“That’s some kinda limp you got there.”
I was walking (or at least doing my best impersonation of walking) down a wood paneled corridor to my physical therapy appointment this morning when an old man heading in the opposite direction noticed I wasn’t operating at 100%. He wore Velcro sneakers, sweatpants and a dark sweatshirt under a winter jacket. The dry skin under his grey stubble sifted down to the neck of his sweatshirt and clung there like a dusting of Parmesan cheese on a black dinner plate. He used one hand to hold the corridor wall for support, while the other one gripped an adjustable cane with four non-slip rubber nubs on the bottom of it for added support. He was easily in his late eighties, and every movement he made was so slow and weighted that it seemed like he was walking underwater.
I smiled, the same unconsciously patronizing smile I give every elderly stranger I run into. “Yeah, I broke my leg a few months ago, so hopefully these guys can patch me up and get me back in the saddle again.” I say things like that because I think it’s what old people want to hear.
He looked down at my leg in surprise and made an empathetic face, as if he was going to tell me “I’m sorry to hear that”, only he said “your leg is never going to be the same, you know.”
My childhood conditioned me to the notion that some old folks have permanent rain clouds hovering over their heads, and when they decide to share their misery with you, it’s your job to just smile and take it. I even had a great aunt who used to say “they used to boil babies like that in oil” every time she saw a baby on TV or in real life, and I never once told her to give it a rest. For some reason, this man shuffling down the hallway to parts unknown managed to bypass my curmudgeon defense system and get under my skin.
Part of what shook me had to do with the setting in which this conversation was taking place. It wasn’t like we were in the street or at a bus station; we were in a hospital building. If this happened at a coffee shop or in the mall, I’d think the guy was a weirdo and I’d walk away laughing, but actively bursting the balloons of people as they’re in the act of trying to get better is some expert level real life trolling. It’s like telling a room full of kids they’re going to fail as you hand out their midterms, taunting an overweight woman on a treadmill, or walking into a chemotherapy room and saying “you’re all just delaying the inevitable.”
It also had to do with the conviction of his statement. “Your leg is never going to be the same, you know”, as if he already knew was the outcome of my eight week physical therapy regimen would be before I’d even finished week two. It wasn’t a probably or a maybe, but a definitely.
My smile never faltered. “Well I just started the physical therapy last week, so hopefully they can get it stronger. They’re really good in there.”
“You like running?”
“Yeah, I do like to run, actually.”
“Yeah, well that’s not going to happen again.”
I found myself opening my mouth to answer, and then shut it because I genuinely didn’t know what to say to the man who was hammering away at all of my weak spots with his special brand of elderly voodoo.
“I broke my leg the same way years ago. It still hurts and it was never the same after that. Yours is going to be the same way. Oh yeah, you’re going to limp like that forever.”
My synapses fired until they smoldered as I rummaged though my brain for the right words to end my conversation with the Angel of Death and get to my appointment. My social anxiety around elderly people wouldn’t allow me to walk away without saying something. He was too infirm to insult or fight, and he was too healthy to smother with a pillow and blame it on old age. I had to go with humor. A well placed joke would diffuse the situation and stall the conversation long enough so that I could turn around and continue walking down the hallway without seeming rude.
“Hey, I’m paying them enough. Maybe I can get one of those pretty girls in there to give me a nice leg massage.” I gave the man a wink and a smile, knowing I just hit two of the best old man joke notes possible — complaining about spending too much money (which they do all the time) and making time with young women (which they don’t do unless they’re spending too much money). All I needed was something racist for the perfect trifecta, but I was operating under pressure.
“Yep, broke my leg just like you. Can’t do shit now, other than that in the swimming pool with the little weights. Whatchamacallit.”
No laugh, no smile, nothing. It was as if I just told a joke to a Teddy Ruxpin doll halfway through his “The Adventures of Crotchety Clancy” cassette. This guy could not be steered from his course. I just gave up and took it.
“Yeah, waterobics. You’ll probably be able to do that, but that’s about it. Maybe something on the stand up bicycle, but I doubt it.”
And with that, the old man turned around and started shuffling down the corridor in the opposite direction. I immediately did the same and had a seat in the waiting room of my physical therapist’s office.
Ten minutes later when I was on the exercise bike, I thought about what happened in the corridor and I came to two conclusions. One of them was that time travel is going to be possible when I’m in my late eighties. The other was that I’m going to spend some of my retirement money travelling back to 2014 so I can fuck with myself when I was in my early thirties.