Can parents ever truly prevent their children from experiencing pain?
“Picture a string of dental floss torn in two,” the surgeon said. “When a ligament rips, hundreds of fibers blow off and the tendons absorb them. Think of shattered glass or splinters.” My husband squeezed my hand as the doctor continued. “We don’t really know the extent of the damage until we go in, but considering the severity of your limp it’s probably bad.” I started to shiver, and it wasn’t just because I was wearing thin paper shorts in an icy exam room at The Hospital for Special Surgery. Five days later I’m in pre-op; my surgeon signing my hip with a Sharpie to make sure he opens the correct leg.
I’d asked my mother to bring a hairbrush for after. It’s to be a three-hour arthroscopic odyssey into my thigh. When I wake up, the nurses tell me my mother is in the recovery room. I hope she remembered the hairbrush because my husband is also waiting. We’ve been married only six months and I’m vain.
I vomit from the Demerol. As the nurses hold the blue plastic bowl up to my mouth, my doctor holds up photos from the surgery, like a pre-schooler displaying his art work. “We tightened the hip capsule, slashed the psoas tendon, removed the damaged labral tissue and debrided the tendons.” He holds up another glossy photo. “See how red the muscles are?” “What color are they supposed to be?” I ask. “White,” he says triumphantly. I can’t fault him for relishing his accurate prediction.
We take a cab to our apartment an hour later. We’ve ordered a “continuous passive motion machine” and a squeezing ice machine, too. Both wait for us at home. The CPM machine will move my leg up and down at an agonizingly slow pace—I will soon realize it has the power to actually slow time. I’m locked into it for at least four hours a day, to keep the fluid in my joint moving. Then it’s time to don four sweaters and wrap my leg in a cuff filled with crushed ice. It squeezes my limb every five seconds, like a blood pressure cuff. My husband has cleaned out every bodega on the Upper West Side, packing our freezer with bags of ice. It’s July, so there must be a lot of frustrated margarita makers in our neighborhood.
I’m supposed to sleep in a hard plastic boot. It holds the leg straight. I can’t remove it on my own and I panic the first night. “Get it off!” I scream. My husband pulls the boot off. I grab my crutches and hobble to the bathroom, lowering my wounded hip to the edge of the toilet and aiming urine vaguely at the bowl. In the darkness of the bedroom, I threaten to throw the boot out the window when he suggests trying it one more time. “Death, first,” I say.
When I was 6, my older sister started ballet class. My mother took me to pick her up at Roland Dupree Dance Academy. My mother and I sat in a viewing room with a one-way mirror—exactly the kind you see on cop shows. I wanted to do everything my sister did, but Dupree’s didn’t take kids under 10 so my mother enrolled me in a “pre-ballet” class where we pretended to be flowers and butterflies. I hated it. It wasn’t ballet.
Then my mother heard about Lichine Ballet Academy, in Beverly Hills. It was the real thing; run by a sprightly former “Baby Ballerina” from Russia named Tatiana Mikhailovna Riabouchinska. There was no cop-show mirror here; instead, a sunny balcony overlooked the main studio and its shiny wood floor and wall of mirrors.
One day, the famous ballet dancer Alexander Gudonov wandered into the classroom for a rehearsal. My mother told me to take my ballet slipper and ask him to sign it. This is a ritual in the ballet world. Gudonov was, by my calculation, 10 feet tall. He stooped to my eye level and without waiting to hear what I had to say, picked me up, balanced me on one foot on the surface of his palm and walked slowly around the room. My heart raced with anxiety and hatred. He put me down, and because my mother told me to do it, I began to speak.
“You want something else?” he asked.
No, not something else. I hadn’t wanted to be carried around the room and humiliated. In fact, I didn’t even want what I was about to ask for. Still, I ask him to sign my shoe. He does. I throw it in the waste basket by my desk that night.
The road to being a dancer is bumpy from the outset, and it never changes. Dancers are made of muscles but we are also made of nerves, and both can be pulled too tight. Someday, all the frustrations and injustices will become potential energy and crackling electricity.
A month after surgery my doctor weaned me off narcotics. I wasn’t using them much anyway, because Percocet has a nasty way of amplifying pain as it wears off. He gave me Lidocaine patches. A week later he asked me if they helped. I told him they helped about as much as if I’d stuck them to my forehead.
It was a lonely winter. Even by December I wasn’t ready to return to my beloved ballet classes; even tap and jazz were too jarring for my fragile, angry hip. I spent a lot of time on our old loveseat, staring out the window and watching the snow fall. I went over the same ground many times. Could I have prevented this? I’d had nagging pain for years, why did I wait so long to get an MRI? Why did I wait for it to be a five-car pile-up? One injury had led to the next: As each tissue tore, another part of the joint worked to compensate and in turn tore too.
I knew the moment it happened. It was one last grand jeté that May. I love jumping. I’m small and I love hugging the ground and building up enough potential energy to explode when I leap. I love syncopating a glissade like a coil that springs to life in a jeté. I love that moment when you feel—and look—as though you’re hovering mid-air. Nothing is more enlivening than audacity. As I sat by the window, watching that graceful snow fall, I re-lived the moment when the ligament ripped. My front leg shot into a saut-de-chat and I went momentarily blind from the searing, white-hot agony. And that was it.
My surgery was six years ago. I still see a pain management specialist and spent two years under the tender (and bossy) ministrations of a physical therapist. Sometimes my hip aches so badly that I stay up all night or give in to the mild narcotic I’ve been prescribed for such occasions. It’s because I’m dancing again. Of course I’m dancing again. I will always dance; that is what it means to be a dancer. I joke that every hour of dancing adds a year to the life of my heart and subtracts two years from the life of my joints. The pain from my damaged labrum ripples through my S.I. (sacroiliac) joint. Famous dancers are now bringing this common injury to a wide audience so that even the devastations of the art are both respected and oddly glamorized.
So now I have this perfect 3-year-old. My husband often brings her to the dance studio to watch the end of my classes—the fun part: pirouettes and big jumps. She’s had her nose pressed to the glass since she was nine months old. My injury weighs on me heavily as I watch my rubber band of a toddler swing from scaffolding and jump like a cat over fences. Step of the cat, or pas de chat, as we call it in ballet class. She loves dancing. Have I set a bad example?
I’ve assumed what I call the “parental shrug.” What can I do? As with every fork in her road, the decision of which way to go is hers, not mine. Still, I strategize. How do I impart wisdom without being tiresomely parental? My own mother warned me to warm up properly and not take too many classes in a day.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, Mom. What do you know; you’ve only had two hip replacements after a zillion years of dancing. You were the lead dancer in “How to Succeed.” Don’t tell me to be careful. Careful doesn’t get you on a Broadway stage. Careful doesn’t let you hover in mid-air.
The worm has turned.
I’m starting early. I’ve taught my child how to massage her legs before running around. I’ve told her how dangerous it is to slide into a split from a standing position, a favorite trick of many performers she admires. Someday, I will teach her how to create the illusion of hovering in that grand-jeté, how to phrase your steps a half beat behind the music. Hug the ground, little one. Deal with physics before it deals with you.
Still, I must remember the physics of parenthood. If I push, I’ll meet resistance. How can I stay one step, one pas de chat, ahead of my rapidly growing kitten? I don’t mind her becoming a dancer if she chooses it. We all get a turn, and as Carrie Fisher once wrote, “It’s real important to enjoy your turn.” I just don’t want her to hurt, at least not as much as I have, if I can do anything to prevent it.
I take a hot bath before jazz class today. Now I always take a hot bath before I dance.
I get through the whole warm-up in jazz class: push-ups, sit-ups, contractions, isolations. I’m red-faced and I tell the teacher I’m going to call it a day and not stick around to do the combination. She won’t have it. She makes me stand in the front line. I hug the ground. I syncopate. I learn the combination faster than the nervous teenagers in the back row.
For 45 minutes, I dance to the most sensual and sultriest of songs: Feelin’ Good.
Leslie Kendall Dye is an actor and dancer in NYC. Her writing has appeared on The Mid, The Huffington Post, Off The Shelf, Tipsy Lit, Mamalode, Erma Bombeck Humor Writers, and others. You can find her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/