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November 27, 2012
Twenty years ago and a little more, I was struck by a car. It was a classic New York event: as I walked along lower Broadway on my way to deliver the corrected manuscript of my first book to the publisher, a red Toyota driven by a legally blind carver of crucifixes and reliquaries jumped the curb and pinned me against a storefront, inaugurating a new room in the house of my life: broken bones and confused nerves, pain medicine so strong I quickly turned away from it for fear of becoming addicted. Steroid injections into my spine. A year of physical therapy.

I am fine now. I have pain, but one gets used to that: chronic pain just walks in your front door sometimes when it feels like it, like an unwelcome in-law. Remove the element of fear, which makes up at least half of acute pain, and you have a manageable state. So I am fine.

But sometimes the body remembers. Re-injury, when it occurs, is usually reticent about its origin: you don't know why you're suddenly back nearly to Square One, what outrage you perpetrated on your feeble frame to cause it, but suddenly there you are. I am there right now, as of a few days ago -- unable to lift my right leg behind me or to the side, unable to climb stairs without the railing, back on my cane more than I am off it. And in considerable pain, my old enemy back for another visit.

There was a piece today in the Times about a young soldier who lost his arm in an IED explosion. Imagine: he saw it float away from him in the water of the ditch into which he was thrown, the bracelet his wife gave him for good luck still tied around its wrist. The saga of his recovery, the dashed hope for reattachment, his decision to accept targeted muscle reinnervation surgery, which would attach the remaining nerves to what healthy muscle tissue remained. He would learn to use a prosthetic arm, an electronic marvel that would respond to the commands of his brain to move, to push, to grasp. Just like his old arm.

Well, not just like it. The movements of his old arm were natural to him, unconscious. Each of his new movements has to be learned. And there are no simple movements: nothing we do with our hands, our wrists, our shoulders, our biceps or triceps, nothing is unitary. All are complex chains of tiny individual movements, all necessary, all indispensable to tasks we all consider simple. We are conscious of none of them --
we, the lucky people who need not stop to compose the action of picking up a dish or turning a door handle.

And he has pain. His old arm hurts him -- his vanished arm, with its lucky bracelet, long ago incinerated by a pathologist's assistant, calls to him through a fog of phantom pain. It hurts him to practice with his new arm -- the spirit of the old one rails against it. That's MY place, it howls, that's MY job. I am the one who should be lifting the dish, signing your name, tying your shoe. Where AM I? Where are YOU?
The young man notices that the composition of some arm movements has become easier: more and more of them have become something like second nature. The synaptic paths from brain to action are growing more and more efficient. The unconscious flow of motion we take for granted -- or something very like it -- begins to return. The newly married nerves and muscles are learning one another, authoring and assisting a foreign arm. The two shall become one flesh.

Like all marriages, this one has its rough spots. But the outlook is hopeful: it seems the brain is not the only thing that can learn. Muscles can learn. Nerves learn. Cells learn, and molecules. Surely the atoms that compose them learn, too. Learn to act in a new and unfamiliar way. Learn a new language.

It seems the body can learn to remember, and to remember not just its pain but its basic delights. It goes in search of them. We are more than just a string of our remembered hurts, it seems. It seems that we can also learn to remember our powers.

"Every Breath You Take"

Every breath you take
Every move you make
Every bond you break
Every step you take
I'll be watching you

Every single day
Every word you say
Every game you play
Every night you stay
I'll be watching you

O can't you see
You belong to me
How my poor heart aches with every step you take

Every move you make
Every vow you break
Every smile you fake
Every claim you stake
I'll be watching you

Since you've gone I been lost without a trace
I dream at night I can only see your face
I look around but it's you I can't replace
I feel so cold and I long for your embrace
I keep crying baby, baby please

Every move you make
Every vow you break
Every smile you fake
Every claim you stake
I'll be watching you
---Music and lyrics by Sting

Have a listen at
Copyright © 2018 Barbara Crafton
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