By the time we had finished with our last minute dash for Christmas presents, stocking candy, and special menu ingredients, it was late. My sister and I had tried to be quick about it, but there is only so much that you can do to rush these things. With just a couple of hours of light left in the day, I had basically given up on the possibility of getting outside for some exercise in the beautiful, dry, 60-degree Tucson weather. My sister is not as easily deterred, though. She knew that I needed to find a way to alter some of the chemicals in my body as soon possible. “You can still make it,” she offered hopefully, as she urged me to take better care of myself.
So, after a drive-by drop-off of both the perishable groceries and my sister, I darted over to my brother’s house to quickly change my clothes and grab my skates, before racing in my car to the closest section of the paved Rillito Park path.
As soon as I parked my car by the path, I whipped off my shoes, kicked my legs out the car door, and jammed my feet into my skates. After that, I swiftly fastened my laces, cinched the velcro straps, ratcheted down the clips on the top of the boots, and shoved my hands into my wrist guards before securing the straps on those as well. And then, I was off.
As it turned out, the parking lot closest to my brother’s house is not the one nearest to the part of the path with the brand-new, smooth-as-glass asphalt. I had to skate relatively slowly over crappy pebbly and cracked pavement for 20 minutes or so, before I got to the good stuff. When I finally reached the prime section of the path, it was about 5:00 pm on Christmas Eve.
Perhaps because of the elongated anticipation and the added luxury of now mostly having the trail to myself, I took the opportunity to fully stretch out my legs, pushing out hard and fast against the steady surface. For about five minutes, I skated with as much speed and abandon as I possibly could. But then, just as I was beginning to feel lighter and freer, the wheels of my right skate suddenly stopped moving, and I went crashing, face first, onto the ground.
Last summer, when my skate laces had become badly frayed, I realized that I needed to order new ones. Only, I kept forgetting to do it. When one of the laces eventually ripped apart—making it impossible to tie my skates—I resorted to buying boot laces from the drugstore that were too long. I told myself that I would get proper laces soon and that in the interim the drugstore ones would work fine as long as I wrapped them around my ankles a couple of times before tightly double-knotting them.
Because the freshly paved path in Arizona had been unusually immaculate and free of debris, I was certain that no leaves, sticks, or stones could have possibly caught in the wheels of my skate. Of course, it was none of those things. When I looked down to see what had caused my skate to stop dead like that, I spotted those long black laces snaking through and twisted up in the frozen white wheels of my skate. I couldn’t remember if I had pulled the double-knots tightly. But I’m guessing that, in my haste to beat the sun, I failed to carefully tie my skates.
After taking stock of the various wounds on my face and body, I stood up and turned around to head back to my car with my defeat pressing in on my chest. As I skated to the parking lot, I happened to pass a bunch of firefighters attending to a cyclist who seemed to be having some sort of breathing trouble. One of the firefighters—noticing that I was bleeding—stopped me to ask if I was okay. He looked me over from head to toe.
“Nothing appears deep enough to need suturing,” he said. “But,” he added,”you are going to have some pretty miserable road rash.” Then he offered to give me a ride back to my car, if I could just wait a minute until he and the other EMT’s had finished helping the distressed cyclist. “No thanks,” I said. I smiled and tried to reassure him. “I’m fine.”
“Are you sure?” he asked. “You don’t really look fine.”
“Yes. Really. I’m fine,” I insisted. I thanked him for the offer again and smiled once more before skating off down the path.
When I got back to my car, I paused to get a better look at my injuries. I was driving a rental, so I wanted to avoid staining the upholstery. I wiped off as much of the dripping blood that I could and covered the driver’s seat with a jacket. Once I was able to sit down, I called my husband to ask if he could run to the pharmacy to buy these ridiculously expensive, clear film bandages that are particularly good at staying on and treating large swaths of road rash. Then I drove home, trying hard not to look at my face in the rearview mirror.
When I arrived at my brother’s, I knocked on the front door and called out as I wobbled into the house. No one answered, so I thought I had a moment alone. I made a beeline for the bathroom and flipped on the light switch just long enough to glance in the mirror. Then quickly turning away, I planted myself in the darkest corner of the room and began sobbing. Within seconds, my brother called out, “Francesca, are you alright?” And then, I heard both my sister-in-law and my brother talking to me as they neared the bathroom.
“I’m fine,” I yelled, scrambling to dry my face before shuffling out to meet them. After apologizing for crying so loudly, I explained that, because of my own stupidity, I had fallen while I was out exercising. They were both gracious and sympathetic, and we all pretended that my heaving sobs had been a normal response to a skating accident. After that, they went on ahead to my step-mother’s house for dinner, and I went back to the bathroom—this time to shower.
When my husband returned from the pharmacy, he helped me cover my cuts with the fancy medical film. He reminded me that my superficial wounds would heal just as they had before and that in the not-too-distant future I would skate again. Once I was fully bandaged and dressed, he cautiously hugged me and waited quietly to hear if I wanted to talk about my sadness. But I had nothing to add. We both knew that my tears were not caused by my physical pain and that all of my family was already gathered together, waiting to sit down for Christmas Eve dinner.
As soon as I opened the door of my step-mother’s house, the questions came flying at me in rapid succession. One relative after another wanted to check in to see if I was okay. Because most of them seemed to be asking about my skating injuries and not my mental health, I tried to calmly answer and reassure them without getting into any of the real issues.
“I’m fine,” I replied, looking away to prevent any direct eye contact. “I’m fine,” I repeated, peering down at the floor my hair dangling in front of my face. “I’m fine,” I promised as I attempted not to notice my family’s anxious expressions. “I’m fine,” I stressed as I watched their faces straining to avoid staring at my bandaged red face. “I’m fine.” “I’m fine.” “I’m fine.” I kept saying it over and over. When my step-mother’s question—through no fault of her own—just happened to be the last in what seemed like an unending barrage of misplaced worry, I lost it. “I just don’t want to talk about it!” I snapped before running out of the kitchen to go hide behind a closed door.
As I sat in the room away from everyone, embarrassed by my childish outburst and contemplating my family’s genuine concern and kind offers of support, I couldn’t help thinking about the irony. Shortly before I left home to fly out to Arizona for this family Christmas vacation, I had written a post about putting Band-Aids on my unharmed shoes as a child. I’m pretty sure that back then I chose to mark my shoes with these makeshift red crosses of sorts because I was hurt, but no one seemed to notice. And now, here I was as an adult trying to cover up and ignore my very real, bloody bandages, precisely because no one seemed not to notice.
I couldn’t quite stand the fact that my superficial injuries were so much easier for everyone to discuss than my mental health. It’s not that I think that my family does not worry about my depression, but I think it is hard for many of them to know what to say or do to be helpful. I wasn’t lying as I reassured people that I was “fine” again and again, and my family wasn’t being disingenuous by voicing their concerns about my physical ailments. But while we all focused on bloody cuts, abraded skin, and bruised muscles, I felt the truth slipping away from us.