It’s funny how even a mild, temporary impairment makes you acutely aware of similar, but more severe impairments in others. At some point over the past week or two, I managed to sprain my foot, an injury I initially ignored and then exacerbated, thinking it was “just” the lingering aches of intermittent tendonitis: something I could, I told myself, walk off. After too much walking this weekend, my foot is now obviously injured, tender and swollen on the top of the instep: a different kind of pain than the chronic achiness I’ve been accustomed to walking through, and something that causes me to walk with a noticeable limp. When I had two feet that were equally functional, I was oblivious to the walking wounded, but now that I’m hobbling around on what amounts to a foot and a half, I see similarly injured people virtually everywhere.
Today at the pet supply store, for instance, I limped my way up and down the aisles, looking for items that have been rearranged in the store’s current remodeling, begrudgingly counting every extra step. After buying and taking to my car one cartload of items, I came back for a second, and on this second trip to the cash register, I noticed an older man with a visible limp going to the wrong counter before realizing the register I was at was the only open one. I let the man go ahead of me because he approached the registers first: he was there before me, albeit in the wrong line. But more than that, the man was limping, and I felt pity for him, even though I too was limping: there was no need, I thought, to make him stand on his sore, achy feet a minute more than necessary.
After I’d limped to and then loaded my car with pet supplies, I went to FedEx to pick up last-minute photocopies for tomorrow’s classes, again begrudging the extra steps I had to take because construction workers had blocked the entrance to the parking garage with an over-sized dumpster, forcing me to park next door. After hobbling into then out of FedEx, I was bemused to notice a man with an even more pronounced limp than mine hobbling across a crosswalk while I waited to turn out of the parking lot: something I’d normally bemoan as an annoying traffic delay, but something that was more empathy-inspiring today.
The man appeared to be in this forties, like me, but seemed to have some sort of congenital deformity where one leg was noticeably longer than the other, so he had to hitch his entire body to one side to make his mismatched legs work. How seldom, I’m learning, is even the smallest malady limited to one region of the body; instead, a sore foot makes for a lopsided gait, a lopsided gait leads to uneven hips, and uneven hips lead to a crooked and achy back. If your body works as intended, you never notice the precision with which it was designed, but as soon as even the smallest glitch in your personal bioengineering causes an ache, pain, or tremor, everything else is thrown off kilter: a reminder of life’s tender, tenuous nature.
On my limping way to pick up those photocopies, I passed a podiatrist’s office that was surely always there, but that I’d never noticed. I’m sure in my younger, nimbler days, I would have smirked at the thought of podiatry: what are feet that anyone would need an entire doctor devoted to them? Now that I’m middle-aged and have ankles that are prone to Achilles tendonitis, soles that are prone to plantar fasciitis, and an instep that is currently sprained and swollen, a podiatrist seems like a god among men. For the want of a nail, the horseshoe was lost, and indeed I’m realizing how the most humble, overlooked anatomical detail can have an overwhelmingly influential effect. I’ve never been lost because of a missing horseshoe nail, but I’ve learned the hard way how one’s choice in shoes–or a seemingly simple decision to walk off a persistent pain rather than promptly heeding it–can make all the difference.