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Today Toivo is having an ouchy day. There probably is a more clinical term for days when Toivo is slow and stiff-moving–often, these are the days after we’ve taken a longer-than-usual walk, so perhaps I should call them recovery days–but the word I hear in my head is “ouchy.” There are days when Toivo is chipper and energetic and fairly mobile–popping up and eager to walk–and then there are ouchy days.

Toivo on the underwater treadmill

One of the benefits of the month-long physical rehabilitation package we signed up for is a weekly appointment with a vet who knows far more about the rehab process than we do. Today Toivo and I will meet with Dr. P, and I’ll pepper her with questions. I’ll ask about pain management: should we be giving Toivo pain meds regularly, only when she’s ouchy, or not at all? How much exercise is too much: am I overdoing it by trying to take daily walks? And should we be giving Toivio supplements for the achiness she seems to feel in her other joints, not just the injured leg we’re rehabbing?

Lots of questions arise on ouchy days, and plenty of doubts. Am I doing enough to encourage Toivo’s recovery: should I be doing her passive range of motion exercises more often or differently, or should I be supplementing, medicating, and/or meditating more, more often, or more diligently? Or, on the flipside, am I doing too much, moving and massaging Toivo’s leg when she should be resting it, or walking her too much, too fast, or too far? Would Toivo be better off, in other words, if I just left her alone to sleep and heal and be as active or inactive as she wants without all this fussing?

Toivo relaxes before rehab

All of these questions, of course, are different permutations of a central set of coupled questions: am I to blame, and is there something (anything!) I can control? Nobody wants to be the one to blame, but everyone wants to feel they can control their own and their loved ones’ wellbeing. If Dr. P. were to tell me that standing on my head and singing the Alphabet Song backwards would help Toivo recover more quickly, I’d drop right then to the floor and start singing, regardless of how silly it might seem. Ever since Toivo first started having mobility issues in March, I’ve been struggling with an unspoken existential question: if I somehow do things differently, can I unlock a magical formula where she will get instantly and entirely better and, better yet, live forever?

Before Toivo's physical rehab appointment

This, after all, is what I want for Toivo, myself, and all my loves: for us all to be forever young, forever able-bodied, and forever happy. And this, I know, is a guarantee I can never deliver, no matter how many rehab session I schedule. This stark realization–the undeniable fact that we are mortal souls in fragile bodies–is more painful than any physical injury: an ouchy no known opioid can cure.

As I write this, Toivo nestles her head on my lapdesk. On ouchy days in particular, I quit my desk and work as much as possible on the bed where Toivo is resting, encouraging her to snuggle up against me. Throughout the rehab appointments, the painfully slow walks, and all the enthusiastic exhortations to “Use your leg,” I cling desperately to the belief–the hope–that love, companionship, and lots of petting can work miracles–or at least provide some comfort in the meantime.

Longfellows, by Hans Godo Frabel

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.

Longfellows, by Hans Godo Frabel

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.

Longfellow, by Hans Godo Frabel

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.

Longfellow, by Hans Godo Frabel

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.

Longfellow, by Hans Godo Frabel

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.

Today’s photos of Hans Godo Frabel’s “Longfellows” come from my recent trip to the Phipps Conservatory in Pittsburgh, pictures of which I’ve already shared.