Last summer I climbed an English hill my seven-year-old son said I shouldn’t.
On a family road-trip across the United Kingdom, while walking around a sparkling, oval tarn in the verdant Lake District, we reached a fork. So far, we had strolled past giant oaks and leafy copses, quaint fences, and mellow glades—a pleasant enough hike at a low elevation despite the blistering heat—near ninety degrees Fahrenheit.
A frayed map from our hotel presented a choice: we could either veer left and trek up Loughrigg Fell or continue our gentle loop around the lake. Fell, which I really liked the ring of, comes from Old Norse, and means high-altitude landscape, including moor-covered hills.
The decision was mine said my husband, raising his bearded chin in my direction and waiting alongside our two boys by the side of the path. After all, I was the one with the tricky prosthetic knee. I glanced at the steep trail winding up through seas of ferns. It would offer much wider vistas of the countryside we had traveled to see—U-shaped vales, ribbon glacial lakes, barren crests, the scenery inspiring the Lake poets including William Wordsworth whose poems I’d devoured as an English Literature student.
My younger son, age seven, snapped me out of my romantic reverie. With a serious look on his little square face, he cautioned the trail seemed too hard for the “bad knee”.
“You shouldn’t do it, Mommy,” he said, kicking a stone, the ever-cautious Taurus, to my foolhardy Aries.
Something about his sincere belief I wouldn’t be able to handle this climb, nudged my stubbornness. I’d have him know before he was born, I hiked much harder trails on far more imposing mountains, like the Andes, and the Rockies, with the same tricky limb. This little English mount with its brushwood looked downright friendly in comparison.
Eager to set a positive example of grit, I proclaimed, “Mommy can do it! Let’s go!”
So, off we went, my husband and I with our sons. The younger one ran ahead, Do It My Way Follow My Rules inscribed on his yellow t-shirt, joining his lanky nine-year-old brother who wore a New York Yankees cap.
They scrambled over the rubble and spiry rocks like nimble goats. I followed cautiously, hiking with my single cobalt trusty elbow crutch, my husband walking between the boys and me, keeping an eye on their races, while also helping me over tricky patches.
This part of the Lake District near Ambleside and Grasmere looks mild enough with rolling ridges, meads, loughs, and ivy cottages. Yet, this unassuming pebbly fell, turned out to be surprisingly precipitous.
Sheep bleated on the slopes below, vacationers and locals splashed in the waterhole that grew smaller in size as we gained height. The August sun scorched the panoramic sky and jagged crags in that fierce tropical way, not what one would expect from postcard-cloudy England. Not what the British expected either. Climate change had been on everyone’s lips. Before taking the flight from New York to London, we’d read news of steel rails buckling as the island’s infrastructure couldn’t cope with the unexpectedly high temperatures.
While walking up Loughrigg, my hand grew clammy as it gripped the walking stick, both my legs strained in effort, and all our faces reddened in the heat. Still, I told myself it didn’t matter if extra push was required this sweltering day, or that the trail was growing progressively steeper. Thrust was needed for most things after all, wasn’t it?
For me, “pushing past the pain” had been the default setting since age nineteen when I was diagnosed with bone cancer and underwent limb-salvage surgery on my left leg, leaving me with an internal titanium prosthesis, and a permanent footdrop caused by surgeons accidentally nicking a major nerve.
A physician many moons ago provided a measure of my disability: about 30%. Yet, I never quite made peace with the word, or percentage, never claimed it as part of me, even though it was printed on a medical letter I carried to the United States as a journalism student.
After all, how does one quantify brakes placed upon a young body designed by evolution to swim, race, and clamber?
Broken screws, revision surgery, fractures, contusions, soreness—my left leg is a bit like that car with ongoing mechanical defects requiring frequent maintenance and servicing, and ever so often, prolonged periods of rest while parked in the garage.
The only difference is I can’t sell this vehicle and replace it with a hot new set of wheels.
I made peace with a certain amount of discomfort eons ago, developing decent pain tolerance as I navigated a year of malignancy, learnt to walk again, finished college, post-graduation, and later, moved from print to broadcast journalism, from a sheltered life in India, to a hustling one in New York City; from being single and only responsible for myself, to marriage, motherhood, and larger family responsibilities.
The boys have always known their mom to have an impairment. After all, they were borne by a bionic body. Sometimes, when they’re sitting next to me, they’ll ask—which is the bad knee again?
On my younger son’s first day of soccer class as a three-year-old in Brooklyn, the coach invited parents to kick around the ball with their kids to warm them to instruction.
My son whispered, “But you can’t, Mom!”
I reassured him I could indeed. No, I couldn’t run after the ball, but I could certainly return it to him.
“Just kick right at me!” I instructed.
He aimed in my direction, but the orb went bouncing off at an angle and I couldn’t chase. He ran after the black and blue blur, worried about his mother’s inability even then, and made sure to bring it closer this time and kick it right at me.
I often tell the kids, “The body comes first” and that they must respect and heed its rhythms.
“My body is asking for chocolate and candy!” they reply, cackling and egging each other on.
What I plan to explain when they’re older, is that when I was younger, I tried overriding the limits of the body with the aspirations of the mind, only to disastrous effect. Eventually, I discovered through the ultimate imbalance of cancer that it’s healthier and far saner to handle the body-mind as a continuum. There is no clear dotted line separating the two, and those of language ring false. The body’s intelligence can be worked with, cajoled, trained, but rarely forced.
Fortunately, I find these boys are already quite attuned to their needs. Of course, they need the usual parental spiel—reminders on flossing and eating their fruit, but they have better self-preservation instincts than I ever did. They splay themselves on the bed when tired; argue out of activities when unwell; reach for water frequently and don’t usually run themselves into the ground.
For all the wisdom on balance I keep spouting, that torrid day on the rugged English fell, as I grew breathless, and my hips started aching, I slogged on. I refused to stop at one of the many lovely outlooks and say—”This view is nice enough. Let’s go back from here.” Instead, I explained to my husband it didn’t make sense to not scale the hill after working so hard to haul myself up more than halfway through.
The ego trumped any preservation instinct, and I did indeed make it to the crest.
On the way back down, in a throwback to my television reporting years, I triumphantly shot a little video with a trite message on the need to push ourselves sometimes. I never posted my smugness on social media because a few days after that sweaty, self-satisfied smile, my body sent a clear and loud message: no, this time it was not OK to push.
At our Airbnb apartment in Edinburgh, Scotland, after another hike on the Isle of Skye, I yowled as spasms reverberated through my lower back. Clearly, these arduous climbs had been too much for my implant and put excessive pressure on the other leg that had to work even harder to compensate.
A tall, bearded Scottish doctor pronounced I had ruptured a ligament in my right hip. For something sounding innocent enough, the tear was unexpectedly painful and pushed me into complete rest for a week.
What million points of teeth-clenching gather as an untenable storm? How many imbalances can we offset with our will, till they explode? The body speaks a clear, no-nonsense dialect. And it spoke very loudly in Edinburgh.
Our sons, hearing me yell in pain the first night, were bewildered by my distress, and my husband’s scrambling for help. When I finally figured out a precarious, odd angle in which to lie prone without pulling the torn ligament, bolstered by pillows, our elder son, who usually sleeps right through, came to check in on us twice from the other room, to see if we were OK.
The next few days, he helped me make my way to the bathroom, offering up his bony arm and shoulder to lean on. As for the younger one, he didn’t say “I told you so!” but asked where it hurt, patted the area carefully and inquired in his usual impish manner how we were going to get back home if I couldn’t walk.
Relieved somewhat of the pain by strong prescription meds, I sat gingerly in a high-backed grey sofa by heritage sash windows, watching the shenanigans of the busy Royal Mile three floors below me. Bands taking part in the legendary Military Tattoo marched on the cobbled streets; an oddball set of performers from the Fringe Festival drew jocular crowds at street corners; groups of tourists pranced by, taking part in silent raves with headphones on. I could watch all this from my vantage point above, but I couldn’t climb down the steep stairs to the boisterous avenues and immerse myself in the celebrations.
I sketched instead, my pencil emulating the contours of the Highland architecture across the street from us—symmetrical stone frontage, curvilinear slate roofs, medieval sensibilities. And I pondered a question I often ask of myself and others—between pushing ourselves, and pulling back, how do we strike the right pace? Who and what tells us to slow down and when? When is thrust a beautiful thing, the kind required for a rocket to break free of gravity and launch into space? And when is it catastrophic? When we have a disability, how do we decide which aspect of our appetite for life to quell? And how does this morph as we grow older? After all, time and age chisel the contours of our resilience.
At a physical therapy session for my hip, the physiotherapist advises strengthening of specific muscles, but also points out I need to loosen them. I wonder whether I also need to loosen some of my explorer dreams, at least some of the more ambitious ones, in the interest of prudence and sanity?
Now the boys aren’t toddlers anymore, and edging out of little-boyhood, I’ve been daydreaming about grander family adventures. A challenging multi-day hike in Mongolia? Nepal? How about walking the Camino de Santiago trail?
Even as I advise my sons to recognize the limits of their bodies, to learn from my mistakes, and be better and more prudent about self-care than I was, I continue to push against boundaries.
I recognize the irony and hypocrisy of it all. Yet, I have this elemental desire to protect them from my brand of blunders. Words percolate, don’t they? Or at least that’s my hope.
So, maybe when they’re in that college dorm, they’ll make wiser choices; they’ll possess the restraint I lacked when I was a teenager, and perhaps still sometimes lack now.
I question whether it was right to push myself on that hot day in the Lake District. It ended up costing us pain, time, angst, stress, and money. Physical torment was mine, but the strain was on all of us—navigating the health care system in a foreign country; delayed flights; changed plans with a cascading impact on others in our circle; unexpected expenses including that chatty Scottish doctor who charged a whopping fee for every additional five minutes.
When I’m older, and view a picture of my younger self standing atop Loughrigg Fell, smiling, what will I remember? Will I recall the ruptured ligament, or the satisfaction of having scaled the hill?
Or will I remember both, and the in-between?
Perhaps I’ll remember smiling triumphantly in my blue summer dress and straw hat next to the stack of rocks indicating the fell’s height. I’ll remember how we shared the last few water sips in our bottle while resting on the summit, and how the boys excitedly counted five lakes in the distance.
Maybe the memory of these boys hiding in the bracken and jumping out to surprise us will make my husband and I smile. We’ll recollect how they jostled with each other to fill our empty bottle from a barely-there natural spring.
And I’ll cherish how encouraging my husband always is, how he takes my physical limitations in his stride, how he is the first to remind me to carry the crutch as I leave the house when I try and wheedle my way out of bringing it along for walks.
So, perhaps, I don’t need to loosen up on my dreams. But I do need a new map.