“Take Nothing for Granted”
Says the sticker inside locker 213.
It’s a sizeable sticker. Bigger than “Deposit Quarter, Take Key.” More insistent than “Be responsible! Always lock your locker!” It hangs there at a cocky angle. Shabby, smug, sure of itself. Shredded at the edges, about five and a half feet off the ground (eye level for some of us). The size just shy of a bumper sticker. An iconoclast. A poseur. Trying to be something different. To proselytize from unlikely, and unavoidable, public soap boxes. Not truck bumpers, no. Instead, utility poles. Bathroom stalls. Park benches. Locker rooms.
It is so faded and stripped that someone surely stuck it there ages ago. But I notice it only after. After this morning’s aqua aerobics class. It’s hiding out behind the puffy winter coat and scarf that I shoved onto the hooks when I arrived.
This isn’t my first time in this locker room. I’ve been coming for a few weeks. This is what I do now. Aqua fitness. At this community rec center. After years walking past the flocks of white-haired women changing in the locker rooms on my way to Zumba or weight machines, I have now joined the family. They welcome me into the shallow end of the pool. Like I belonged there always, like they knew I would come.
Resistance was futile but I gave it my all. For nearly two years, denial and bargaining with a universe who had other plans for me. Surely I could still do the other things. Hiking. Cardio machines. Laps at least? Something?
I couldn’t. I can’t. Do those things. Not anymore.
I am wobbling in pool clogs in front of 213, toweling off while trying to temper the dizziness. The locker room is an icebox. A few degrees colder than the pool deck and much colder than the water. I showered in a stall with the spray as hot as I could get it but still, my bones are shivering. A little earthquake at my core. Hustling into sweats and a hoodie, my entire focus now is on getting back home to the recliner where I can prop up my legs and work.
The recliner. A hand-me-down from a friend, now gone, who had Parkinson’s and needed the extra support. I remember her using the controls to help prop her to standing. Seeing her navigate her living room on 80-year-old limbs, it was like visiting another country. One I could never imagine taking up residence in.
Now in my living room, her recliner. The only place I can work. The only place I can sit for more than just a few minutes without debilitating pain. The chair, its impression of her still stippling the fabric, holding me when the brain fog makes my head swim and the weight of my eyelids gives me no choice but surrender.
But first, I have to reckon with this sticker. It prods at me as my body fights valiantly to regulate its temperature at the end of the brief water workout. A workout in the loosest sense of the word. My movements were minimal, my heart rate lower than the instructor wanted. Then lower still. In giddy spirits, she hollered at us to kick it up to level six, then seven, then eight. My level stayed right down there around one. She picked me out and called from the deck, “Faster! Can you go faster?”
“No,” I snapped. The women around me tittered. The instructor left me alone.
The sticker gives me its own cheerful holler. “Take Nothing for Granted.”.
“Mind your own business,” I glare at it.
Maybe I want to take something for granted. Can I decide to ignore the evidence just for today? Let myself believe that this right here is where things stay for a while?
Can you at least give me a minute?
Behind the winter coat, leaning against the same back wall that holds the sticker, a green cane. Brushed finish, adjustable length, rubber grip. Perfectly serviceable. Another hand-me-down, this one from my partner. Left over from his old knee injury now mostly healed, as much as these things can be at this point. Several weeks back, he dug it from the back of a closet and brought it to me.
“Extraordinary technological innovation,” I crack when people gawp at me. They ask their questions. “What happened?” And “Are you ok?” And “Are you injured?”
Deflection. “A technological marvel,” I quip. “It’s really amazing we didn’t think of this before.” I give the cane a flourish. They chuckle. They know they are supposed to chuckle. Most of them have the social grace to pick up on my cue. I’m trying to make the best of this. Let’s agree to ignore it, okay?
Back when I could still go into the office, one co-worker saw the cane and asked what was wrong. I shrugged and said, “Things.” He smiled and put up his hands.
“I get it,” he said. “Things.” He promptly changed the subject. Bless him. He should write an advice column on the etiquette of interacting around disability.
But too, mobility. To get around on a cane. The joke and its kernel of truth. It is indeed a marvel. Without it, even walking the dog around the block, even grocery shopping, knocks me flat. Of course, it’s no magic carpet. The cane only extends the dog walk by an extra block, or adds a library stop to the grocery errand. The knocking flat is inevitable. It’s just a matter of when.
For now, the fact of one thing a day – one gym class, one errand, one brief trip to the office for a critical meeting – is the source of my despair and the source of my gratitude. A year ago, maybe less, six or seven or eight of those one-thing-a-day things could be jammed together on the same day.
There’s no guarantee that when tomorrow gets here, today’s one thing will still be on offer.
I give the sticker a grunt. Fine.
Today, even shivering from the locker room’s Arctic blast, I can more or less stay upright. The lotions, the towel, the mini bottle of shampoo, the plastic bag for the swimsuit. It’s a lot to juggle. But I do it all, occasionally leaning against locker 213, only needing to sit to dry my feet and pull on socks. For today, balance isn’t the issue.
I try to notice this. To hold onto the small blessing.
Once the duffel is packed up, I sling it over my left shoulder and take the cane from the back of the locker. I glance around. Nothing in locker 214. Not 212 or 211. None of them have a motivational sticker inside. Around the corner, neither do 163 or 162 or any of the others whose doors hang open. Just this one, locker 213, the one I happened to grab without thinking on my way to water aerobics.
The one that decided I needed reminding.
The cane in my right hand relieves the pressure from my own personal Ground Zero, that left hip-spine-lumbar region that has finally been approved for surgery sometime in 2023.
I hobble down the hall. Past the classroom where just a couple years ago, dancing Cumbia to Latin hip-hop blinded me with sweat and endorphins. Past the weight room, the rowing machines, the lateral elliptical that used to push my heart rate up beyond 150 and keep it there for 20 solid minutes of athletic bliss. Down the hall, past the elevator (it is an option but just, no, not yet) to the stairs.
One flight of stairs to climb. That’s all.
At the top of the stairs, my body begs me to pause. Resting the cane against the wall, I press my forefinger to my throat and count the racing in my carotid artery, watching the big analog clock hanging over the lobby doors. 120. My pulse is 120. From simply donning sweats then limping at a cane’s pace along a hallway and up a single flight of stairs.
I take a few slow deep breaths, then a couple more, until my heart rate starts to slow. I pick up my cane and let it help me back out to the parking lot, the car, to home. Where the heat is on. My hand-me-down recliner is waiting. And I can rest, today’s one thing accomplished.
Long may it last.
Though nothing does.