46: Bicycling Home

46: Bicycling Home

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People

Bicycling Home

Most people never run far enough on their first wind to find out they’ve got a second.

~William James

If you had recently watched me bicycle sixty-three miles, you never would have guessed that I was a burn survivor who had to learn to walk again.

Holding onto my walker, I was Frankenstein’s monster, my bandaged arms and legs jerking down the hospital corridor. I lurched down the hallway, dragging one leg forward, then the next and then, drooping against the nurse for support, I broke out into a cold sweat. Despair overwhelmed me. What if my legs remained stiff and inflexible? What if I had to spend my thirties behind a walker? How would I ever hike in the Oakland hills again, stroll along the ocean from Cliff House to the San Francisco Zoo, or bike twenty-five miles?

At age thirty-two, I biked, swam, or walked almost every day, sometimes doing two or three of these activities daily. A month before my accident, I schemed with a friend about doing a triathlon for fun. I had faith in my strength and endurance. I knew I could count on biking and swimming to get me through any kind of stress and make me feel whole and content.

All of this changed when a factory exploded as I was walking by. I had been on vacation visiting a friend in Boston. The only parts of my body not burned were my torso and feet. I had third-degree burns on my legs and second-degree burns on my arms, face, and neck. My doctor recommended skin graft surgery and shaved skin from my stomach to apply to the front and back of my legs, from my thighs to my ankles. I lay on my back, unable to move for a week, while the new skin attached itself to the little bit of old skin that wasn’t burned.

I looked like a mummy, wrapped in miles of white gauze from head to toe. After some time, my mother tried to encourage me. “Eva, think of what you want your future to be.” I wanted to be able to roll over and get out of bed by myself, bend my arms and legs, and walk again.

Close to a month after my accident, I was strong enough to move to a rehab hospital. I lay on a gray mat in the airy gym. My physical therapist asked me to push my legs against her hand. I winced. My legs were as rigid as wooden boards. “You can do it,” she said. I threw my whole self into pushing and bent my legs one inch. Then another. It gave me hope. It was the first glimpse of my former self.

That afternoon, I sat on a stationary bicycle. My ankles wobbled, my feet were lead weights, my legs jerky. I gritted my teeth, straining my muscles to move the pedals. After ten minutes, I wilted. I lay still for hours.

On another day I walked outdoors, wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat, blue cotton pants, and a long sleeved butter yellow shirt. Clinging to the black metal railing of the steep staircase by the side of the hospital, I hoisted my right foot onto the concrete step, then my left. I stopped to catch my breath. I continued, step by step, huffing and puffing, till I reached the top. Breathless at the bottom, I collapsed into a wheelchair and closed my eyes. Later, resting in bed, a picture of myself swimming across a lake popped into my mind. When I told my dad, he said, “You’ll get your endurance back, or move beyond it.”

After a long recovery on the East Coast, I returned to the Bay Area, eager to bicycle through Golden Gate Park to Ocean Beach the way I used to. On my first ride I whizzed down the street and, before I knew it, I was winded. Prickles smarted my calves. Piercing pins and needles jabbed and stabbed my legs. I hopped on one foot, then the other, unable to stand still, as shooting pains stung my skin. Fraught with anxiety, I clenched my handlebars. What if I never got back my energy? What if I had to use a cane, walker, or wheelchair the rest of my life?

The accident traumatized me. Loud noises made me shake with terror. Balls of fire rolled toward me, flames as high as houses. The air reeked of smoke. I was certain an explosion would happen at any moment. It would trap me. My skin grafts itched like thousands of mosquito bites. I cringed when I saw my scars—dark purple, puffy snakeskin. My mother told me, “The important thing is you’re walking again.”

I was walking. With each step forward I let go of the flames, the roaring wind. With each step I let the aroma of crackly autumn leaves wash over me and let the odor of scorched hair fade away. With each step I told my legs, “You are strong. I’m proud of you for coming this far. I want you to be normal again without itches, prickles, or stiffness.” I concentrated on bending my knees with each step.

I had to walk just the right amount. If I pushed myself beyond my limits or didn’t walk enough, my skin was armor, unyielding and taut. I experimented with shorter walks, alternating with longer ones every other day. I stretched before and after walks. Gradually I lengthened both my stride and distance.

One of my doctors suggested pressure garments as a way to cut down on the prickles. The white tights pressed like boa constrictors against my skin. Within a few days I stood with ease and I walked and biked without the prickly pain tormenting my legs.

A major turning point came more than two years after my accident, when I went on a daylong, group cycling trip. My liveliness lasted the first half of the ride, but intense fatigue hit me on the return. On the verge of falling over, I did not know how I’d get back. I knew no one who could rescue me with a car, and even the nearest train station was ten miles away.

I stood still. I gulped water from my bottle. I drank more water. I forced the pedals millimeter by millimeter by millimeter. Pedaling felt like trying to move a brick wall with bare feet, but I told myself, “You’re making progress.” I was. Teeny-tiny bits of the pebbly gray pavement faded away as I crept forward. I pushed my legs. My calves and thighs ached. Breathing hard, I struggled to rotate the pedals. “Pedal,” I whispered. “Pedal. Pedal.” I bent over, clutching the handlebars, grunting and sweating on the foggy, flat road. I shifted into first gear. My sneakers gripped the pedals. The pedals clunked forward. I gasped for breath. “Just one more time around,” I told myself, when the pedals came full circle. “Just one more time.”

I poured the last bit of my energy into propelling my feet forward and broke through the exhaustion. Energy surged through my body, swirling up through my legs, dancing its way to my heart, turning a pirouette when it reached my head. Exhilaration flowed over me. My endurance had returned.

~Eva Schlesinger

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