Just 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.