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I should be excited to graduate from physical therapy. No one really wants to show up again and again to undertake the tiny, sometimes excruciating motions that are necessary to heal.
But recently, when my physical therapist said, “I think I’ve shown you all my tricks. We’ll get you through your big race, and then you’ll ride off into the sunset,” I felt like I’d lost something. He turned and got a new pillowcase out, signaling my time was done, and I bolted.
I began indoor rowing last year and had hoped to take my new muscles to the river last spring. I felt fueled in a way I hadn’t in a long time. My plans ran into the pandemic, then an MRI revealed a rare shoulder construction was conspiring with my neck arthritis. I persevered: I obtained a rowing machine, got a physical therapist and we picked a race to train for as a goal. It was supposed to only be about rowing.
But amidst all of this, I imprinted on my PT like a lame duckling he rescued, and now I don’t want to leave.
I’d been alternating work days with my art studio mate and rowing at home, with spectral glimpses of my headphone-wearing teen and the background noise of my husband’s work meetings to keep me company. Suddenly, I had something new to do: PT twice a week. I gave it my attention.
I imprinted on my PT like a lame duckling he rescued, and now I don’t want to leave.
We wore protective gear and got regular COVID tests. I’d lay on a table and he would murmur the various muscle groups he was touching and how they intersected like incantations as he magically pinpointed buzzing nerve pathways and calmed seized muscles. He helped me regain proper use of my arm and shore up my wayward joint. But, to me anyway, it was about more than just muscles.
I marveled at his precise knowledge of my inner workings, and his ability to discuss the merits of Talking Heads or Bad Brains as rowing music. I sent him an article about shoulder anatomy with its “mid-glenoid notch” and “boney Bankarts,” proposing it read better in a Scottish accent while picturing a map, like in Lord of the Rings. He agreed: he had given it his best Sean Connery, and it was epic.
When I started coming only once a week, I realized I missed him in between. Since October, I had been his client, one of I don’t know how many, but he was the one person I’d seen regularly. Notably, he was also the only person outside of my house who had physically touched me in a year. I trusted him. He treated me like the athlete I had become, and he encouraged me to care for my body in the newly unstable world as I hefted weights at odd angles.
He could have just made sure my neck and shoulder were OK, but he inadvertently made sure all of me was.
I don’t pretend to know the non-pandemic protocol for friendship with one’s PT. It is literally his job to improve the quality of my life. But it was a risk for him during a pandemic. I may be lame duckling number 7,006 to him, and we might not even recognize each other sans PPE, but I am grateful. He could have just made sure my neck and shoulder were OK, but he inadvertently made sure all of me was.
He got his booster vaccine the other day, and by the time I row off into the indoor sunset of my race, he will be safely treating duckling number 7,007. “So what’s next?” he asked. I pictured myself calling out to the foam roller I’d name after him, like Tom Hanks marooned with Wilson, his volleyball.
“Recovery is never linear,” he reminded me.
I wouldn’t be heading to the river, but I felt like myself again. I’m Gritty McFit, I thought, the too-short newbie with unsound shoulders challenging elite level rowers from my living room. I can’t make a grand gesture and attempt to win the race for him. But I will be the duckling with the lion roar.
After a year in which so much went quiet, I will row to punk rock, and I will miss my person. If I’m moving on, maybe I’m not rowing nowhere.
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