Severely Breaking My Leg in a Skiing Accident Upended My Family in the Best Way Possible
To her great surprise, everyone else stepped up.
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It was the first run of a family ski weekend in Colorado. It was a perfect spring morning, and the skies were cloudless and blue, the temperature warm. I was tired and considered opting out of the run. But the kids were whining about attending ski school, and I figured I should push through—that if I skipped out, then they’d think that they could too.
We dropped the kids at ski school, then charted our course on the mountain map. A little traverse to a bunny hill to a lift that would take us to the good stuff, where I would chase my brother, his wife, and my husband, Adam, who were already off and running, figuratively.
I pushed off and caught up with my sister-in-law. My legs felt heavy; I debated, again, calling it a day. Then, three minutes into the run, my left ski came off; then my right ski inverted and took my leg with it, twisting it like a Raggedy Ann doll’s. I remember seeing my ski careening toward me at an obscene angle, and then I heard the crack.
I lay splattered on the snow, screaming, my leg distorted at a right angle to my body. My sister-in-law heard my shrieks and doubled back. A kind volunteer EMT stopped and phoned ski patrol. I was strapped onto a toboggan and taken down the mountain to an ambulance.
Shaking on the X-ray table, unable to control my limbs as shock set in, I kept apologizing to the technician. “I’m sorry. I’m trying to hold still. I know I’m making your job harder.” I was embarrassed for needing the help, for inconveniencing these people whose job it was to heal me. A nurse smiled kindly and said, “Oh, sweetie, once you see your X-ray, you’ll understand.”
I woke up after surgery with my leg bandaged beyond recognition, with tubes coming out of various limbs, with my mouth sandpaper dry and my mind flighty and confused.
The operation had required two bone grafts (donor bone from cadavers) to fill the chunk I’d obliterated (it was in a million pieces, a doctor said). They’d inserted a titanium rod, a dozen or so screws. I wouldn’t walk for three months, optimistically. I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t navigate the steps in our house. I couldn’t even shower on my own.
I would be sent home to California with a machine designed to train my leg to regain its range of motion. I would sit in it for six hours a day, and when I wasn’t sitting in the machine, I would be at physical therapy or confined to bed rest.
I was high as could be on my IV drip but sober enough to turn to Adam and ask, “How are we going to manage?”
Who would get the kids to the bus at 7:15 a.m., since my husband was in his office by 6 a.m. each day? Who would deal with the dogs, two rambunctious Labradors, who relied on my companionship and long walks? Who would prepare dinner? Who would drive to tennis practices and softball games and sleepovers?
“We’ll figure it out,” Adam said. I nodded, because what was the alternative? But nowhere in any of my Vicodin-infused cells did I believe him. Not even a tiny bit.
Ben Kirchner for Reader's DigestBecause my brain was pooling with (glorious) white noise from my pain pump, I posted about my accident on Facebook. An image of me with tubes up my nostrils, and a snapshot of my leg, wrapped and swollen. And something unexpected happened: a deluge not just of sympathy and frowny faces, but friends both near and far chiming in, imploring for ways they could help.
I wrote each person back, thanking them all but not taking them up on their kind offers. The cavalry showed up anyway. By the time we returned home, a friend had already set up a dinner train: Meals for my family were taken care of for the first month of my recovery. Parents at our school bus stop offered to drop my kids off each afternoon. Friends sent care packages of books and food; others restocked our fridge.
After a particularly brutal doctor’s appointment, in which I was told that my recovery was progressing well enough, but certainly not quickly, and that weight-bearing was still far out of reach, a friend simply sat with me while I came completely undone.
My children learned to be both autonomous and empathetic. They ran up the steps each day after school to check on me; my daughter set up her karaoke machine by the couch to keep me entertained while I embarked on my slow, cruel, and mandated PT exercises. My son dutifully fetched my laptop charger or a fork or a bottle of water when asked, never whining, as he would have in the past.
My kids no longer had the luxury of my setting out their school clothes or packing their lunches or ensuring that their homework was filed. So they learned to do it themselves, and in a surprise perhaps only to me, everyone was all the better for it.
And my husband. My husband! The man who previously had to be told what to do and when to do it, and sometimes why too. This is what my husband did when I went down on the mountain: He pulled our family and me back up.
He signed the permission slips and ordered the dog food, and when the dinner train ended, he cooked for everyone. In the early days, he carried me into the shower, where I would sit on a chair and let the hot water relieve my broken body, and then he carried me out. He did all of this without complaint, because, as he said to me once, simply, “After all the years that you did so much, it was my turn to show up.”
On our 13th wedding anniversary, we didn’t go to Mexico as we’d planned. Instead, on that day when we had avowed ourselves for better or worse, my husband helped me down the steps and into his car and took me to physical therapy.
This is the metaphor. Sometimes—many times—both in life and in marriage, you hope for the sunset overlooking the ocean off a deserted beach, but what you get is a drive to physical therapy. That’s OK. Maybe that’s actually how it should be.
Eventually, I returned to the grocery shopping and the bus pickups. I made dinners again. I organized everyone and sent them out the door. But something profound had shifted in our household, in me. Now I am quicker to offer help if I sense that a friend is in need. I am quicker to ask for help if I am the one needing.
When I went down on that mountain, I worried that my injury would upend everything. It turns out that it did.