This picture was taken in Colorado on a family vacation, a few months after both my hips were replaced. I weighed about 120lbs (I’m ~185 now), and was learning how to walk again.
I had a great rooftop conversation with a friend this week. The cold in San Francisco had abated for the afternoon, and we were both sharing stories of relationships lost and lessons learned.
We both had stories of heartbreak and getting back and forth with folks that ultimately hadn’t worked. Everyone who has loved has loved tragically, attempting to salvage a love broken beyond repair in the hopes that commitment and will can save the relationship.
The inevitable first rupture has happened, but the pair, mutually recognizing that there *is* love for one another make another go at being together. At making it work. At finding the pot of gold at the end of hours of first dates, one night stands, sleepless nights, and the complete agony of being in love, ultimately to discover that the fights you thought you could resolve have no terminus, the trust could not be rebuilt, and the love you remembered had transformed into a distant spot on the horizon. The lighthouse that catches you in a spot of light before disappearing into the night.
Where did it go, and how are you to carry on.
My friend asked me how to move on from the broken relationship, and the fear to be loved again. It seems impossible to get the pain and the memories. Walking around a city you’ve loved someone in can break your heart with every corner you turn. Listening to music kills me when I’ve loved someone that I shared a great deal of music with.
How is it that you’re supposed to unbreak your heart and mend the pieces enough to offer it to someone anew? Is that a possibility when you don’t know how things got so broken in the first place?
My only answer has been to start where you are. In pain, in agony, unable to move and let that sink in.
When I was 15, I had both my hips replaced and had to learn how to walk again. I’d spent 18 months in a wheelchair, and the muscles in my legs had atrophied to nothing. Two years before, I’d been playing football, but now I was an infant, re-learning how to walk.
The first day after my surgery, I still had an epidural in my spine, which meant I couldn’t feel my legs. I still had my catheter in. The physical therapist walked in and told me I was going to take a step that day. There was no way in hell I was going to take a step. I’d just spent the last 18 months NOT taking any steps, and now I had a steady drip of painkillers going into my spine that were keeping me from feeling my legs. I was definitely not going to walk that day. Maybe tomorrow.
The physical therapist was an asshole.
He had a secret weapon. A secret weapon other than being an asshole. It was called a “mobility transfer belt.”
Basically, it was a medieval device of torture designed to put me in the maximum amount of pain possible. AKA, stand me up and get me walking again.
The belt wrapped around my waist so the therapist could support my center of gravity while I took my first steps as a 15 year old with ceramic hips.
It looked a little like this.
Except I didn’t have pants on, I was still wearing a gown, had an epidural tube running out my spine and a catheter tube running out my front, and there were at least 40 other people in the room who were filming the spectacle for TMZ.
Ok, that wasn’t quite how it worked out, but I was 15. Everything is life and death dramatic when you’re 15.
Actually, I’d just had both my hips replaced at 15. I will exercise my right to have a small helping of drama around that event.
So, the physical therapist wrapped the belt around my waist, stood me up, and had me take a single step. I couldn’t feel my legs, and almost collapsed on top of myself until he caught me and put me back into the hospital bed. Walking out of the room, he said, “Tomorrow, you’ll take two steps.”
Tomorrow, the asshole came back and I took two steps.
Later that week, with the aid of a walker, I did a lap on the hallway: 40 steps. By the next week I was back home. It was July. By September, I was back in school. 2 years later, I moved to Mexico for the summer. I had learned how to walk again.
When we are learning how to love again, it’s like learning how to walk again. Love has the capacity to level us, put us flat on our back, and leave us that way to die. The only way to get back up and loving again is to start with taking that first tiny step, wearing our terrible hospital gown, and feeling the eyes of the world upon us.
I told my friend the first place to start is to just be where you are. In pain. Unsure of how to move forward. That’s your starting place, and any shame you feel about where you are is a distraction from focusing on where you want to be.
One of my favorite quotes is from TS Elliot. He wrote:
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.
The first step to healing is to admit that you are broken and need some fixing. Once you acknowledge that you’re broken, you have taken the first step to being healed. You’re not hiding from the reality that you have to re-learn how to walk again, and those first steps will be agonizing.
The thing about walking is that we have to learn how to do it. We fall over and over again, but after a while we discover that we’ve actually learned how to run.
The thing about loving is that we have to learn how to do it. We fall all over ourselves and others over and over again, but after a while we learn to love ourselves in the process. By accepting that each time we fail and fall we can get back up again and take that first baby step.
Here’s to that. Here’s to baby steps. Here’s to learning to walk again. Here’s to learning how to love again.
Hope this helps.
Austin W. Gunter