She hits the ground hard, hears the crunch of a bone somewhere (her bone?) and the grinding of her teeth. Then nothing, blankness, her eyes opening to the wood beams of the internal arena high above her head. Is this what it’s like to be in shock?
“Where does it hurt?” whispers her instructor near her ear, and she opens her eyes dazedly to find him standing over her head. It seems to her that he is speaking in segments, that time is breaking. She wishes it would stop doing that. She lifts her eyes to tell him that she can’t feel her legs anymore, could he check for her and make sure that they’re still there, but she meets her mother’s gaze behind his back, remembers she had come for the first time to see her daughter ride. Her mouth snaps shut.
“I’m alright,” she answers, reasoning that if she isn’t, someone will tell her soon enough. Where is her horse? Is he alright? She looks around for Panda, for his dappled white and black flanks, but no, that isn’t right. She rode Panda when she was a little girl, he was just a pony. She hasn’t ridden him in years. She rides a Warmblood now, seventeen hands, a gentle beast with whiskers that scratch her neck while she cleans out his hooves.
“Breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth,” they keep saying to her, although all she wants to do is fade into the sleep that lingers insistently in the corners. She tries to listen to them. Maybe it’s important. In through your nose, out through your… Oh, no, ouch, okay, maybe out through her nose is fine too. She dozes off wondering what happened to Panda.
Three weeks in the hospital, a few interesting days of which go by with the ex con down the hallway wandering into her room to ask her if she is the girl with the broken arm. No, she says, wanting to add, do I look like the girl with the broken arm? The first time he walks in, eyes struggling to focus on her, she tenses to run before realizing she can’t. The night nurse tells her later that he is suffering from withdrawals. He roams the hallway at night like a furious, lost alley cat, like an animal stuck in the cage it has built for itself, and she does not feel sorry for him.
“You know,” her mother says gently, “it wasn’t the horse’s fault.” She frowns slightly. It had never crossed her mind that it might have been.
They fade in and out of her hospital room. The physical therapist comes sometimes to tell her, in a gratingly cheerful voice, that she’ll walk again. She will! In a few months, perhaps. As long as those ribs don’t stick into your spine, and you stay still with that broken pelvis. Let’s keep everything away from those nerve endings, how about that? Of course, she’ll never ride again, nor will she be able to have a natural birth. But she’ll be able to walk. Grateful. Grateful grateful grateful. I didn’t need this lesson. I’ve always been grateful, she thinks to herself viciously, smiling politely.
“I have to wear a diaper.” She’s staring hard at her feet that don’t work yet.
“But you’re going to be able to walk?” Small smile.
“Okay. So we focus on that.”
“I’m afraid to,” she admits, her face tilting slightly. Her sister doesn’t look shocked, or appalled, like she’d imagined.
“We’re going to take our time, and then we’re going to walk,” her sister says firmly, taking her hand, and with that pluralization she has made it so that when the girl wakes up in the middle of the night with her hips grating in pain, she does not feel like an I. She feels like a we. And that changes everything.
She spends her days alternating between feeling immensely, dizzyingly grateful, and then like a deranged creature chained, forced into immobility. When the therapist tells her they can try and put her feet on the ground at the end of July, once her bones have started to knit themselves back together, he mistakes the panic in her eyes for impatience, and pats her hand. What if I’m all out of chances, she wants to say. I can’t, don’t you see. I can’t take any more chances. It would have taken nothing more and I would have never moved again. If we have such hearts, why are our bodies so easily broken? You’ve given us grand thoughts and emotions to stir worlds, the ability to mourn loss and love the stars, yet you have bestowed ruin upon us, so that we fear time and despair fate. She says this to the dirty ceiling of her hospital room, in the middle of the night, when she wakes up. Always, there are the nightmares, of being buried alive. But sometimes she dreams she can fly.
She has heard it said that fragility is what makes us beautiful, but whoever said that probably never had their diaper changed at age thirty-two by a stranger in a hospital. No, no, she thinks, her mind her only escape during this indignity, biting her lip hard to keep from apologizing to the nurse once again. She thinks she will die of embarrassment. All the people I love need to walk around in a suit of armor, otherwise I can’t bear it, I really can’t.
One day she wakes up and her toes can wiggle. The wiggling seems like a miracle. Little despairs, little victories. She forces herself forward and lays her hands on her feet. Thank you for this, she tries. Hands on her knees. Thank you for bending. Her hips, her pelvis, her hands where she thinks her uterus might be. Thank you, thank you, thank you, you can do this, we can do this. Her arms. Thank you for holding me. Her heart. Thank you for beating. Her face, where the tears are falling thick and fast. I’m going to run and jump and play, she wants to yell out the door. I’m going to run and jump like a Labrador puppy.
So I’m gonna live, right? Okay. I’ll be safe and I’ll be brave, and I’ll run as hard and as free as I can, and while I’m dancing, I’ll throw a prayer up to the sky to whatever I believe in, for the ones who can’t, for the ones who are finding a new way to dance. I used to think that being brave involves standing on top of dramatic clifftops with a brewing storm behind me and a sword in my hand, facing down all my enemies and the enemies of those I treasure. And I’m sure that’s bravery too. But now I think maybe bravery is more complicated than that (for a change), or more simple; that it’s malleable, reflective. Real bravery is setting my feet down on the floor and putting my weight back on the bones that broke underneath me. Real bravery is my sister holding my hand, my mother sneaking food for me into the hospital after visiting hours. Real bravery is not letting my fear take me with it. Real, real bravery is the eleven-year-old boy down the hall that has been in a wheelchair since he was three. Real bravery is my father, when the doctors weren’t sure if I’d walk again, if maybe I was broken forever; when he thought I was asleep but I caught him praying at the doorway to my hospital room to an upstairs entity I know he doesn’t believe in, caught him saying that if I could walk again, they could take him instead, he’d be happy to do it. Maybe real bravery is even the addict three rooms down who bit through his lip to keep himself from using, even though nobody will ever thank him for it, and people will still call him a failure, a loser. Maybe that’s our clifftop and our brewing storm and our enemies and our sword.
One life doesn’t matter? One life matters.