There are three bicycles on my balcony right now.
Normally there are only two – my shiny blue bike, with its giant seat and extra-wide wheels, and Matt’s sturdy green mountain bike. But for the last week or so there’s been another bicycle out there, one with a funky wire basket and a badly-warped frame frame.
This third bike belongs to a mystery woman who was involved in a cycling accident at the foot of the hill that I live on. I don’t know exactly what happened, but I do know that she landed face-first on the pavement, and I know that by the time the paramedics arrived her breathing was shallow and her heart rate uneven.
Her bicycle ended up on my balcony because Matt and Theo happened to be walking by the scene of the accident shortly it happened. Theo is fascinated by and and all emergency vehicles, so the sight of the firetrucks and ambulances was an instant hit with him. Ever since that day, he keeps saying:
“The firefighters took the woman away. The firefighters took the woman to the doctor to make her better.”
For Matt, the scene was a reminder of my own bike accident, which happened almost five years ago. Seeing that woman being strapped onto a stretcher and loaded into the waiting ambulance triggered all kinds of memories for him of my ill-fated tangle with a set of streetcar tracks down at Church and Adelaide. That was why he brought the bike home and left his name and number with the paramedics – because he remembered the kind stranger who had dragged my bike out of the road and locked it up, then given me his business card in case I couldn’t find it when I went to get it back.
I think about that accident fairly often. It’s hard not to, to be honest; the stiffness and occasional ache in my left knee are a constant reminder of the fact that my leg is packed with hardware. And anyway, that crash was a sort of turning point in my life; I’m not going to get all dramatic on you and say that it was a near-death experience or that it changed my view of humanity, but it definitely altered the course that I thought I was on. At the time, I was upset, even angry about that, but now I’m mostly thankful for it, because if I hadn’t fallen and banged up my knee, who knows where I would be now? If I’d kept on going in the direction I was headed in, I probably wouldn’t have Theo, for one thing. For another, who knows if I’d be writing, or teaching yoga? Who knows where I would be at all?
The reason that I happened to be at Church and Adelaide that morning was because I was starting my second week of George Brown’s Sign Language Interpreter program. I was running late, and I probably, almost certainly, wasn’t being as careful as I should have been. I’d always been wary of streetcar tracks, because I knew of other people who had had dangerous interactions with them, but I guess that I let my guard slip a bit that morning. I remember that I had to turn left onto Adelaide and I had to move into the left lane to do that, so I was simultaneously pedalling furiously to make it to the intersection before the light changed while signalling the lane change with my left hand and also looking back over my shoulder, watching out for cars. Just as I was getting ready to turn, I felt the traction change underneath my front tire – it went from rumbling over rough pavement to, for just a moment, skidding sickeningly, uncontrollably over smooth metal. Then with a jolt my front wheel slid neatly into the groove of the track, and I was stuck. At the same time my back wheel jerked forward, causing my bike to jackknife beneath me.
I knew that I was going to fall, but I thought, for some reason, that I could prevent it. I put my left foot down to try to steady myself, but my bike’s momentum was too much. I went down.
I don’t actually have any recollection of falling. I remember realizing that I was screwed, and then I remember lying sprawled on the hot pavement, my bike upended beside me and its wheels spinning pathetically in the air. I don’t think that I blacked out or anything – I’d somehow managed to avoid hitting my (unhelmeted) head – but I guess that whatever I was experiencing in that moment was too much for my brain to handle and it just shut down or somehow blocked it all out.
I remember thinking that I should stay sitting there in the middle of the road, even though cars were zooming around me, because it seemed like the safest place. A crowd had gathered around me soon after I’d crashed, and a few of them had to convince me that it was much smarter to get over to the side of the road. Two people helped me up, and that was when I realized that I couldn’t put any weight on my left leg. It didn’t hurt, exactly, it just didn’t work. So these two people had to half carry me over to the curb, while a third person went and rescued my poor bike (her name was Frida, by the way, as in Frida Kahlo, and she had an elegant if heavy vintage solid metal frame with a beautiful, now-smashed, wicker basket on the front).
By the time I reached the side of the road I was crying, hard, and hyperventilating. Not because I was hurt or scared, but because it had suddenly hit me that I could maybe, possibly have died. A woman sat beside me and told me to breathe while someone else called an ambulance on their cell. A third person handed me their phone so that I could call Matt. Back then I didn’t have my own cell phone, so I told him that I didn’t know where they were taking me but would call him from the hospital once I got there.
Once I got to the hospital no one, myself included, thought that there was any rush to look at my leg. I was certain that my knee was just sprained or twisted – after all, it barely hurt at first, and I hadn’t even torn my jeans. But by the time Matt got there, my leg was aching something fierce, and he found me huddled up in a wheelchair in the waiting room, crying quietly, trying not to bother anyone with my sobbing.
Eventually, someone called my name, Matt wheeled me through the big metal door, had some x-rays done and then sat for another hour or two on a hospital bed. Finally, a doctor came in and said brusquely,
“Your left tibial plateau is fractured. An orthopaedic surgeon will be coming to discuss the details of your surgery with you. Okay bye!”
I mean, I’m sure it didn’t exactly play out like that, but that was the general feeling of it. The doctor’s routine view of what I’d managed to do to my left knee was miles and miles away from my experience as a person whose life had just been turned upside down by a few brief sentences. Everything suddenly started to sound like it was very grainy and far away, and my vision began to go dark. I had to lie down before I passed out.
The technical details of what happened were this: my left femur, that big, heavy, club-like thigh bone, had, in the course of my accident, slammed into my tibial plateau (the place where the tibia and fibula meet to form the bottom part of the knee joint) hard enough to dent it. Surgery was needed to build the surface of the plateau back up, or else I would almost certainly walk with a limp for the rest of my life. So they took a bone graft from their bone bank, and held it in place with a metal plate and a series of large metal pins.
Why yes, this does mean that I have a dead person’s bone in my body! I kind of hope that it comes from a murderer or a genius or a murderer-genius or some other interesting type of person, but of course you can’t be too picky in these types of situations.
After surgery, I didn’t walk for three months. I went from having a giant, heavy cast to a much lighter, foam-and-plastic brace. When the took the cast off, I’d lost so much muscle mass that my thigh was narrower than my knee joint. It was gross. Oh and speaking of gross, if you ever want to terrify your needle-and-generally-medical-phobic partner, please invite them into the room while your cast is removed and the twenty six enormous metal stitches in your knee are suddenly revealed.
Matt had to leave after that.
Once I was ready to start putting weight on my leg again, I discovered that I’d somehow forgotten how to walk. I went to physiotherapy twice a week and, slowly and painstakingly, re-learned something that I’d mastered at the age of fourteen months. I still walk funny, even now, five years later – my left arch collapses and my entire left leg rolls inward, so that if I’m not thinking about it, I walk with a tiny bit of a limp. A limp, mind you, that becomes much more exaggerated when I’m tired or the weather is bad.
It goes without saying that I had to drop out of school – for the first few weeks after surgery, I could barely get out of bed, let alone go to class. On top of that, I was totally, totally loopy from the drugs I was on. I was so loopy that I read Twilight and thought it was good. No joke.
So I left school and, once I was able to function like a person with two legs again, returned to my nearly-minimum-wage retail job. I started trying to put my life back together and figure out what I wanted to do with myself, but I was at loose ends. I’d written a book the year before, and had had it tentatively accepted by a publisher and an agent, but the summer after my accident both of them ended up rejecting my manuscript. I didn’t know what to do with it, or myself. My life felt totally directionless.
In the summer of 2009 I married Matt, as planned. Eight months later I was suddenly, unexpectedly pregnant. And now, nearly five years after my accident, I have a hilarious toddler and a fantastic partner, I manage a yoga studio, I teach yoga, and I’m sorta, kinda, maybe accepting the fact that I might be a writer.
If I hadn’t fallen, there’s a chance that I would still be in an equally good, equally happy place in my life. But I’m not willing to take that gamble – if given the choice, I would always, always pick the prize on display over whatever’s behind the closed door. A bird in the hand, etc. So I guess that in a weird way I’m kind of thankful that my wheel slid into that streetcar track. I’m thankful that I ended up sprawled out on the ground, and I’m thankful that I smashed my knee up badly enough to need major surgery. Because all of that, every single little aspect of it, lead me to be right where I am.
I also think that falling off my bike was a big part of what helped me learn to love Toronto. I’d only been living here for a little over a year, and so far the city had seemed strange and unfriendly to me. If you’d asked me before my accident what would happen if a Torontonian fell off their bike in the middle of traffic, I would have said that everyone on the street would have gone about their business while that poor unlucky soul got run over. The people at Church and Adelaide that day proved me wrong, though, and since then I’ve learned over and over again that this city can, when necessary, have a heart.
The mystery woman, the woman whose bike is currently taking up real estate on my balcony, called this past weekend. She’d spent three days in the ICU, she said. She’d bled out into her brain and nearly died, she said. She kept thanking Matt for saving her life, and he had to tell her, over and over, that he’d only saved her bike.
She’s home now from the hospital, and her nephew is coming over sometime soon to pick up her bike. I hope she ends up being okay. I hope that someone told her just how many people stopped to help her, how much love and care she got from total strangers. Most of all, though, I hope that however this accident changes her life (as it certainly will) it ends up somehow being for the better.