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Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Spaghetti Ankle

A late night basketball one-on-one against Chuck, an overweight tyro who sweat from the moment we agreed to go the court. I had won the first three games by the usual wide margins, pouring in basket after basket from 12-15 feet. We’d played over 50 games against each other and Chuck had never come close to beating me. So I continued my shooting practice as the night grew chillier.

I was leading 9-3 when I decided to cut around Chuck and drive to the basket. I seldom did this, as even though I wasn’t really a good ballhandler, it was ludicrously easy for me to leave him in my dust. As I cut to my left, my weaker hand, he turned and instead of stepping back as he often did, Chuck stepped to the side and forced me to abort my move to the basket and drift left.

I put up the shot and came down. The court, a cement slab, ended just behind the basket. The ground, eroded from water and steps, was almost three inches lower than the cement surface. My left foot landed on the court’s edge, but my ankle bone, that large knob on the outside of my foot, touched the dirt. I couldn’t shift my weight and the knob ground into the dirt as the pain exploded up my leg.

I rolled twice in the grass and grabbed my leg. Chuck came over saying “Nice shot,” then knelt to ask me what had happened. I could only grunt, then gasp as I felt my ankle begin to swell.

Then those fatal words floated down: “Wanna play another?” Despite the pain, I said yes. Playing on one foot, cursing inwardly at my growing stupidity, I saw Chuck take the lead 8-7. With a final burst, I ended the game 10-8 and drove back to my apartment. I couldn’t feel my lower leg.

I lay down on my bed and within minutes, was about to drift off to sleep when my left leg relaxed, turned slightly outward and instead of moving a few inches, it stopped almost immediately and a blast of agony made me sit up in a cold sweat. Without my sneaker, the ankle had ballooned to an obscenity.

Fortunately, the bed and the bathroom were next to each other, so in seconds, I had propped my left foot in the bathtub and turned on the cold water. Fed by deep pipes and still wrapped in February frost, the water was harshly cold, exactly what I needed. For the next seven hours, I drifted in and out of sleep, sitting on the toilet cover, my foot in the bathtub and my eyes looking at my leg, but not my ankle.

The next day, I hobbled to my hell as vacuum cleaner salesman. Next door to the Electrolux sales office was a podiatrist’s office and in a coincidence, the doctor and I arrived at the same time. He took one look at me limping and told me to get into his office. A few minutes later, he gasped. My ankle was about the size of a softball, with swelling rising along the outside of my calf to just below my knee. Even gently, his probing fingers made me sweat as I fought to hold in my dignity.

Slumping back in to his chair, he told me that I had spaghetti surrounding my ankle, one of the most severe sprains he’d ever seen or heard about. In fact, he said, I would have been better off breaking it as then the mess could be put back together in some semblance of order. To top it off, he said it would take at least one year for my ankle to heal completely.

Yeah, right, I thought. I was 20, a fast healer and hey, I was me. I hobbled out and discovered that every step was a gamble. For months after that, my ankle would give out suddenly or blast pain for any slight misstep. And yes, despite my age, condition and being me, it did take a year for my ankle to return to normal.

It took me longer to forget the image of my ankle, water streaming over it, a bulge so big it forced my foot in and to the right, a visible shudder of pulsing rippling along the surface. That stayed with me for years, the ugly image of going too far to preserve self-image.


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