I’m on an elliptical machine at Gold’s Gym in Watsonville, CA when I start to feel sorry for myself. The space is full of ridiculously fit, 18-year-old guys lifting massive weights and I’m reminded of the fact that I can’t do what they’re doing. After an elderly driver hit me while I'd been jogging in Spain, my leg had been severely broken and, three surgeries later, high impact and heavy weight-bearing exercise just cause too much pain. What a shitty hand, I think. So unfair. I remember an expression this old-timer I knew, Bob, used to say: "'fair' is where pigs get ribbons." This just makes me angrier. Stupid old timers and their stupid wisdom.
Thirty minutes later, I’m sitting in the steam room across from a heavy, Hispanic man with a handlebar mustache and an assortment of tattoos, including a tear-drop beneath his eye. Good lord, I think, does that mean he shanked someone in prison? Watsonville can be rough. Despite the hard look about him, however, he strikes up a friendly conversation and introduces himself as Mario. I notice that his leg is lumpy and covered with a series of old, train-track scars. I ask about it, secretly happy to have a fellow surgery survivor to trade war stories with. I learn that he’d had a pallet dropped on him while working at Costco and had been in chronic pain ever since. He tells me, “I got a ton of money from the accident, but damn dude, I would give everything I own not to deal with this injury. I used to be in good shape man. That aint in the cards now.”
After hearing more about his difficulty dealing with chronic pain, I feel guilty about my own self-pity and say, “I’ve been feeling sorry for myself all morning; now I just feel like an asshole!” He shakes his head, chuckling, and tells me the following story:
He’d been at a Super Bowl party about six-months after his final surgery and was still on crutches. Like me, he’d been feeling very sorry for himself when a guy in wheel chair had rolled over to the snack table. He asked Mario about his leg and, after the Costco story was shared, Mario hesitantly asked the guy about his own situation and was told the following story:
The guy, Mark, had been returning from a ski day in Tahoe with two other friends when they’d slid on black ice into an embankment. The two friends had been killed instantly and Mark was paralyzed from the waist down. He told Mario that for about year after the accident, he wished he had been killed along with his friends—his entire world was dissolving around him and he lived in constant pain, fear, and rage. But, Mark explained, his wife had stuck with him and he knew his children needed him. He couldn't afford to permanently check out. And, ten-years later, he’d just watched his son graduate from high school, and not a day went by that he didn’t feel gratitude for his life. Not easy. But worth it.
Mario laughs, his gut shakes, and he tells me, “I felt so stupid after hearing the guy’s story. I mean, sheeit, who was I to complain in comparison? Ya know what I mean? So, don’t feel bad. I get it Mateo.”
As I bicycle home, body relaxed from the steam session, endorphins flowing from the exercise, I feel fortunate to be able to do what I do. I know that simply realizing other people have it worse is not a cure for pain; if it was, only those in the worst circumstances would suffer. Yet, the slight throb in my leg suddenly seems more like a reminder of my ability rather than how I’d been wronged by life.