I walk like a penguin, I think, chuckling at my short stride. The pain in my hip is significant when I shift weight to my left leg. The pain ascends rapidly the further I step forward, so I shuffle. This sensation is not deep inside like the lightning strikes I felt when my tumor was growing long ago, but instead it shoots out towards my abductors.
I envision my pain as an iron plate, compacted by the burden of cancer, consuming the space formerly occupied by cancerous bone. This plate does not respect my orthopedic oncology surgeon's handiwork -- muscle stapled and taped to other muscle -- and is waiting to explode downward, like it is playing Don't Break the Ice against my soft tissue.
I think back on recent events to uncover the pain's cause...
Days ago I danced at a wedding. Historically I had been the loner watching the dance floor from afar, but this time I visited YouTube, where a smooth Asian gentleman taught me basic moves.
Mary was so wildly attractive that it slipped my mind to baby my left hip. How could that happen considering that my subconscious has always protected my hip even when intoxicated by alcohol, Benadryl or prescription narcotics?
Mary and I hopped around to Kool and the Gang. When the DJ switched to oldies, I wrapped my right arm around her lean waist and swung my hips, looking through her brown-rimmed glasses that matched her hair, wondering how she looked without her spectacles and other apparel. Her glistening red lips sang all the words, and then teased me for not knowing any.
I wish that smooth Asian gentleman was in my ear. I know he would suggest I take Mary to the bar between dancing. At the end of the night, he'd tell me to charm her into coming to my hotel instead of letting her vacillate. She was waiting for my persuasion, but I am incapable of acting in a way that feels un-gentlemanly.
I don't remember feeling pain the next morning when I slid off my bed and went down to the gym, where I contemplated measures to prevent another Mary from sliding away. Did my hip hurt the day after that? Yes, definitely, because I considered going on crutches, but I was with my family and didn't want them to know. Instead, I penguin-walked when no one was looking and masked the pain when they were around.
I crutched for the next three days. Simple movements caused explosions in my hip, so I kept my left leg limp. It is now the third night and I am lying in bed. When I wake up tomorrow I will take my first step on my left leg to test it.
I pull the sheet, fleece and comforter high and tight. Have I always felt this cold, or did cancer treatment narrow my skin's blood vessels? Maybe I just need more of a penguin figure. Those critters never get old.
What if the pain remains tomorrow when I ditch the crutches -- and the next day and every one thereafter, all because Mary in the low-cut pink dress briefly severed my existential fear of damaging my hip?
Or what if dancing with this striking girl merely brought out the pain of another cancer already flickering inside me?
Two choices flash in my head, as if my future is as simple as choosing oatmeal or scrambled eggs for breakfast: never walking again without crutches vs. a third cancer. The flash vanishes just as quickly, but the sickening shame it causes remains. Fuck me for forgetting. The Holocaust, cancer and a Drew Barrymore movie: never again.
I say the Shema prayer every night. Before reciting the Hebrew, I usually ask God to reduce my mom's pain, give her courage, comfort her; look after my friends going through cancer treatment; lead the Redskins to the Super Bowl. Tonight I break tradition and pray for myself.
It is morning and sunlight spreads across my room. I spot the crutches on the floor nearby. I sit up with the covers still trapping my heat, and brace for the air to touch my bare chest. I toss the covers aside and manually lift my left leg off the bed. I plant my right foot on the floor and begin lowering my left. My toes land and I carefully drive the heel until it makes contact. I think of emperor penguins huddled close together in a circle in Antarctica, for survival, and how they shuffle so slowly from the outside to the center, and back again.
I shuffle my weight from my right leg to my left, one pound at a time until the right is elevated and I take a tiny step forward with it. I plant, elevate my left, bring it forward and step. I walk back to retrieve my crutches and return them to the closet.
I smile wide and laugh, and my skin warms from the light inside me. My suffering and fear of unending pain or cancer has led to this reward, one of life's greatest despite its brevity, and I will cherish it until it inevitably dissipates and I think of Mary again.