I have spent the last nine days thinking about three things: tennis, self-sufficiency, and how I’m going to put my own shoes on.
My first tennis lessons came at age seven. Our neighborhood in South Carolina had courts of crumbling clay that saw no use, nestled in a valley of sweet smelling honeysuckle, bramble bushes, and overgrown pine trees that made the surfaces sticky most of the year. In an effort to get more use out of the courts, the home owner’s association trimmed back the overgrown trees and ivy that climbed the chained links, and hired an instructor to teach the neighborhood children how to play.
By this point I was athletic, doing a circuit of outdoor activities every day the weather was nice, as our mother would discourage us from coming back into the house before sundown. I shot 25 free throws at the basketball hoop on our driveway. We used our sand wedges to chip balls out of the compost pile, followed by gymnastics on the neighbor’s trampoline. During pool season, I did back dives and pike dives into our own deep end, stroking like a frog end to end of the pool holding my breath for as long as I could. After dinner, we’d play pickle in the front yard, sprinting back and forth between the mitts we used as bases as my parents tossed the ball with my spaniel nipping at my ankles along the way. I loved grass stains, sometimes intentionally diving on the freshly mowed lawn, not to avoid a tag, but to mark up my clothes and make laundry a little more difficult for my mother.
My father signed me up for the tennis lessons, figuring I would be a natural, reminding me that in their younger days my parents often took to the courts for a date, considering it cost them nothing more than a little sweat and a can of balls. From a barrel of sporting equipment in the garage, my father unearthed an ancient tennis racquet, his own, with the name of a player I’d never heard of considering that we’d never watched the sport on television. He plucked the strings to make sure none were sprung and handed it to me; it was big for my age, but so was I, but it would work for an introductory lesson. If I liked tennis, he said, we could get me a new racquet, one of my own. That’s a promise he would have made good on; he loved to take us to the sporting good store and buy us new equipment, whether we needed it or not, a bonding and a piece of him to have at every game and match since he missed most of them while he was on the road for work.
I set off to my first lesson on my bicycle, a purple Huffy meant for small kids that I had outgrown, oversized racquet in hand. The bike’s seat was raised to the maximum height; the easiest way to get around was standing on the pedals and pumping hard so that my knees didn’t graze the handlebars. I was due for new wheels, but the goal was to wait to see if I grew two inches taller over the summer to skip right to the tween Trek, a ride that I could have for years.
The only thing I remember about the first lesson was that the instructor was an elderly man wearing short compression shorts, the type my father wore when he cut the grass or coached little league. The instructor lined us up against a line on the court—what I’ve come to learn is called the baseline—and taught us how to hold our racquets, what to do when a ball came near us (don’t jump out of the way!), and that the goal, no matter how ugly or strenuous, was to get the ball over the net and keep it within “the box” which I’d come to learn is called the court, but that the court does contain other boxes, though that’s not the lesson he was teaching at the time.
When it was over, I was no better at tennis, but it had at least piqued my interest. The courts had a wall mounted to the chain-link fence that could be used for practicing ones strokes alone, and the instructor encouraged us to do that when we had time, particularly before our next lesson. I figured I would do that, adding it to our circuit of neighborhood Olympic events, and that I would be better at tennis by time summer ended.
I got back on my bicycle, racquet clutched awkwardly in my right hand as I pedaled hard, then pulled my feet from the pedals, coasting down the big hill back to our house. My father was mowing the lawn and my mother was seated on the front porch grooming her potted plants. After making the hard turn onto the driveway full speed, I reached up with my racquet hand to wave hello, only to have the base of the racquet collide with the handlebars, sending me tumbling face first over the tiny bicycle and head first onto the concrete, the racquet breaking my face’s fall. Buckets of blood, a broken nose, stitches, and a waffle pattern that lasted a week on my forehead later, I vowed I would never play tennis again.
After the emergency room, we stopped to get a new bicycle.
Twenty-five years later, I broke my shin on a routine play at first base in a slow-pitch softball league, causing me to swear off organized softball, at least for a few seasons until I had better health insurance and a higher tolerance for pain. Once recovered, a friend suggested that we could take tennis lessons together, and I agreed to break my vow as it seemed like good exercise, also recalling my father’s advice in the past, that tennis was an opportunity to be social that required nothing more than a friend, a lover, or complete stranger and a can of balls.
Signing up with a friend made me more comfortable because while I am not an overly anxious person, one thing that kicks up anxiety for me is showing up to a new place and not understanding where I am supposed to be, who is in charge, and what I am supposed to do until I figure out where I am supposed to be and who is in charge. My therapist once asked me to describe what I felt was one of life’s most anxious moments, to which I blurted out, “those 45 seconds when you’ve walked into a crowded bar and you’re looking for your friends in a sea of faces and the only information you have to go off of was one text that says, ‘we’re here, somewhere by the ATM.’”
The night before our first lesson, I did a dry run, identifying the location of the courts, how to enter them, where to park the car, and making a mental list of what everyone at the tennis court had with them—racquet, balls, a bag (which I did not have), water (which I had not considered but seemed so obvious), and carefully curated outfit (something I had planned weeks in advance, given that my interest in fashion outweighs my athleticism by a large margin).
At the start of the lesson, we stretched, jumped for 30 seconds over the baseline—my first tennis vocabulary word for the day—and finished with sprints. The group raced to the net, and as we turned to make our final approach, my friend, the one who convinced me to come to lessons in the first place, fell hard on the court, scraping her knees as everyone gasped. The instructors rushed to help her up from the ground, both knees and ego badly bruised, as she tried to laugh it off every time someone said, “nasty spill. Are you alright?”
We broke into groups, the more skilled players heading down to the opposite end of the courts, the beginners lining up on the service line—second vocabulary word for the day—to learn how to hold a racquet, basic tennis etiquette, and volleys. To add insult to injury, my skinned-knee friend took a ball to face the during volley drills, her Ray-bans crashing her brow then falling to the court. I saw it in her eyes immediately that she never wanted to return, the frugality in me frowning that she’d just spent $250 for a nasty fall and full-frontal attack.
We left the first day unimpressed. Since we pre-paid for four sessions, I figured I would stick it out, keep going, and see if I could learn the basics of the sport so that I’d at least have a better understanding when watching it on television or reading David Foster Wallace.
Learning, particularly excelling at, a sport is not a linear experience. Some weeks I would leave lessons vindicated at my progress, staying after my hour to hit a cart of balls on my own to practice my strokes. Then there were humbling days where ten shots in a row would be perfect, followed up another 20 where my strokes were completely lost, sending fluorescent orbs sailing out of the zip code and I’d slam my racquet on the court or yell, “FUCK” as loud as I could, much to the chagrin of the good sportsmanship and no cursing codes of conduct for our club.
Over the course of summer, I spent at least three days per week on the court, in lessons and in matches, and with the persistence things started to click. An entire day dedicated to volleys taught me that being tall and having a basic understanding of geometry made me an ideal net player for doubles. My groundstrokes got stronger, my backhand became “beautiful”, and my personal instructor starting calling me “Ceerena” not for my play, but for my fluorescent tennis shoes and the audible grunts I make on my first serves.
If playing tennis was the addiction, getting better was the high. I went from not knowing how to hold a racquet one year ago to finishing second in an intermediate tournament against people who have been playing the sport for dozens of years. There was a rush from being active, something I hadn’t found since giving up on organized sports after college, and the desire to play as much as possible. Though the sport is physically demanding, I never tired, eager to always hit just one more round, play one more match, or to take my instructor’s advice of always finishing the day on a good shot. The mental strategy of outsmarting my opponents, the sunshine and cool winds off of the lake, even the tan lines on my shoulders from the afternoons spent hitting entire carts of balls to work on my serve became part of my identity, something I had been lacking since my hobbies had mostly become work, drinking a glass of wine while answering work emails, watching two episodes of television on the DVR while doing spreadsheets, and climbing into bed to read more emails on my iPhone before bed.
Instead of going to the club three days this week, I’ve been lying on my side, ice packs shoved under each leg and behind my back, shifting awkwardly every 30 minutes because that’s how long it takes for me to get sore. I felt some pain playing tennis one day, which wasn’t unusual because I’ve dealt with back pain for over seven years, but this time it felt different. More acute, sharper, jabbing in my spine, radiating down to my leg, numbness and weakness down into my left toes making it difficult to stand or walk normally. The orthopedic surgeon told me that surgery was the only option at this point, and the sooner the better.
I felt heartbroken over losing my routine; and devastated not just because the surgeon would be taking out parts of my spine and adding new ones—that part was certainly scary—but the ramifications of an extended recovery, a leave of absence, and conundrums like how I would put on my shoes when I can’t bend over and there’s no one here to help me.
I am a social person, but I live a solitary lifestyle. I have tried to stop pondering if it’s a good or bad thing that only a handful of people have ever seen the inside of my apartment, that some of my best friends don’t know my address, and that if I did succumb to a single person’s worst fear (it’s either slipping in the shower or choking on food depending who you ask), it would be awhile before someone found me. But I do know that it sometimes makes life much more difficult when there’s no one to lean on, even though my initial reaction is to rarely to take help, even when it’s offered.
I was fortunate that my mother came out for the actual procedure, shuttling me between the hospital and my bed, making countless trips to the pharmacy for new medications when nothing was cutting the pain or nausea, and for finding every spot in my neighborhood that sold milkshakes, smoothies, or slushies since my throat was raw from intubation. She walked my dog, washed the sheets, fielded countless demands to pick things up off the floor that I’d dropped or hand me something just out of my reach, listening to me whine about how frustrated I was that I could not do any of these things for myself. She said that it was a parent’s duty to help their children, even their grown ones, in situations like these. But I couldn’t help but be racked with guilt for asking someone with multiple chronic illnesses and breathing apparatuses to drive 12 hours across the country to be there for me. But, I had no other options.
Every time I asked for something, I saluted its completion with a, “thank you,” asking for things so often she told me she was tired of hearing those two words. For one afternoon, I changed the response to “fuck you” every time she did something nice to me, a bit of levity to show I was feeling better after what had been a tense few days of illness. The surgeon admitted that things were much more challenging than they’d expected and that he had to “fish” parts of my disc out of my body as it cracked into fragments during the procedure. (If you’re making a face here I apologize; I am making a similar one, except I also get a sympathetic tingle on my incision and an ache in my side just thinking about it).
My mother left to deal with her next patient, an aunt with breast cancer, and with nothing but time, painkillers, and Golden Girls reruns, I allowed myself a day (okay, two days) to be very hard on myself for being alone, for being isolated, for lacking an external support system while my internal support healed itself.
For a long time, I thought the hardest days to be alone were the ones when your car didn’t start and there was no one around to ask for a jump. No family, no friends, no strangers in the parking lot with jumper cables, and some strangers in a parking lot who pretended they didn’t have any so they wouldn’t have to help. Every time that’s happened, I’ve cried while waiting for someone to show up, not only because I would be late—which I loathe—but at the sheer loneliness of it all. Now I know that having a major surgery without a deep bench feels much worse. Some friends were kind, sending flowers, delivering milkshakes, taking their lunch break to help me with my rehab, but the majority of the people that I’ve considered myself closest to throughout my years in Chicago haven’t reached out, haven’t offered to help, nor have they offered any ingenious ideas of how to tie my own shoelaces.
On the days I gave myself permission to feel sad, I cried about this. I allowed myself to get angry. One friend rationalized that as we get older we get busier and more selfish, and that I shouldn’t accept that as a platitude, but that perhaps no one is malicious as much as they are oblivious. But to me, that seems like the coldest consolation, that we are collectively becoming so detached that the only times we think about kindness are as the day allows for it. I’ve waned from being understanding, knowing that if I weren’t spending 14 days on the sofa that I’d be spending 12 hour days in the office focused mostly on my work. I’ve tried not to feel sour and hurt by those whose birthday parties, baby showers, weddings, and graduation parties I’ve attended who were nowhere to be found as I used the corner of a door to help put on a bandage or used tongs to pick up the dog’s toy, because she desperately wanted to fetch, but I couldn’t bend over low enough to pick it up.
I am trying to feel no resentment, but there is a nagging disappointment that in the life I have curated I am more alone than I sometimes realize.
The good news is that there are solutions to most problems, and living in the city has helped. I have hired cars to take me to appointments, messengers to pick up prescriptions. There are services that deliver groceries and take out, companies that will walk your dog with the click of a button, and an app that allows you to schedule someone to clean your apartment with less than a day’s notice. I’m fortunate that I’m in a position that I can hire help for my basics needs when no one can lend a hand because there are plenty of people who struggle with worse ailments who have even less support to figure out how to do it on their own.
Physically, I am feeling stronger. I can stand for longer periods of time, can take short walks without holding onto things, can even make myself a meal, as long as it’s something on an eye-level shelf and not at the bottom of the refrigerator. I’ve cleaned out my DVR, binge-watched whole television series on Netflix, and I’m building strength for the next phase of recovery, heading back to work and physical therapy.
It will likely be eight weeks before I can play tennis again, an additional six or more before I can do something more competitive than just swing a racquet and some light drills. Getting back to a routine with the sport, the activity and the social aspects of it, are what I want to focus on right now, a marker down the road as I limp and waddle through the afternoons of pain, switching ice packs, and doctors appointments.
My goal for now, as I scribbled in my notebook today, is to let everything else go, stop focusing on the times I’ve felt let down, and get one day closer to wearing shoes with laces.