“You,” said the orthopedist, “have no cartilage in your left kneecap.”
“Oh,” I said, for this was not a surprise, and yet it was a bullet train to the face.
“You’ll need at least a partial replacement in time,” he added, “but for now, get the most mileage you can out of the surrounding bone structure.”
I thought of my mother, who at that very moment was lying in a nursing home, her right hip gone and her left hip disintegrating at its own pace. She’d just completed her seventh surgery on the right side, after the correction of the artificial hip correction didn’t take, and so her surgeon, often touted as the best one for rivers around, said: “Well, I’ll just go in and yank it out.”
There is little point in tending to the left hip, as the absence of the right has ruled out walking for the rest of her life, which, at 81 years, probably didn’t have a lot of triathlons in it anyway. But still. She’d like to have maintained the ability to shuffle down the hall to Mass every once in a while.
The X-ray on the screen in front of me was a photo of my future. Fourteen years ago was the first clean-out procedure; my sister underwent her own a couple months ago. When I started experiencing new and different pain in the post-surgical knee about five years ago, I went to the doctor, who shipped me off to the X-ray machines.
“It’s just arthritis,” the nurse reported a week later, and hung up.
Osteoarthritis happens every day, all day. To old people. I don’t like to think of myself– then 31, then 39, and now 45– as a member of that category. And yet I am, hopefully and by the grace of God, now exiting the locker room, halftime having already passed me by. I’m not alone. One of my high school contemporaries needs her own total hip replacement. My former gym activities partner just got a consultation for high cholesterol. We are who our teachers were.
But “just arthritis” enclosed my grandmother in a walker for over a decade and began manifesting itself upon my mother’s hands in her late thirties, when she attempted to twist one of those plastic flower-intensive 80’s accessories into my hair before school… and she couldn’t. The pain in her knuckles meant she could not fix her little daughter’s hair in the simplest style. My big sister had to step in. Both of us started pounding calcium supplements as early as high school.
Calcium might have helped our “surrounding bone structure,” but nothing could save the cartilage. It gave way flake by flake over decades, and then there was no more to give.
My sister completed part of her eldest son’s college orientation clinging to bannisters and taking elevators and wondering why. One night I had such excruciating pain in my leg while kneeling during Adoration that I had to stand for the rest of the Rosary, also wondering why. Now we’re both checking our insurance plans for co-pays on physical therapy.
“You need to strengthen the muscles around the knee,” said orthopedist said. “Weightlifting, swimming, and Pilates.”
I nodded. “Yes, low impact. I already do yoga.”
“Oh,” he said, appalled. “No more yoga.”
Yoga, as it happens, often involves flexion of the knee and twisting in directions unfriendly to joints with zero cartilage. I discovered this the hard way– I almost always have to discover things the hard way– when I tried a class and attempted modifications. I stood there in my stubborn German sweat and glared at my instructor as she kicked her leg back against her hand, a posture that had a place of pride in my small athletic repertoire until last week.
And that was the problem. The problem was not that I was conducting the class like a first date on the campus of strictest Title IX enforcement in America (“Can I do this?” “Are you still comfortable?” “Can I do that?” “Is this okay?” “How far should I go?”) The problem was that I’d let pride creep into my exercise. One of the reasons I attached to yoga was that the kid who could never hit, throw, or catch could… kind of do it.
And if my recent deep dives into Catholicism and its sci-fi heir, the Jedi Code, taught me anything, it is that any sort of immoderate fleshly attachment– even to my own flesh– rarely ends well.
This is tough enough for highly non-athletic me, who just flopped around on a sweaty towel a few times a week. It was exercise, but it was exercise that I enjoyed and became part of my life. When people asked about my hobbies, I’d say, “I sew very badly! And I do hot yoga!” Yet, it wasn’t my job. Baby MB wasn’t wandering through fields of gold as an 8-year-old, dreamily picturing a lifetime of assuming Chair Pose. But it was there, and now it’s gone.
When baseball players, who can reasonably assume a fairly long career as long as they aren’t throwing 80 miles an hour as seventh-graders, retain a career-ending injury, what’s that like? How do they face the rest of their lives knowing that perhaps they could have achieved more, at perhaps exactly the best possible time, had their bodies served them as they trained it to do? Poured their own blood into the process? Directed every facet of their lives towards?
I don’t even want to think about it. My identity isn’t on the field. But it is a cruelty that the window to bend our bodies to our will is a small one, and for some, perhaps it was never wide enough.
Now tell me: Who could have done more if their bodies hadn’t failed them, sometimes too soon? My vote is Griffey Jr, but I expect everyone has their own portrait of frustration.