Do actors still use the expression “break a leg” to wish their fellows success before going on stage? I don’t know. But one day I did break a leg, and it changed my life.
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For seven years I’d been in a relationship where both of us had settled, after previous romantic disasters, for something less than love. An old friend observed that Winona was not kind to me, and perhaps I was unkind to her as well. When we broke up I bought an old house on 59th Street in Oakland, maybe a mile south of Alex Feng’s martial arts school in Berkeley. I would take the bus to my job in downtown Oakland, and walk or ride my bike to Alex’s class. On my days off I fixed up the house, doing as much as I could by myself, re-opening windows that had been painted shut, replacing the sash cords, tearing out ancient and discolored wall-to-wall carpeting to expose the wood underneath, and painting each room a different color.
Going to Berkeley meant passing the Victorian box trees that line Shattuck Avenue, an urban grove with a flowering season from November to June. They’re also called mock orange, which gives you an idea of the fragrance. When they were in bloom I’d feel sad and wistful, wishing I could share their beauty with a lover. Most of the time, though, I was content with going it alone, determined not to need and be hurt again.
Alex taught on Monday and Wednesday evenings, and on Sunday afternoons we practiced under the supervision of a lesser-ranking black belt. You could either work on judo or kung fu. On August 22, 1993 I was walking to the school and, for the first and only time in my life, had a psychic experience. It was a premonition that a particular student—I’ll call him Jason here—was going to break my left ankle that day. I felt off center and out of sorts, and thought it might be best to turn back, but I forced myself to continue. I won’t work out with him, I told myself. And I’ll do kung fu, not judo.
When I arrived and put on my judogi, John—the black belt in charge that day—pointed to Jason, saying “You two work together.” I could easily have declined but instead, as though mesmerized, I followed instructions. Within seconds I was down on the mat, unable to get up.
Jason was a teenager. Later I learned that he competed in tournaments and seemed to be in that mind-set all the time. He had wrapped his leg around mine—an illegal maneuver in judo—and I know, now, that I wasn’t the first person he had injured that way.
John rushed over to me. “Maybe it’s just a bad sprain,” he said hopefully.
“No,” I replied. “I heard it crack.” A couple of other students ran over to me, clearly unsure of what to do. I told them. “I need to go to the ER. My wallet with my Kaiser card is in the back pocket of my shorts, in the women’s locker room.”
Two guys carried me out, loaded me into a pickup, and drove me to the ER. A technician took an X-ray and showed it to me. “I’m not allowed to diagnose it,” he said.
“You don’t have to.” I looked at the image, the fault line in the tibia, the snapped and dislocated fibula. “It’s obvious.”
The doc said he could either operate that night or send me home and wait for the bones to heal themselves, but if the ankle healed crookedly, he’d have to re-break it and then operate. Of course I opted for surgery. He offered me pain meds, but I wasn’t hurting then, just in a bit of shock, and knew that the more drugs I took the harder the post-op day would be. “Just let me use the phone.” (In 1993 most people did not have cell phones.)
I left a message at the office, with a brief explanation. “Cancel my appointments for tomorrow and Tuesday. I’ll be back on Wednesday.” In retrospect that seems like an insanely short time for rest and recuperation, but I was an independent contractor, paid by the billable hour, with no sick leave.
After an hour the doc came in again. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but we’ve got a little girl with a burst appendix. We have to take care of her tonight, and bump you to the morning.” At that point I asked for pain meds so I could sleep. They gave me morphine. It was horrible stuff—I didn’t really sleep much, and every time I raised my head I wanted to throw up.
Again, wanting the minimum amount of drugs in my system, I opted for epidural rather than general anesthesia. They gave me some kind of sedative, which is perhaps why I don’t recollect the procedure itself, but once in the recovery room I remember waiting for sensation to return to the lower half of my body. It did, eventually. After a while I reached down to check out a particular function—you can guess which one—and was reassured to discover that it was still working.
My leg was in a cast from toes to mid-calf, and I would not be allowed to put weight on it for a month. The physical therapist showed me how to use crutches, and how to go up and down stairs. When I was alone in my room again I sat on the floor and did sit-ups—another bit of insanity, or maybe just being in denial.
That afternoon I called a friend and arranged for her to pick me up on Tuesday, when they would discharge me. She took me to the nearest car rental, since without the use of my left foot I couldn’t operate the clutch of my VW bug. From there I drove an automatic home.
The boss was surprised and, I think, impressed, when I showed up Wednesday morning.
To be continued…