The neurologist came into my hospital room at three a.m. – by now my leg wasn’t speaking to me at all, by now my toes on my left foot that were like small mute appendages attached to a sleeping foot, a sleeping calf, a sleeping knee.
I had come to have a tumor removed from my kidney, and now I couldn’t feel my left leg from the knee down.
This stalk of a middle-aged leg that had run the Kauai marathon with my daughter, could not feel the squeeze of the compression machine. My knees that tilted toward each other, always whispering secrets, were silent.
The right knee knocked on the door of the left.
And now the neurologist – the Cat Stevens look alike (not the young version responsible for a whole generation losing their virginity) – he reached into his lab pocket for an instrument to confirm what I already knew.
After poking and knocking on the door of my leg he told me the surgical team probably had forgotten to rotate my legs in the surgery. My too thin frame had been stacked for eight hours. He said it was not likely I would get the feeling back.
A sound rose from a place so deep inside me I didn’t even know it existed, like the deepest part of the ocean, the Hadal habitat where shriveled, blind snailfish barely survive, and it rose from that place, breaking through the surface of me and I screamed.
Get the FUCK OUT OF MY ROOM.
The next day a social worker arrived with stiff gray hair, a glass of milk and a chocolate chip cookie. She leaned forward – Do you live in a one story or two story? Are you single? Did you need to drive to And It took me about six questions to realize she was informed I would not walk again.
Alice, I said. Take your cookie and glass of fucking milk and get out of my room.
My name’s not Alice, she said.
My left leg had ears, why didn’t anyone understand that? Alone in my room, I began pounding on my leg with tight fists – for fuck sake leg, wake up.
That’s when my dead grandmother appeared. She still looked like George Washington. For thirty years dragged her left leg behind her after her stroke. Standing next to her was my grandfather who died before I was born – in a wheelchair with one leg missing from diabetes, his pajama pants folded under what remained of his left leg.
They were looking at me sternly. And both of them said in unison –
I called a friend and asked her to bring me a walker –and she delivered it an hour later and I swear to God it arrived like a golden chariot. I lifted my body up and leaned into the cold metal, my light blue hospital gown with tiny stars on it. The whole universe of me got up.
I began dragging and pulling my unresponsive left leg with the walker around the nursing station, using my arm strength and hopping with my right leg. It took forty minutes to circle back to my room, my grandmother on my left side of me, my grandfather on my right.
And as I passed open doors, the cancer patients with eyes like dark caves watched me.
Don’t look at them, my grandfather said. Look straight ahead, he said.
When I returned to my room I fell back into bed exhausted. I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep. When I woke, I was alone in the room, just the faint smell of peppermint, a scent that lined the inside of my grandmother’s purse.
And I felt tiny bugs began dancing on the skin of my left leg. My toes yawned, my left knee whispered to my right knee.
I’m telling you this story because all of your body has ears, every organ is listening deeply to what doctors tell you – and also your body is listening to what you tell yourself.
It never occurred to me then that the fate of generations before me might be passed onto me. By the time physical therapy showed up – two days later, I didn’t need therapy. I walked into my new life, leaving the story of my sleeping leg behind.
I came to understand this was not my story. I no longer had to carry the weight of my grandparents forward – they had come to show me how. Aren’t we all carrying something from generations ago? Not just the physical, but also the emotional, and sometimes when we unpack that heavy generational luggage, the contents take us by surprise.
I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m not saying we don’t often have to find a new way to live with something and then another new way to live with something else. Physical and emotional challenges are hard.
You have my permission to kick anyone out of your room or out of your life who isn’t giving you hope. Because hope is a Kale salad with avocado, the trade winds cooling your hot summer skin. Or as poet Emily Dickinson wrote “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.”
I never saw my grandparents again.