My Knees-érables (to the tune of Les Misérables’ When Tomorrow Comes)
Are you hearing my joints sing?
Creaking the song of angry knees!
It is the soundtrack of arthritis
And it’s causing great unease.
Since my cart’lege is all gone
And since my leg feels like all thumbs,
It is time for a new knee
When tomorrow comes.
And that is the battle song I will be humming in my mind as I am being wheeled into the operating room in a few days … the good old rouser from my days in Les Misérables on Broadway, when the students in Act One were inspired to rise up and form the barricade that occupies the entirety of act two. It also ends the show, sending the audience out inspired and the cast back to their dressing rooms exhausted.
As I prepare my house for after my knee operation — adjustable toilet seat installed, shower stool put together, making sure groceries are laid in for the siege of healing, cleaning every corner of the place so it’s ready to accept me as an invalid for a while, I have become acutely aware of a growing part of my consciousness that has never been awake before: I am part of a new cohort. I hobble, I will soon be using a walker for the space and time of the recovery, or at least crutches. And I go more slowly than I used to. I am older than I used to be, and now I see all around the older people who, like me, are hobbling along through life.
I’ve never been so acutely aware of people before.
People of a certain age and disability.
I am one of them right now. And a strange thing is happening because of this new awareness: I feel huge, heart-wide-open compassion for the stranger on the street I never cared about before. This soon-to-be-replaced arthritic knee is making me more aware of my fellow man, and I have to say, the accompanying feelings are amazing to me. I stop and talk to people, as we wait at a light to cross the street together; because I am still more able than most, I take the time to help them cross the street, or open the door to a building we are both entering. In a waiting room, surrounded by older and more disabled people, I open conversations and dive deep into the lives of the strangers who are no longer so strange to me.
I feel somehow part of a group in a way that I have never felt before. In fact, I’ve discovered I identify with this group of older, disabled people with a warmth and openness I don’t remember feeling hitherto. Sure, as part of many casts of actors, I felt part of the “family” of a show, and the rehearsal process would bring us close, the performances even closer, but it never felt like this. When the show ended, so did that feeling of closeness. Friendships remained, but the closeness of a show family, or any other work family, is different than what my knee experience is showing me.
There’s a lady I’ve become particular friends with in the lobby of a doctor’s office I visit regularly. Her name is Marge. White-haired and sturdy, she’s a decade-and-a-half older than I. A former physical therapist, she meets with her geriatric therapy group weekly, and she does that because she has few friends with whom she can now talk and share her life, and this group is her group. She relies on them. For all the things I have so bountifully around me at this time: family, friends, caretakers.
I’ve come to love Marge and feel for and with her, in a way that is startling for me to feel. She is a new friend.
So as I limp toward my operation — an operation that will be a thing of the past by the time you read my next column — I dedicate it all to Marge. And to the people around me daily with difficulties that impede them as they walk through life.
I count myself among them — we go slower, it hurts, and it is truly exhausting. But it also slows us down to experience the rhythms of life around us, and, despite the pain and inconvenience of this knee thing, after which I doubt I will ever again go racing through life no matter how good my knee feels, I find I am grateful for the experience of it. Grateful, of course, for my dear family who are coming to live with us for a few weeks to help me recover, and grateful for the strengths I do have to help myself, but grateful even for the pain and the slowness this arthritis has engendered.
It’s inspired me, changed me, in a good way.
A way I needed changing.