Kick mothers me.
When I was sick, the last time I was really sick with some kind of flu, she put a blanket over me and patted my shoulder. When I am getting snappish about something she will tell me, “Mama’s tired,” and she often offers me food from her plate, though her diet of fruit, graham crackers and random salami slices really isn’t my sort of thing.
So when I screwed up my back in early February, tore and strained every muscle I have and threw things so far out of alignment that I developed sciatic nerve pain and joint inflammation in both hips, Kick decided to do physical therapy with me.
“Stretches, Mama,” she says in the mornings, in the severe manner of a German headmistress.
She gets down on her hands and knees, planks, downward dog. Things I am not allowed to do yet. “Yoga pose,” she says sternly, as if I have missed the memo.
I am not allowed to do a yoga pose. I am not allowed to pick her up. I am not allowed to ride my bike, or run, or really even walk very far very fast. The physical therapist I go to, who is 12 years old and looks like a chipmunk, asked me what my recovery goals were at the first appointment.
“I want to run the Chicago marathon this fall.”
“Have you ever run a marathon?”
“No.” I realize how ridiculous I sound.
“What’s the farthest you’ve run?”
Chipmunk sighed, tapped some notes into his laptop, and looked up. “I can maybe get you back to a 5K by October.” He thinks I might ride my bike, slowly, by May.
I have never been physically ill for this long. Kick wants to run and climb and wants me to chase her. On Sunday we went to the aquarium; she is too short, only by a foot or so, to really see some of the animals, so I lifted her up against Chipmunk’s orders, over and over again for three hours. Then we went home and napped, her with her stuffed elephant and me with a handful of painkillers crammed in my face.
I’ve never had to tell anyone, “No, I can’t” before this. I work events that mean hauling equipment and tables and linens and boxes of stuff, up and down stairs. I can’t stand tiptoe, reach with my right hand for something over my head, without excruciating pain. I hate weakness, of any kind. It scares me, and my own weakness scares me the most, and being scared makes me so angry I can hardly see. Asking for help is one thing, if it’s one time something is too heavy, or too high. If it’s every day? If it’s every day for the rest of my life?
I won’t, I told the doctors, start down a road of narcotics and braces and shots until we’ve tried everything else. Get me better some other way. Get me better and get me back on the treadmill. I’m 40. Ninety-year-olds run marathons. Centenarians win weight-lifting competitions. Give me anything but drugs and a prescription to sit down and take it easy. Hence Chipmunk.
I have never had physical therapy before. I was expecting it to be like personal training, or a fitness class: Loud and mean. Instead it is quiet and slow, with small exercises meant, Chipmunk tells me, to draw the pain out of my leg and shin and ankle (the burning arc of the sciatic nerve) and up into my back, and then make it disappear. I don’t feel like the exercises are tough enough. They don’t hurt.
I tell this to Chipmunk. “I feel like I’m slacking.”
I’m afraid if I set the goals too low, if I don’t at least try to run the marathon, then I won’t get to the bike and the 5K and the spontaneous dance parties Kick wants to throw whenever Adele sings “Rumor Has It” on the radio. I’m afraid I won’t get any better at all. I have six weeks of this, the physical therapy, and we’re two weeks in, and Kick is still doing more yoga than I am.
I don’t know how anything changes if it doesn’t hurt. If it doesn’t hurt, all this exercising, how do I know if it’s working?
Chipmunk shows me X-rays. “It’s working,” he says.
“How’s your back?” asked some work colleagues at a meeting on Saturday. I explained. “Still?” they asked. Like, you’re not better yet?
My trainer is working on it, I said. And she is.
“I help you, Mama,” Kick says in the morning, and sits on my feet as I do press-ups. “I help.”