As he got older, Yago Colás discovered that being injured wasn’t as cool as it used to be.
When I was a child, my heart would sink, and then seethe, whenever a boy would arrive at school with a new cast. I don’t remember having a strong interest in girls at that time, or an interest in any particular girl. But I despised the idiotic way that my female classmates, and even the nuns who taught us, would fawn over the injured boy, signing his cast, helping him with doors, carrying things for him and, most of all, clucking sympathetically at him. Why don’t they just marry him?!
Accustomed to being the center of attention at home (as the youngest) and school (as one of the smartest and best behaved), I was relegated to skulking sullenly on the fringes of the group that clustered around our injured classmate. Terrified of losing what little prestige I still enjoyed, I mouthed sympathetic platitudes alongside everyone else. But inside I was muttering bitterly about the clumsy stupidity of the injured, the blind, gullible sympathies of my classmates and teachers, and the unfairness of the universe.
Not all my classmates were falling over themselves to pamper the attention-hogging moron who’d fallen out of a tree/off his skateboard/down the ski hill. In fact, at the center of the crowd around him, there always seemed to be three or four other boys who were not adoring but rather commiserating with him. They were the ones who had also been injured and there, in the exalted center of that circle, they performed the third-grade version of men chuckling, shaking their heads, and clapping each other roughly on the shoulders. “I ‘member when I busted my arm, Mike! Hurt like a sonofabitch, but damn it was worth it to climb that tree/ride the skateboard off the garage roof/ski blindfolded!”
Corresponding to their special position in that circle on the playground, I reserved a special circle of intense bitterness for these little men. And they were men to me in that through injury and adventure, through daring and misfortune, they seemed to me to have acquired—even if I couldn’t have used these words at the time—a depth of maturity, experience, strength, and masculinity I could never hope to reach.
The appearance of a cast on a little arm or leg heralded a hellish carnival that upended the proper order of my universe in which boy and girl were not important categories. The important categories were In Trouble (which was Bad) or Not In Trouble (which was Good). Since I was never In Trouble, I was Good, and that was all that mattered to me. I might not be the most physically adventurous of my classmates, boys or girls, but I had an easy time playing sports and other physical games on the playground. That seemed to be enough to keep me from veering, in the eyes of others, from Not In Trouble to dweebish Teacher’s Pet.
But when a Mike or Buck or Pete would make his dramatic entrance on crutches, his corduroys cut to accommodate the thick gleaming white cast, the stability of these universal categories and my place in them was thrown into disarray. Suddenly, a confusing and enraging new schema implacably settled over my class. Suddenly, there were only two meaningful categories: Boys-Who-Had-Been-Injured and Girls-Who-Attended-to-Boys-Who-Had-Been-Injured. Of course, I never noticed if girls got hurt and never thought about the possibility of a girl with a cast.
As for me, well, I had assumed I was a boy, and I’d thought a Good one. But, having never been injured and being as terrified of injury as I was furiously envious of the injured, the appearance of a Boy-Who-Had-Been-Injured left me in some sort of gender-less netherworld. I wasn’t a girl, but I might as well have been one since I’d never been injured. Meanwhile, other Good Boys, whom I considered my friends, but who happened also to have been injured at some point, were ripped away from me by the irresistible forces requiring them to commiserate with the newly-injured classmate. Alone, confused, and bitter, I wished terrible, apocalyptic destruction on everyone.
Above all, I wished, oh how I wished, for an injury. And not a stupid injury like the minor scrapes, floor burns, and invisible twisted ankles that didn’t count no matter how much they killed with searing, unbearable pain. I had been to the emergency room once, having fallen off my bike at age five. I got two stitches in my head. They killed too. But nobody really knew because it was during the summer and, besides, you couldn’t see the stitches. Obviously, within the moral universe of Injury, the first rule is: it’s not an injury if you have to tell others about it. No, I longed for a real injury, one requiring a trip to an emergency room and a cast. An injury that would be evident to everyone and that I could tolerate stoically, bestowing the story to the rapt circle of classmates pressing around me only after they’d begged to hear it; an injury that would make me a Boy-Who-Had-Been-Injured and so set me firmly on the path toward being A Man.
Much of this came rushing back to me on a Sunday afternoon last November when, while playing the pick up game of my life, I drove the lane, winding my way through traffic, soared among the trees inside, spun a layup, falling away off the glass, and then came down to earth, landed on someone’s foot, heard a loud pop, and crumpled in blinding pain to the pavement. Other players cleared away like ripples on a pond. My guy Mike, the best player there by far, who I am proud, but not too proud, to note always picks me first, came into the clearing to help me up. I tried to stand alone and, surprised by the uselessness of my right ankle, fell down again. This is not how Injury is supposed to work.
Mike helped me back up again and, with my arm draped across his shoulder, I hobbled in a small circle. He supported me for a minute or two, as I tried to put a little weight on the foot, but it simply would not take it. Mike and others encouraged me to keep walking on it. I wanted to keep playing, certain that each of them would keep playing if in my place. But as I tried to walk on my own, even the slightest touch of my right foot to the ground was unbearable. “I’m done,” I admitted shamefully. “You’re done?” someone asked? “Yeah, I can’t go no more,” I was forced to repeat, quietly. But I tried to muster as stoic, cool, and manful a tone as possible, while inside I was howling in a mixture of pain and angry indignation that there should be any question at all about whether I could continue or not. Louts! Could they not see how seriously injured I was?! Why aren’t you carrying me around?!
They pulled some joker off the sideline into the game to replace me, and the game I had been dominating went on blithely without me, as I’d never been there, like a train pulling away from a station. I was left to sit on the pavement by the side of the court, alone and confused, just as I had been as a boy who had never been injured as a child. Shouldn’t everyone be hovering around me? Shouldn’t someone offer to take me to the ER? Where were the nuns and other girls cooing sympathetically?
After a few minutes of this unaccountable solitude, I foolishly decided to hobble the half-mile or so to the gym where my fiancée was working out. I felt disoriented, but I suspect also that, unconsciously, I couldn’t handle the demolition of masculinity represented by calling her to pick me up in the car, like my mommy, while the game was going on. Thirty minutes later, I was standing next to her treadmill, watching the alarm on her face as I told her of my injury. I sat down, she got me some ice, and as she looked it over, and I began to shiver and grow dizzy, we decided the ER would be a good idea. The staff at the gym offered me a wheelchair to get me to the car. I accepted. And, for a few glorious seconds, I felt my childhood fantasies flower beautifully into reality. This, at last, was a real injury! Boy the kids in school would be impressed on Monday!!
But the gratification was fleeting. Even as I experienced it, an unexpected and strange set of contrary feelings intervened to piss on the parade my inner child was trying to have. “I’m a man now. I’m not really hurt. I should be able to walk this off. It’s not even broken. I shouldn’t be making her worry. I suck. I am, literally and figuratively, lame.” The ankle was not broken. At the news, I was disappointed because I felt like something that was hurting me so much should be more than just a sprain. I didn’t even get a cast. I went to the ER, and all I got was a lousy small splint, some Vicodin, instructions to follow up with an orthopedic specialist after a few days, and the lingering embarrassment of now being That Guy: you know, the paunchy, middle-aged weekend warrior, who injures himself when the fantasy he is playing out in his mind collides with the reality of his aging body.
Now it is August, almost nine months later to the day, and my right ankle is still tender and swollen. I don’t know what’s wrong with it or why it hurts the way it does (though I suspect that my, at best, uneven ability to accept the injury and the need for aid and rest has something to do with it). Since I injured it last November, I have seen the orthopedic surgeon twice, gotten a cortisone shot, been consigned to wear an ankle boot, been through physical therapy, tried to play, broke my right hand playing, recovered from that (including physical therapy), and tried to play again. I played maybe two or three times in the spring in St. Louis before we moved. I had decent outings; I certainly loved playing as much as always. But I was limited. I could feel it. And as soon as I stopped, the swelling and pain in my foot and ankle returned. Now I haven’t played in nearly two months. But it hurts often just walking from the bedroom to the kitchen.
I feel frustrated and somewhere, out toward the horizon of that frustration, a kind of worry, or maybe foreboding would be the better word. You see, only late last summer did I rediscover the joy of pickup ball after a hiatus of about five years. And that joy led me further to design and teach the course Cultures of Basketball at the University of Michigan. And that course, in turn, led to, among other things, this bimonthly column for the Good Men Project. More broadly, this rediscovery of the place of basketball deep and powerfully in my heart over the past year, has reawakened in me, after many long years, a more refined attunement to my own desires, a greater capacity to be open to the people and activities that bring me joy. All combined, I have felt rejuvenated.
My injuries, far from satisfying my childish fantasies of attention and manly bonding, have concretely threatened my ability to keep playing ball and have cast a shadow over my feeling of rejuvenation. Don’t get me wrong: injuries and all, I mostly feel great, and I certainly love my life and look forward to the future optimistically. But alongside this, when I take my right shoe off, and see the stubbornly swollen ankle, when I take a step and feel the unexpected stabbing pain, my awareness of something else rises as well on the aching wave.
I know that even if I get around to calling my doctor, even if he refers me to a specialist, even if a specialist heals this injury, my hooping days are numbered. I know that a day will come that will be the last day I play a full game. And sometime after that, I know that days will come that will be the last days I play even a half-hearted game of hustle or one-on-one, the last day I shoot jumpers alone in a driveway, gym, or playground, the last day I shoot set shots. And I’m aware, more terrifyingly, of the other last days that await beyond that—the last days of physical experiences that have nothing do with basketball, the ones that make shooting a jump shot by myself seem like a precious, extravagant luxury.
I have no way to wrap this up. No plan to resolve it. I have only this body with its powers and limitations and the confused, sometimes tender, sometimes overwhelming mix of feelings that go with it: sadness and anger at the injustice of its slow, implacable wearing away, fear of the pain and indignity that I imagine will accompany its final surrender, and the steady glow of a desire to maintain it the best that I can, to relish its powers with joy, and to accept its limitations with dignity. I have those feelings, and I wonder at how much more complicated the worlds of injury and gender, of time and the body, are than what I imagined when I was a child wishing for a broken arm.
Or, perhaps, much simpler as well. I mean that I feel closer now to what I think lay behind the dramatic social dynamics, the intensely experienced feelings, figured in terms of gender and morality, surrounding injury in my childhood. Behind or beneath all of that there is, I realize, a simple elemental experience that injury intimates, at least for me: of the fragility of the human body in the universe, the unspeakably solid inevitability of death, and the desire to be loved and accompanied, up to and through the end.