If I’d known that one day walking would be a painful struggle instead of second nature, I’d have done a lot more of it.
Watch a toddler rocket joyously around the room on wobbly legs, ecstatic in new-found independence and you have some idea of the sense of loss when age or infirmity slows us down and movement is no longer easy or even pleasurable.
I never thought it would happen to me.
I’m not a natural athlete. As a kid, I didn’t swing as high as my best friend, never won a footrace, or swam like a baby elephant.
But I moved ceaselessly, clamped into metal roller skates, riding my Schwinn like the wind—and walking. Boy, could I walk.
In that less precarious and hectic time, we walked to school, the public library, movie theaters, shopping and to catch a bus or train to visit family. By the time I was six, I walked around the block to visit every neighbor sitting on a porch or stoop of a summer evening. I smelled all the roses, knew all the dogs, everyone’s name, and much of the gossip.
As a teenager, I danced to Bill Haley’s rock and roll, spent Saturdays walking downtown Chicago streets, along the shining Miracle Mile, under clanging elevated trains, to Lake Michigan and the vast Museum complex. At college, I crisscrossed acres of campus, took steps two at a time, walked to work. I walked to think, relax, chase the blues, celebrate. And I took it all for granted.
I had my first back episode at 22. Slipped a disc making a bed. Spent 15 days on the floor, doped up on painkillers and muscle relaxers – the prescribed protocol at the time. Mom hopped a train to Ohio with a pot of homemade spaghetti and meatballs. On the 16th day I started work at the Associated Press Columbus Bureau. I took recovery for granted.
Five years later I’d moved to California, married into a ready-made family of three singularly agile kids, took up tennis and jogging and spent glorious hours tramping San Francisco streets, hiking the foothills of Marin, biking and beach-combing. My 12-year-old stepdaughter taught me to swim; my 9-year old stepson taught me I was no skier, blowing past me as I shuffled from tree to tree; the middle child sealed our bond the day she beat me soundly on the court and made the high school tennis team. It was the best of times and I took it for granted.
My second back episode was acute. The disc ruptured and 10 days in hospital traction did not move it off the sciatic nerve. “Are you God?” I asked my neurosurgeon in a post-surgical anesthesia haze. He assured me I was alive and furthermore, would be able to play tennis again—my second question. Can I ski? I definitely was pushing it. “Did you ski before?” “Barely and badly.” “Stick with the tennis,” my miracle worker said.
I did. In the years following I mountain-biked, climbed the Great Wall of China, hiked up Kilimanjaro, rafted the Zambezi River, and snorkeled the Great Barrier Reef. I had occasional episodes of back pain, but never on the road. I took each rebound for granted.
It didn’t disappear overnight. Mobility slipped away like ice off a glacier.
Today I am diagnosed with spinal stenosis, degenerative discs, and osteoarthritis. Not disabling, but definitely limiting. I find it impossible to stand up straight or walk any distance without support for more than a few minutes. It is, I’m told, just the luck of the genetic draw.
I began to experience chronic pain. When it became acute, I stopped moving ceaselessly. In fact, I looked for ways to avoid moving at all. It hurt to walk so I walked less and drove more. Sat down as soon as I entered a room. Skipped exercise. Met my friends for lunch, but not for hikes. Dreaded department stores and supermarkets. Applied for a handicapped parking tag.
On tough days I was impatient and irritable. This was not the way I wanted to live my life.
Well, then, don’t!
So far I’ve escaped every major ailment of aging. I have a sharp memory, curious mind, an opinion on just about everything and naturally curly hair. I have family, friends, neighbors and two exceptional cats. I have mobility challenges.
What I don’t have, none of us have – unlimited time. That we can take for granted.
I intend to live as active and joyous a life as I can using ingenuity and technology to get me where I want to go. I also have Plan A. If you want to know what that is…stick around.