Volume 74, Number 55 | May 25 - 31 , 2005


A spill on a bicycle in spring changes everything

By Michele Herman

I’m lying in a pothole on Bleecker St. stopping traffic, which is interesting because a second ago I was traffic. A second ago it was an ordinary sunny April Sunday and I was riding my bike right behind my husband, as always. We were headed to Bigelow Pharmacy for an embarrassingly ordinary middle-aged errand: shopping for reading glasses. What was I thinking and where was I looking when I rode into a pothole big enough to swallow my front wheel and reconfigure my season? I have no idea.

Here’s what I do remember. Something big and soft plops onto my head. Ah, I think. Here comes my knapsack from the baby seat. I reach instinctively for my left elbow — my dominant elbow, my writing elbow — and find it, but not in the right location at all. I am suddenly overcome, not with pain, anger or fear, but gratitude for my long unbroken string of good fortune and health, my 20-odd years of uneventful daily bicycling, my comfortable life. Lying with the sun on my face and the Bleecker St. strolling fashionistas looking quite concerned, I wonder how I got lucky enough to live in a world that grants me a hot shower every day. If a broken bone or two is the price I have to pay, I tell myself, no problem! I can do this! I can do it with grace and good humor!

I calmly watch the day’s plot change, as if the editor has yelled, “Get me rewrite!” My husband, noticing I’m no longer behind him, comes back for me. A kind (and fashionable) stranger calls an ambulance. The saleswoman from Marc Jacobs brings me a bottle of water (what, no handbag? says a friend later). It’s a good day at the St. Vincent’s E.R.: only three-and-a-half hours. My thoughtful husband leaves to shoot pictures of the hole for possible lawsuit purposes. When the resident finally tells that I’ve broken my olecranon bone and will need surgery, I say, “Olecranon. That’s a nice word.”

Shock is a beautiful thing. Mine, wearing its clever disguise of lucidity, carries me through the day. But as I leave with my husband, the name of a surgeon and the general idea of wires or plates and screws in my future, new feelings pry at its edges. I try to hold them at bay, but when do nausea and discomfort and worry take no for an answer? I am wearing a hand-to-armpit plaster cast. Inside I’m wrapped tightly in synthetic cotton and outside in synthetic ace bandages. I have a slippery synthetic sling held in place with a hard square of velcro. They might as well roll my arm in poison ivy and saw my shoulder open. Seventh Ave.’s surface has been roughened in preparation for repaving, a sight any cyclist loves to see. I realize with a pang that this is irrelevant to my life.

The orthopedic surgeon is kind and professional and metes out bad news in small doses. Oh, bone pain, he says. It’s on a whole different scale from soft-tissue pain. Later he tells me about the stagnancy of elbow skin, sitting there right on the bone with no blood supply to renew it. That, and the swelling, are why I have to wait two weeks for surgery.

The day after the pothole, Ruggles the puppy is scheduled to be neutered. The whole household is bollixed up. Unused to walking on my right side, he insists on coming around to my left. All spring long, every few steps I have to untangle us.

Back for pre-surgery X-rays, they cut off my bandages (before I’m done I’ll have four casts; they toss out plaster and bandages around here like candy wrappers). I carry my denuded yellowish arm in my good one, cradled like a wounded waterfowl, shrunken in the bicep, enlarged at the elbow. I walk slowly to the X-ray room praying: please don’t touch me; please don’t hurt me.
When I wake up, the recovery nurse, the friendly face of post-op, keeps asking if I feel pain. I nod. She turns up the morphine drip and shakes her head with increasing disapproval. Dry-mouthed, I ask about the friend who agreed to pick me up. No one’s arrived and no one’s called, she insists. I defend my friend. Again she shakes her head as if to say, what do you know about friends? Turns out my friend has been in the waiting room all along. Before she’s done, she will make a pharmacy run, button my jeans, dispose of my barf basin and other unsavory tasks only a good and reliable friend would perform.

I can’t bike, can’t run, can’t lift weights, can’t do laundry but, oh, can I ever walk. I become a student of the sidewalk. One Duane Reade goes by, then another and another. “Eyebrow threading” businesses, whatever they are, are everywhere; how have I missed this? Whole days slip by. Thank heaven for the long and sunny spring.

At the surgery follow-up, the surgeon says, “Manage the pain however you have to. You have to get the motion back.” I begin occupational therapy and move to a hard plastic splint, removable, that looks like a giant bone. I like my therapist. I like her receptionist and her other patients and their stories. If only she didn’t hurt me on purpose. The therapist says it’s a terrible strain physically and psychically to navigate the world without your dominant arm. It’s true. Sleep is the bonus. My body craves it, my bones demand it. Once I was a writer; now I am a napper.

I stand in the bathroom, toothbrush in hand. I move my head forward and to the left like an Egyptian; I Mick Jagger my lips. The toothbrush is still a foot from my mouth. Just because you can’t do it now, I tell myself, doesn’t mean you will never do it. You have to be patient and have faith. No wonder my kids scoff at my lectures. It’s obvious I will never brush my teeth left-handed. My right arm is a good sport, but it’s gawky and dumb.

One pothole, and I spend a season devoid of my two most trusty tools, two of the things that make me most myself: my left arm and my bike. Without my writing arm, my conduit between my inner and outer selves, I clog up with words. My old friend the keyboard taunts me. I hunt-and-peck an occasional e-mail, all lower case, and need a nap. Bicycling seems like Anatevka, a homeland far away that I was forced to vacate without notice.

This morning in the shower, doing deep cleansing breaths, I succeed at thumbing my nose. How can I have criticized my right arm? My right arm is brilliant; how easy it makes everything look! I hold thumb to nose for a count of 30, though my bones and joints, down to the wrist, tell me this is wrong, this is too taut, I will crack open. I emerge triumphant. A month ago my world was wider and my goals loftier: novels, story collections, political actions. For now, I stand in the hot shower counting my blessings and taking my successes where they come.

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