1981. She walks on the grass next to the sidewalk, on her way home from high school. Every step is taken gingerly, a limp on both sides. Her hair is long and blond, her geometry book under one arm. The faint breeze brings cool salt from the Gulf of Mexico, only a mile west. She is fifteen and her knees hurt, again.
Her father is fifty-six. Less than a year earlier, he took early retirement from the weather bureau to move his wife and two youngest daughters to Florida. They are running low on money. His most recent job was as an insurance salesman, and he sold one policy. Today, he is on his way home from some errands—bank or library or liquor store. He’s in a blue short-sleeve shirt and polyester pants sandy at the cuff. His old station wagon moves slowly over a curb onto the doubled dirt tracks connecting one section of San Salvador Drive to another. This short cut ups the chances of surprising one of his girls with a ride home.
The baby of the family grins and gets in.
I saw you limping. What happened?
Nothing happened, my knees just hurt, and the grass is softer.
Oh. He frowns down at the steering wheel, then turns right onto the short block that ends at their small house on Saint Anne Drive.
The girl has complained of her knees hurting for weeks. They both remember. They talk about it a bit more.
A week later, he drives her to the doctor. His wife isn’t well. For a few hours almost every day, the girl’s mother is both sober and strong. Almost every day, she drives to Publix and buys food that she can’t feel in her tiny, scarred stomach. She serves them dinner every night as she slowly learns to eat again, without ulcers, and without sensation. Nine months after her first stomach surgery that led to infections and two more surgeries, the bones of her arms appear less skeletal. When she smiles now, cheerful lines star out from her eyes above softening cheekbones.
The doctor’s office is close-by, but the girl takes the whole day off school. With a clear, kind voice, the doctor talks to them about patella’s, about misalignment and tracking. The girl lies down on the exam table as her father watches her learn to do a straight leg lift holding each kneecap still—centered and supported. At home, she does this exercise on the living room floor until it becomes easy. Her father reminds her if she forgets, and her knees gradually stop hurting.
2022. She stands looking out her cabin window toward where his ashes are buried between young aspen. She is fifty-six, retired. She has stopped counting how many years since her mother’s ashes were scattered in the Gulf. Her own belly is easily irritated by juicy apples, fragrant asparagus. A nutritionist—consulted in the third year of IBS–recommends gentle meals, carefully timed.
Her knees have hurt for weeks, and ibruprofen inflames the lining of her gut. Waiting and waiting to call the doctor, she complains as if she will never hear herself, as if this body does best unseen, unfelt.
Finally, a physical therapist hands her a green elastic band to pull above her kneecaps, to add resistance while she strengthens the muscles around her patella. The pain fades slowly, slowly. She sees her mother serving those meals and remembers her father’s delights that some problems can be so easily fixed.