Hallux Rigidus (Part 2)

(Official statement of apology for how long part one was)


Twenty minutes later, I pulled up behind my mother, who turned around as soon as she heard the engine.

“Here, I can drive,” she said, opening the driver’s door.

“You can’t step,” I replied.

“I’ll be fine. I’m not even bearing weight on the foot,” she said, leaning over me and pointedly pressing the buckle button. My skin crawled as the seat belt slid back. I got out of the car and slumped around to the passenger side, slamming the door a bit as I got in.

The key entered the ignition and my mother’s foot tapped the pedal- “FUCKFUCKFUCK.”

It was me who pulled into the driveway a few minutes later, and it was my father who pulled into the University of Minnesota with me a mere three months later, with the trunk full of boxes and my future full of confusion and possibilities. My mother sat in the backseat with my younger brother, who was engrossed in his math homework. She hobbled up to the fifth floor of my dorm building to help arrange my room, and for ample emotional-mother-type hugs and comments.

She was going to have foot surgery in a month, which hypothetically should fix her toe condition, known as Hallux Rigidus or degenerative arthritis, by fusing the joints. Though she would no longer be able to bend them, the pain would end. She would also stop having to go in for frequent cortisone shots to temporarily assuage the ache and throb only long enough for a few good nights of sleep and a few comfortable trips to the grocery store and work. The two feet would be done on separate occasions so she would never be confined to a wheelchair, though crutches were practically a given.

After a goodbye with a great ratio of tears (none) to hugs (ample, including from my brother), I slipped out for a quick run before meeting the other kids in my dorm building. Passing the diners, bookstores and bars of the U of M’s Dinkytown, I was both excited for the future and just realizing that I was about to undergo an adjustment I had not expected: the loss of the ample forest space I had taken for granted during my Northwoods childhood. This was where my mom and her friends had learned, lived, and ran, though, and I was about to do the same. After eighteen years living the same routine, I would be forced here to flourish in a new environment, something both thrilling and terrifying to my pathetically stable middle-class self. Checking my watch, I decided to cut back early from my run- I didn’t want to be late to meet my dorm-mates, and there was a good chance that I’d get a bit lost along the way.

A month later, 7:30 am: I slipped back into my dorm after my morning run and sunk into my rumpled comforter atop my bed with my laptop. Sticking out in my inbox amidst class reminders, announcements, and spam was an email from my parents with an attached picture. I opened it to see my mom hobbling out of the hospital on crutches. A weary but triumphant silly mom-grin graced her face, and she proudly sported a large white cast on her right foot. The email said one word: SUCCESS!

Well, success wasn’t quite the right word, I thought, remembering that there was still a possibility that it would take longer than the predicted three months to heal, and that was if all had gone well enough that the foot would heal properly. Rather than driving to the Twin Cities to get the surgery, she had chosen to have it done in our hometown by a new doctor who had only performed the surgery once before. I was a bit hesitant about this, and not just because then my family wouldn’t come to the U and buy me dinner. Nonetheless, I replied: CONGRATS! 3 MONTHS TIL FREEDOM in the tackiest, most familial all-caps possible.

Contrary to the doctor’s belief, it took my mother’s foot four months to heal enough to bear weight. Though there was a bit of residual ache, my mother wasn’t complaining: she was able to walk comfortably, and would soon be able to bike, and then eventually to incorporate some running back into a balanced diet of all varieties of exercise.

“Yeah, but I’m so fat,” she said to me over the phone.

“You are not!” I replied. “I saw you a few weeks ago, at Christmas. You’re still thinner than I am, and you haven’t exercised in months!”

That’s what I said. In my mind, though, I wasn’t thinking about weight. I was that little girl watching her mom finish a marathon. What a fighter, I thought as I looked up at her admiringly.

One April morning, my freshman spring, I woke up at eight. For me, this would be considered “sleeping in,” which is this funny concept where you sleep the actual amount of hours you need instead of waking up at six or seven to exercise regardless of when you actually went to bed. I moaned a bit and stood up, still wrapped in my comforter, to draw back the blinds and let in the sun. I squinted, expecting brightness and warmth. Instead, I was greeted with dreary grey mist. I puffed loose hair out of my face with an irritated breath. Turning around, I set down my comforter cape and looked instead to my running shoes, sitting expectantly at the door, waiting for their daily adventure.

Slipping into my shorts, I padded out of the room and down the stairwell, to outside. The fog greeted me by leaving an instant film of humidity on my cold, prickly skin. I glanced around to whet my appetite for a route, and decided to run along the Mississippi.

Along with its obvious health and social benefits, running is also a great colander for thoughts. As I run, I sift first through what schoolwork and errands I need to do throughout the day, and then to the conversations and events of the past few days. But today, something distracts me—a tinge of pain in the joint of my right big toe. At first, I chalk it up to the fact that I’ve been favoring a very unforgiving cement route lately, but it persists and amplifies over my next few runs, even when I change to a softer route.

I wait until the evening I get home for the summer to tell my mother.

“I’m so, so sorry,” my mom says, looking practically distraught. Arthritis is genetic, and as someone who is captivated by the fact that her daughter, the first blood relative she has ever met, shares her eyes and her laugh, I can tell she’s blaming herself.

“No, it’s going to be okay,” I try to assure her. “I’ll go right where you went wrong. I’ll stop running every day, and I’ll stop when it hurts.”

My mom looks relieved, but there’s an implicit understanding that it’s easy to say we’ll stop when it hurts, because we forget that it hurts to stop. We stand in silence for a moment, respecting the tension.

She looked uncomfortably at the clock, and my eyes followed. It was 5:50 p.m. We both shifted our weight and glanced around.

“I’m kind of feeling a cheeseburger. Want to go out for dinner?” she asks, carefully easing her way into the liquid silence.

“Yeah,” I reply. “Do you want to drive, or should I?”

My mom pauses. “Let’s walk. Slowly, for our feet. It’s not that far.”


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