I am lying on the ground, legs splayed, surrounded by the detritus of fall: acorns, oak leaves, bits of branches the squirrels have dislodged. Moments ago on this glorious autumn afternoon of thick and golden sunshine necessitating only a cardigan for warmth, I was walking through Wyman Park. And now, suddenly, I’m down, and my lower right leg—encased in sensible, flat-soled boots—feels as if someone has slid a sharp stick down the shaft to poke at my ankle. I can’t stand up.
Later, after the call to my boss to tell her I won’t be returning to work from my lunch hour, after my husband and a passing stranger lift me from the ground and carry me up the hill and into the car, after the Emergency Room folks push me in a wheelchair to be X-rayed only to return me to the ER on a gurney, do I know that something is really wrong. I have broken my fibula in two places, the orthopedic resident on duty tells me. I will probably need surgery (though it turns out, luckily, that I don’t). As the sky darkens to dusk, I’m given a plaster cast, crutches, a prescription for pain meds, and a number to call to make an appointment with the orthopedic surgeon. It is October 27.
In my family, holiday talk can begin in September. Who’s going to be around for Thanksgiving? When will we hold the Christmas party? Am I cooking dinner on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day? What do we buy Dad this year? Breaking an ankle near Halloween immediately puts all of those questions on hold.
When one trip up and down the stairs on my bum leaves me worn out and mostly confined to the upper floor of my rowhome in order to be near the only bathroom; when bathing and hair-washing is a once-a-week event supervised by my husband and cat; when driving is impossible, who cares whether it’s Thanksgiving or Fourth of July?
Normally, I do.
But this year? This year, the holidays are mostly out of my hands. As I say repeatedly—to my mother, to my friends, to myself—I can only do what I can do. Which is not much.
Though I think I sound centered and practical, this sort of Zen state isn’t easy for me: to understand, much less practice, the concept of scaling back, to give up the illusion of control.
Accepting help is hard, too. At first, when a neighbor offers to pick up something from the farmers’ market, my immediate response is, “No, thank you.” Then I think about it, call her back, ask for some salad greens and a half-gallon of apple cider, and thank her profusely. “I must learn to receive with grace,” I tell myself, adding that to my list of the many strange wonders of recovering from injury. It also includes a complete lack of focus that makes it hard to read or write with any kind of fluency, and a feeling of timelessness, which is rather soothing instead of depressing or scary.
Weeks pass, and I nicely settle in to my bedroom-cum-office. I power-watch eight seasons of “Foyle’s War” on Netflix. I try to knit, but even the simplest projects are filled with mistakes. Late November arrives, and without reluctance, I relinquish all Thanksgiving duties. A friend will buy the wine and make the Brussels sprouts and cranberry sauce to take to my mother’s house. But the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I begin to feel that I ought to do something, and I ask my parents to drive me to their house on Wednesday so I can help with the preparations. I can sit and chop onions and celery for stuffing, peel potatoes for mash and apples for pies, I figure. But they want me to save my strength for Thursday, which turns out to be the laziest holiday I’ve ever experienced as an adult. I didn’t prepare any food, didn’t set the table, didn’t clear. I washed nary a dish. I just ate—which was pretty wonderful. My only contribution was remembering to send flowers.
By early December, though, I’m less tired and, if not a pro, at least more accomplished with the crutches. Even a little activity wears me out, but that feeling of wanting to do something returns, and though I have told myself we can celebrate Christmas without a tree, I want a tree and convince my husband that we need to go shop for one. I hop around while Kevin pulls tree after tree—too skinny, too crooked, just right.
It takes me an entire week to decorate the tree. I bump my way down the cellar steps, retrieve a box of decorations, put it on my lap and bump my way back up. This is a long process. So is limping around the tree in a walking boot, but I learn that I can get around, at least for short distances, without the crutches. Progress.
So I try baking cookies. One batch, then two. While I usually make a half dozen or so kinds of cookies each year, this year there are only three kinds—a shortbread, a peanut chocolate chip, a coconut ball. My mother and sister will do the rest, and this year, we won’t be eating Christmas cookies through Valentine’s Day.
Some things get left undone. A Christmas party goes unplanned even though friends and neighbors offer to help. I decide I can make a roast for Christmas Eve, but leave the New Year’s cooking to a friend. I cannot Christmas shop unless it’s online (and I would almost break my ankle again for that relief).
In the days leading up to Christmas, I realize a sense of calm that I have never before experienced at this time of year. The tablecloth isn’t ironed. There are no candles in the window. My hair hasn’t been cut in two months. And yet I feel good and so appreciative of—and humbled by—the many gifts I’ve already received: the visits from friends, the soup and chili and lasagna and sandwiches that have filled our refrigerator and bellies, the excellent care from my husband and my parents, the flowers.
This year, as November approaches, I feel healed and stronger and already thinking about Thanksgiving, the Brussels sprouts, the cranberry sauce. I will lobby for hosting Christmas Eve dinner and decorate a lopsided tree. But I secretly hope I can find that Zen place again—the one that says I can only do so much. Just maybe with more cookies.