malicroix, due out in April from New York Review Books.

Categories: Aging, Body, fear, Folklore, General, Healing, Literature

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

17 replies

  1. Yeah, so glad Joyce that you are back on your feet. And thank you for sharing your journey. I am of an age where things in my body are showing their wear. My first reaction is always . .. “wait that can’t be . . not me.” But then my body reminds me, “oh yes you are indeed human and subject to the vulnerabilities of the rest of the mortal population.” I have taken to calling my body “well-worn” as I hobble on knees that sometimes lock in place or otherwise remind me of their presence in unwelcome ways.

    Thanks for discussing how universal this is and pointing out the “magical study” of disabilities in fairy tales. I will look at them differently from now on.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you for your comment, Janet. Yes, we always need those reminders of our vulnerabilities . . . and then we get to discover that there are gifts in those vulnerabilities as well! We are well-worn indeed!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great essay, Joyce. Informative material about disability in literature. Always enjoyable to read your work.


  3. Good luck with your healing. I once had a friend who was about 40 years old and learned that she had the bones of a 90-year-old woman. She and her husband even had to pad the waterbed to protect her. I hope your healing runs smooth and fast and that you’re able to get back to your regular life of exercise and dancing. Be like one of those beneficent people who hobble and still do good in the fairy tales–you can do good in the world.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I was diagnosed with osteoporosis in my mid fifties – it was rampant in my mother’s family – some of my female relatives including my grandmother died as a result of hip fractures. Like you I have walked all my life, eaten well etc etc – but all this made no difference. After a couple more mishaps bone wise I learned to be much more mindful… now in my mid seventies, I still walk every day but I don’t climb steep slopes etc. I also am acutely aware of aches in my body – a hip or knee that bothers me when I walk too long I take seriously – shortening meanders….I pay close attention to what my body feels like doing and try to adjust accordingly… I have other health issues as well – I guess my point here is that what seems most important is to make the necessary concessions to aging with as much grace as I can muster – accepting what is as best as I can. Aging is scary when one lives alone and I try to stay in this truth as well, accepting this truth too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes . . . mindfulness seems like a key here . . . and acceptance. Not always easy, but worth it. And I think that speaking to one another about these issues is also important. In my family, suffering and illness were always kept secret. It seems like we could do it another way now!


  5. Oh, I could not agree more – thank goodness for FAR.


  6. Thanks for this touching and beautiful essay, Joyce. It really makes one think. I live in an old people’s home, so the sight of people hobbling along with canes, walkers, and so on is very familiar around here. So far I’ve simply been grateful to Goddess that I’m not in that situation myself.

    Now you’ve made me wonder what life would be like if such a thing happened to me. Your writing is going to change the way I’ve been thinking, so thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for you comment, goddessfiction. I don’t think a writer can ask for anything more than changing someone’s thinking . . . I’m so glad to have made a difference for you . . . I hadn’t really THOUGHT about what “hobbling” might mean to someone until I found myself in this situation. And there are so many people who share it.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I so appreciate the connection you make with fairytale. The goddess is alive and magic is afoot in a heavy boot or with a cane. I wish you a swift recovery and am moved by your reflections.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’m sorry you are experiencing these issues! Thank you for sharing your vulnerability and insights.

    What I have gotten from Susun Weed is that even with osteoporosis, if we keep our muscles strong they can help hold our bones in place when we fall. So keep up the strength work, and blessings on your hobbled journey.


  9. I fell this summer and broke a bone in my ankle and one in my foot and I was put in one of those boots, too, so I feel your pain! I’m still having trouble with that foot and I think it is because of my neurovascular illness that make my feet swell and burn. The fall has definitely made me more cautious. I’m just glad this happened over the summer and not in winter because I can’t imagine wearing that open-toed boot in the snow.


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