At roughly this time exactly a week ago, I was a mile in to a planned 10-mile run – over the Brooklyn Bridge and then across to the Hudson, returning, I hoped, before the day grew too godawful hot – when one of my shuffling feet caught an uneven square of Carroll Gardens sidewalk and I went airborne.
There was no righting this fall, I knew in that long moment. There was only the sickening suspense of not knowing how bad it would be, and what part of my body would hit the ground hardest.
An instant later, I had my answers:
- Very bad.
- The right side of my face.
“Oh, shit,” I scream-moaned. I lay sprawled face down on the cement, my vocabulary distilled to two words. “Ohshitohshitohshitohshit.”
“Are you OK?” someone called from somewhere. “Do you need help?” I heard, or sensed, quickly approaching footsteps.
“Oh shit,” I exhaled, before insisting, absurdly, “I’m OK” – followed by a soft, whimpering refrain. “Ohshitohshitohshit.”
A pony-tailed young woman came into my field of vision and knelt down, her shaggy black dog tugging at its leash. “I’m a runner, too,” she told me. “I know how it is. Can you get up? Do you need help?”
A runner, too. I was touched, overcome, even, by her statement. Such a simple declaration, yet so beautiful, it conjured visions of solidarity among all the runners of the world, sharing our stories, pacing one another, lifting one another up in friendly competition or, as now, when we fall.
“(Ohshit) I hit my face (Ohshitshitshit), really hard.” That was what scared me most, the slam of cheek and jaw against pavement, the searing pain. I pictured my jaw fragmented, teeth knocked out, cheekbone crushed.
“Let me see . . . it’s banged up, but you’re not bleeding.”
The metallic, salty taste in my mouth told me she was wrong. I eased myself into a sitting position (perhaps she helped me? I can’t remember) and tried to wipe my cheek with my right hand, but found I couldn’t. Too shaken up, I supposed, perhaps I’d pulled a muscle? I used my left hand instead, and it seemed to confirm what she’d told me: no blood, no fragments of teeth or bone.
I began to laugh. “It must have been sweat, of course it was, I totally forgot about that, that I’d be sweating. Ohshit. Do you have any ice?”
Another person had materialized, a gray-haired woman with milky blue eyes, wearing a sun hat.
“Are you alright? Oh, my God, you’re bleeding.”
Which I was, copiously, from my skinned knees.
Jumbled questions, offers of help and bits of advice, their speakers unclear, whirled bewilderingly:
“Can you get up?”
“Do you want me to help you up?”
“Did you hit your head?”
“Is there someone we should call?”
“Where do you live?”
And finally, as my fellow runner helped me to my feet (ow, please not that arm, it hurts):
“We can’t touch that tree.”
It was a complaint, an admonition, a lament.
“No one can touch that tree.”
The speaker was the gray-haired woman, the tree was an undistinguished street tree, and I was both confused and annoyed by her seeming obsession with it. Was she ordering me not to lean against it? What harm could possibly result if I did? Was her anxiety for the tree (it looked sturdy enough) or for me? Perhaps it was a poison tree, with caustic bark that would cause the skin of the unwary to boil and blister. Are there poison trees in Brooklyn?
Words tumbled out: “We live here and we know it’s a problem, we’ve called the city dozens of times, but they won’t let us touch the tree. No one can touch it.”
Vague comprehension flickered through my pain.
“Just look at that sidewalk, we know, we know, but we can’t fix it without doing something about the tree, and they won’t let us touch the tree.”
I understood. She was terrified that I planned to sue her.
I thought about reassuring her – please, it’s not your fault, do you have any idea how clumsy I am, honestly, I’m totally capable of tripping over nothing – but a combination of excruciating pain and numb weariness, spiked with just a tiny bit of sadism, silenced me.
The kind runner and her patient dog prepared to continue on their way. The gray-haired woman disappeared into her home and emerged with an ice-filled ziplock bag, which I pressed against my right cheek and jaw. My right arm was still not working.
“Would you like to come in? You’ll need to stay in the entryway because of the dog, don’t worry if he barks, we’ll keep him inside, please, oh my God, you’re still bleeding, we can call someone for you, do you need an Uber, do come in.” Her fluttery kindness was now tainted by the suspicion that she was merely placating me. I was a woman in pain, to be sure, but I was also a potentially litigious adversary.
Again I thought about reassuring her, and again I kept my silence as I followed her through the door and into an interior courtyard.
Such a lost opportunity, in this real estate-obsessed borough, to absorb the private details of a renovated Carroll Gardens townhouse! Trying to recall it now, I hear water trickling, smell damp soil and green leaves, see an iron table with peeling yellow paint and a couple of cafe chairs – but which of these images are real, and which I subsequently invented, I couldn’t tell you. I do know that I sat on a ledge (possibly leaning against silvery, reclaimed wood) while the unseen dog barked frantically and the gray-haired woman and her husband, in his bathrobe, talked about The Tree and offered me great fistfuls of damp paper towels.
Still unable to do much of anything with my right arm, I alternated between pressing the ice pack to my face and blotting my knees. Blood had run down my shins, tracing rivers and tributaries before emptying into my socks. This distressed the couple, who fetched me more towels – including a beautiful, soft blue hand towel – and knelt down to clean me up. I was more concerned with my arm – why could I not move it?
“Is there someone we should call? Anyone who can pick you up?”
“Oh, no, please,” I insisted. “I can take the F, it’s so close.” [Pause.] “You know, actually, I can walk.”
They both regarded me with skepticism.
“But I should call my husband. To warn him.” I laughed weakly, just to let them know I had a sense of humor about this all.
My phone was still strapped around my right arm. I couldn’t reach it by myself, so the bathrobed man undid the Velcro and handed the case to me. Oh God, I thought, envisioning a shattered screen, hours of Apple Store tedium, hundreds of dollars scattered to the winds – what if it’s broken?
The phone was fine, and Eric picked up on the third ring.
“I fell,” I told him. “Really hard. I hit my face, it’s going to be all swollen and bruised. And there’s something wrong with my arm. I’m coming home and then we should go to urgent care.”
“Not far. Hoyt, near Carroll.” The man and woman both seemed interested in my responses to Eric’s questions. “I’m close to the F, but I think I’m just going to walk. I want to walk, it’ll be good.”
I couldn’t see Eric’s face to gauge his reaction, but the couple with me were not happy as I thanked them – profusely – and announced I was going.
“Are you sure you’re okay to walk? Are you sure? At least let me walk with you a bit just in case you get woozy.”
I consented to be walked to the corner, and so the gray-haired woman and I set out. Walking was fine; my face throbbed and my right arm dangled limply (could it be broken? surely I’d know if it were broken, wouldn’t I be in excruciating pain?) but my legs, bloody knees notwithstanding, were just fine.
“You’re walking way too fast,” my companion informed me.
When we finally reached the corner, she had some parting words:
“I don’t know you, so forgive me if I’m overstepping boundaries, but I can see some things about you, and one is that you’re a person who likes to go fast.” She herself spoke slowly and softly, and I pictured her arranging flowers, sipping herbal tea, and doing other soft, slow things. “You need to slow down. Please, listen to my advice, and just slow down.”
I could have erupted into rage then, and told her I planned to sue until I was the one arranging flowers and sipping herbal tea in the interior courtyard of her Carroll Gardens townhouse. Or I could have grasped her soft hands in mine and told her not to worry, I did not hold her, her husband, or the untouchable tree responsible for my mishap.
I did neither of those things, merely thanked her again and continued on alone . . . walking too fast, I’m sure.
It did in fact feel good to walk. My legs were working, even if my right arm wasn’t, and I enjoyed the sidelong, “no, I’m not staring at you, whatever gave you that idea?” looks at my blood-streaked legs, red and swollen cheek and dangling arm. The only people brave enough to say anything to me were a couple carting groceries home from Whole Foods. We waited together for the light at Third Avenue, then chatted about running and how you can tell if your arm is broken or not as we headed toward Fifth. (“So, does this mean you’re going to miss some races?” one of them asked, winning my heart.)
Eric was waiting for me at home, my ID and insurance card – the two most essential medical devices in the U.S. health care system – in hand, and we walked together to the urgent care place. (We dumped the watery contents of my improvised ice pack outside, but held on to the ziplock baggie, because we are recyclers and you can never have too many of those things.) With the help of a hijabi nurse, my sweaty 2016 Staten Island Half T-shirt was slowly, awkwardly removed, a hospital gown slowly, awkwardly donned. And though this is a bit of a digression – kudos to her for noting my breast cancer history and taking lymphedema precautions without any prompting by me.
X-rays confirmed what I had already concluded somewhere between Hoyt Street and Fifth Avenue: my upper arm was broken near the shoulder. The doctor described the surgical neck of the humerus, explained the term “impaction” and drew a scary picture showing two bits of bone jutting past one another. Surgery was mentioned; so was 8-12 weeks recovery (otherwise known as “the entire summer”).
On the bright side, my jaw and cheekbone were intact and no teeth were visibly loose or broken.
I left with a sling; stretchy bandages wrapped around both knees; a prescription for oxycodone; and the promise of an appointment with an orthopedic surgeon the next day. I left behind a mortifying trail of damp, torn tissue paper where my sweaty running shorts had soaked through the sanitary covers on chairs and examining tables.
Naturally, I turned to Eric and said, “I don’t want to go home just yet; let’s go to the Farmers Market.”
I must have made quite the spectacle in my running bra (no way was that shirt going back on), short shorts, blood-stained socks, bandaged knees and sling, a swollen red blotch spreading across my right cheek – but I didn’t care. And because it’s Park Slope, no one said a word to me. We bought local strawberries, two Runner & Stone baguettes, a quarter miche, a hero roll and a bag of Orwasher’s salt sticks. I thought a week’s supply of good bread would make me feel better, but when I discovered how painful it was to chew, it made me depressed.
“These are painful injuries,” the urgent care doctor had warned. What I found was that the pain really wasn’t that bad – until it was. (Why the hell had I insisted on lunch, and then this and that, before dispatching Eric to collect my drugs? Because I am an idiot, that’s why.)
How was that first night? Praise God for pillows, I would say, and praise Her even more for opioids, properly prescribed and used. Oh, and apologies to our neighbors for those screams when I tried to reposition myself in bed at 3 am.
The next morning, I took a call from the urgent care clinic with the details of my follow-up appointment that afternoon, in Manhattan (every orthopedic doctor in Brooklyn was fully booked – what’s going on, Brooklynites?). As oblivious to fashion as I am, I do generally put at least a little effort into clothes and personal grooming when I’m headed for the city. Not that day. Braless and lopsided, face unadorned, toenails unpolished, wearing flip flops and the same loose sack of a dress I’d slept in and clutching a copy of my X-rays, I walked slowly (my Carroll Gardens advisor would be proud!) to the F train and the crowded streets of midtown, where I was too terrified of tripping or being jostled to care that I was the sloppiest-looking woman on Fifth Avenue.
An inconclusive consultation, an order for a CT scan, and yet another appointment, scheduled for Thursday, followed.
I’ve had a lot of medical tests in my life, but somehow, I made it through breast cancer treatment and to the age of 56 without ever undergoing a CT scan. As of Wednesday, I am a CT-scan naïf no more, and can report that the experience is a bit like being the spindle in the center of a roulette wheel. You just lie there, immobile, while an unseen, Godlike dealer spins the wheel around you.
Which leads, inexorably, to Thursday’s follow-up consultation to review the results of the scan, and to my new favorite phrase: “minimal displacement.” In this context, it means the same as “no surgery required.”
So, while I’m still facing a lengthy recovery, I’m getting away without surgery, for which I’m very grateful.
All things considered, I walked away from a very hard fall with relatively minor physical damage. That is both reassuring (for obvious reasons) and deeply unsettling (for perhaps not-so-obvious ones). Each time I think of my face and body slamming to the sidewalk – and while I try not to think about it too much, it’s hard to avoid altogether – I find myself thinking also about the violence human beings inflict on one another. I cannot imagine a harder blow than the one I sustained; I can’t, and I don’t want to. So the next time I read a report of a brutalized prisoner, or someone stomped on the street or battered in their home, and I see the familiar, practically rote litany of injuries – broken jaw, knocked-out teeth, shattered cheekbone, fractured eye socket (all of which I avoided) – I still won’t be able to imagine the violence of the fist, the foot, the club, the man that inflicted them.
But I will be able to imagine the sickening unimaginability of that violence. In the spirit, if not the voice, of that gray-haired Carroll Gardens woman, I would offer some unasked-for advice of my own:
Just stop it, for fuck’s sake.