The Thing About Falling

How an unexpected stay on a living room couch served as a reminder of the kindness in people.
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(Illustration: Gary Neill)

(Illustration: Gary Neill)

We were at my friend’s parents’ house—all 10 of us—because there was a refrigerator full of alcohol. We were back in Scranton, Pennsylvania, my hometown, because it’s known for its St. Patrick’s Day parade and green-dyed beer and throngs of staggering college kids. My friend Alex and I were wrestling because we were drunk, and we were 21, that odd age when you fetishize your pending independence—which comes in the form of paychecks and meetings and happy hours—but still find yourself buzzing at the thought of green beer.

I felt a shooting pain as soon as Alex brought me to the ground. At first my whole leg felt like a stick of butter. Then my thigh felt like someone had run a hot knife through it.

The most productive part of falling, really, is seeing who helps you up.

Three years have since passed, and my memory of the moment survives in vivid bursts: the familiar thump of Tyler, The Creator’s “Yonkers” for some reason playing on repeat; my friends crowding around me while I writhed on the floor; one guy repeatedly suggesting that I drink a can of Miller Lite to calm down; our host kicking us out of the house because he was expecting a late-night visitor—as a 21-year-old man is apt to do.

Two days later a doctor told me I had a giant cell tumor. My mother, who’d sat alongside me through an initial misdiagnosis and the trip to the imaging center, started tapping messages on her smartphone: to my dad, telling him to bring my toothbrush, as I wouldn’t be going home that night; to my brothers, letting them know to start planning time off from work to visit; to my grandparents, to tell them not to worry, and that no, it’s not cancer.

The tumor had eaten away the inside of my femur, leaving just the outer casing of the bone. When I fell to the ground wrestling, the weakened leg simply snapped. Giant cell tumors are rare; the odds of developing one are about one in a million. They are also benign but aggressive. My tumor had devoured my femur; they’ve also been known to go for the lungs.

Those two-plus weeks in the hospital are a blend of spotty memories: a morphine pump, heavy bouts of vomiting, struggles to use a bedpan. In particular, I remember a rough night when my right ankle was especially sore from the leg suspension system. My brother Ross spent the entirety of his evening on a cot next to my bed, getting up every hour or so to massage the ankle, and to tell the cute nurse that I was single.

After the hospital, I moved onto my parents’ couch. This wasn’t so unique at the time; loads of my classmates wound up back in their childhood homes, left to wade desperately through job postings on Craigslist. But, unlike my peers, I was really stuck back at home: My cast extended from my ankle to my waist. The wraparound blue-wool couch of the childhood I thought I had left behind became at once my bed and my dining room—my every-room, really. In three months, I left it on only a handful of occasions (once to see the Hunger Games with a friend; once to be outfitted for a wheelchair I would stubbornly refuse to use). Otherwise, the couch was where I idled through the hours playing Xbox, taking oxycodone, learning how to play the ukulele, reading Roberto Bolaño, watching television, talking to friends, filling in a coloring book, taking more oxycodone, playing more Xbox.

Every day of those three months, my mom changed the pillows on the couch and brought me breakfast, lunch, and dinner. My dad, who normally can’t stay awake through a newscast, watched an entire season of the Walking Dead with me. My brothers came home for random weekends, content to argue about basketball and horror movies, and even, when need be, to help me navigate the awkward process of the sponge bath. Friends showed up to drink cans of cheap beer late into the night, with the good sense to show affection not by asking how I felt, but simply by finding their own spots on the couch. Rabbis came to visit; old acquaintances did, too. Those were kindnesses I wouldn’t soon forget.

While my classmates posted college-graduation photos (I had to re-take my final semester) and talked about job prospects (I had none), I lay on that blue wraparound like a bored 13-year-old. But my parents’ couch also reminded me how good I really have it. The most productive part of falling, really, is seeing who helps you up.

Except for a dull ache when I run, my leg is fine.

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