The Blessing of the Broken Ankle (unpublished)

We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. –  Romans 8:28

by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson

The Episode

On Monday, February 16, 2015, I broke my right ankle.  Although the weather was very cold that day in Manhattan where I live, and there was much ice in the streets and on the sidewalks, ice was not the cause of my accident.  I was exiting Corpus Christi Church on 121st Street at about 9:30 am after Mass and a prayer period following. I had descended those same stairs hundreds of times before since I had begun attending occasional Mass at Corpus Christi in 2008, and the steps had been nicely cleared of ice.  But because the day was exceptionally frigid, I had bundled myself up and had on a thick hat and multiple scarves across my face.  I didn’t see the second or third step before reaching the sidewalk, and caught my right boot on its edge.  I’m not sure if this is actually true – but it felt like the deep tread on the heel of my boot caught the step edge and jammed there.  The next thing I knew I was twisting backwards and hard in at least 180 degrees with my foot jammed on the step.  I felt my ankle first rip, then pop, then I sailed off the steps onto my back and stuck to the frozen sidewalk below.

I immediately knew I had badly injured my ankle.  Having both broken and sprained feet before, my impression was that it was a severe sprain. There was nobody on the street to help me – the church is on a side street, it was seriously freezing outside, plus it was a holiday – and I knew I couldn’t make it back up the steps into the church.  So I had the choice of lying on the block of ice that was the sidewalk and calling 911 for an ambulance, or trying to get home, about six city blocks away.

Not wanting to freeze while waiting for an ambulance, I opted for the latter.  Pulling myself up on the step railing, I tried to put weight on the leg and could not do so.  So I hopped on my left foot down to Amsterdam Avenue holding on to the railings and steps along the way.  I continued hopping into the Avenue, balancing gingerly, and hailed a cab back to my apartment, where the driver helped me into my building and one of the doormen helped me upstairs.

Once inside my apartment, I carefully disassembled my outer clothing, and removed my foot from the boot with painful difficulty, because it was swelling massively.  I hopped over to the freezer, got out an ice pack, and planted myself on my back on the living couch with my foot up on cushions, ice pack attached.  There I lay for several hours, icing, praying, elevating, considering what to do next.

Two hours later when it was clearly not getting better, I tried to make an appointment with orthopedists I had seen in the past, but no one was in the office because of the holiday.  So very much against my will or preference, I made my way to the St. Luke’s Hospital emergency room, where I was x-rayed and diagnosed with a broken ankle (I had snapped off part of the tibia bone, which was now residing a distance of 3mm from where it belonged).  I was fitted with a very large, ungainly, heavy plaster splint, given crutches, and packed off home.  One the nurses kindly rolled me in a wheelchair to Amsterdam Avenue, where I managed to hail a cab.

I staggered into my apartment on crutches at about 2 pm that afternoon and laid  back down on the couch, exhausted from the shock to my body and the enormous effort it had taken simply to get treated.  Now what? I began processing what had transpired.  Well, this stinks, I thought, but it is what it is and now we have to deal with it.  I accepted the new, unpleasant reality of having to deal with a broken ankle for the next few months, and resolved to develop strategies on how to accommodate my injury within my life for an extended period of time.  The PA who fitted me with the splint in the emergency room had told me that I would not be able to put any weight on my ankle for 6-8 weeks, and that I would be on crutches for that entire time. I was to see a doctor in 1-2 weeks for a new x-ray and placement of my right foot into a hard cast.  Then, after the 6-8 weeks (or longer, depending on how it was healing) the cast would be removed and I would need physical therapy.

Instantly and most upsetting, I knew that this whole episode did not jibe with my circumstances. I am a single woman who lives alone; I have friends and family but many of them do not live close to me.  Living alone with an injury that requires constant use of crutches is no easy matter – you can’t even carry a glass of water when on crutches, and although I am a proficient “hopper,” you can’t hop on one leg while carrying most things either.  So the question of how exactly I was going to pull off months of being entirely off of one foot was before me.

And that was just the first of the difficulties.  Because I broke my right foot, I could not drive.  At that point, my mother lay very ill in a nursing home in New Jersey; in fact she had nearly died during the previous week of an infection that was not responding to antibiotics.  As a last-ditch effort as she was failing, she was placed on fluid therapy.  She was still alive but not doing well.  And now my car was sitting covered in snow and ice in front of my building; clearly I was not going to be able to even dig it out, let alone drive it, for quite some time.  To top it off, the nursing home is not accessible by public transportation; a car is needed to reach it.

Then there was my apartment.  I had broken my foot on the very last day of my three-week vacation, which in addition to my mother’s failing health had featured my having to move all of my belongings from my two-bedroom apartment to another unit in the same building so that my apartment could be renovated.  The whole stressful and physically arduous process had lasted ten days, but I was now installed in a dark apartment located on the unusually noisy and smelly second floor right above the garbage alley, surrounded by stacks of boxes containing my belongings, very few of which I could access.  The renovation was expected to last about three months, after which the whole process was to be reversed as I moved back upstairs.

The last troubling circumstance was personal, professional, and pastoral, all wrapped up in one: the priest who had just been instituted as rector of the last church I had served at had been hospitalized (at St. Luke’s, the same hospital where I went to the ER, just a few blocks from my home).  He had become a close friend of mine, I had been visiting him frequently, and he had just been diagnosed with very serious cancer.  Having been a cancer patient in the past, I planned to visit him frequently to help him through treatments.

And that was where my life was as I lay on the couch, with my broken ankle now encased in a heavy splint and raised on a tower of pillows.  Oddly, apart from some dull, minor pain – which nearly vanished as long as my leg was elevated and kept still – I felt a deep and surprising sense of peace.  I immediately became aware that the surprising lack of pain and the very pleasant sensation of peace were gifts of love from God, who was with me.  Blessings, I thought.  Sweet blessings.

In fact, the blessings started weeks before I broke my ankle.

The Preparation

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. – Psalm 23:5

Some of the groundwork for my broken ankle was laid on January 15, 2015.  That was the day that the management of my apartment building contacted me to tell me that after four years of discussion and delays, they had finally found a two-bedroom apartment for me to live in while they demolished and rebuilt my unit.  So I met with the construction supervisor and the building manager the following week, and was surprised to see that the apartment they had set aside for me was a handicapped accessible apartment – one of very few in my 300-unit building.  It is suitable for someone in a wheelchair, with a bathroom whose floor is entirely on one level with shower drains all over the floor, grab bars on the walls in various places, a high toilet, and light switches placed low on the walls.

Weird, I thought.  Why on earth would I need a handicapped accessible apartment?  When I first moved in I couldn’t stop complaining to everyone who would listen about that bathroom, and how water from the shower would get all over the place, drenching everything that was not raised off the floor.

As I lay on the couch those first few moments after getting home from the ER, my eyes traveled to that bathroom, and I burst out laughing.  Here I was in exactly the right place.  Suddenly I loved all of the grab bars, the high toilet, and that annoying shower.  God did indeed prepare a place for me, unbeknownst to me, that would be the perfect space for healing.

But wait – as they say on television infomercials – there’s more. The Church of the Intercession where I currently serve as priest-in-charge is located in the west side of Trinity Church Cemetery, where we can park our cars.  Because of the rough winter, there was a lot of snow and some blocks of ice where we park.  These could do a lot of damage to a car if you hit them, and hit them many of us did.  I had a relatively minor accident a few weeks before.  But the week before my small accident our music director ran over a larger ice block and totaled his transmission, so his car was stranded on the cemetery, unable to move.  He now needed a car, and with my broken right ankle I now needed someone to take care of my car.  Bill was happy to clean my car off, superintend it, and not incidentally drive me back and forth to church whenever he could.  What a blessing!  Anyone who has dealt with street parking in NYC (including the dread Alternate Side of the Street Parking regulations) can relate to how enormous a blessing this was.  And, I became convinced, no coincidence.

The Timing

For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie.
If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. – Habakkuk 3:2

Preparatory blessings also are evident in the timing of my broken ankle.  These might not seem as obvious as those described above, given my life circumstances, but consider these aspects of timing:

– I had just finished my apartment move.  Had this injury occurred either prior to or during the move, that already stressful time would have been massively compounded.

– The fall holidays and Christmas season were over.  A broken ankle would have been much more difficult to handle during that time.

– In the church calendar, we stood on the cusp of Lent. I would now have more time than I expected to soberly reflect and repent.  And the timing of this injury was such that it was expected to be healed right around Easter time.  Resurrection indeed!

The Invitation to Trust

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight.

 – Proverbs 3:5

But two seemingly insoluble situations remained:  both my mother and my priest friend were very ill, and now I could not be physically with them.  In the case of my priest friend I could still call and text, but my mother had not been able to communicate for some time, and could not be reached by phone.  My only other sibling, my brother, lives in Baltimore with his family.  He comes up when he can but obviously he cannot be “on-site” that often.  So the face that Mom was used to seeing – and depending on her level of awareness on a particular day – loved to see, was mine.  Add into the mix that my mother has shown a clear pattern of worsening health when I could not visit her for more than one week, and you can see how this weighed heavily on my mind and heart.

Since I could not get out to NJ to visit my mother in the immediate future, I decided to trust God that she would not to be adversely affected by my inability to visit, and for her mind and heart to be filled with God’s light and love rather than concern or desire for me.  This I did as often as it occurred to me, often accompanied by the saying of a Rosary.

The Fruits  of Trust

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 4:4-7

There is no question that God honored my prayers.  During the first two weeks after my injury – the most critical time for my healing as well as a time of more dangerous weather – my mother improved rather than deteriorated further.  She has since passed back into the arms of God – but only after I was able to drive and so be with her again.  While I was truly laid up she improved enough to be taken off of the hydration therapy and for a period of time was eating on her own.

When I first heard this less than one week after my injury, I cried like a baby.  My gratitude to Jesus was so overwhelming I thought my soul would crack.  One of my deepest prayers had been answered.

The news was different but still merciful for my priest friend.  The Rev. Keith Johnson died suddenly of a heart attack shortly after beginning treatments for the cancer, less than two weeks after diagnosis.  After the initial awful shock of his passing as I prayed in sorrow, awareness that his passing was a tremendous mercy that Keith passed quickly washed over me.  God had honored him in a way by stopping what was certain to be an extended period of suffering, at the end of which he most likely would have died anyway.  Although terribly painful for his family, his friends, and the parish, there is clear mercy in the timing of his death.

The Unconscious Prayer

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.  We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. – Romans 8:26-28

After the fact, I learned something surprising about my spirit and how it communicates with the Holy Spirit.  Had I prayed for this injury?  Not consciously – but I came to know that the answer to that question was “yes,” indeed I had.  And God had answered my prayer.

I told you that I had some difficult challenges when I slipped down those church steps, and that it was the last day of my vacation.  As my mother’s health had deteriorated, I had fallen into two destructive states of mind:  despair at watching my mother sink into a miasma of increasing disability and weakness, and the a tormenting sense of responsibility and guilt that told me I needed to be with her at every moment that I was not required to be occupied doing something else.  This last was despite the fact that my mother showed signs of picking up my anxieties when I was with her, which made her more miserable, and that I would invariably leave the nursing home devastated and depressed, feelings that would sometimes take a several days to dissipate.

Of course pain at the suffering and impending loss of a loved one is normal, as is the desire to be with them.  But I had gone beyond the normal and stepped on to a slippery slope of despair.  I am now certain that I unconsciously prayed in the Spirit to have God “stop me in my tracks”, to jolt everything back into perspective.  I’m sure that a part of me wanted to be incapacitated for a while in such a way that I was still able to do what I needed to do at Intercession, but be unable to reach the nursing home for a period of time.  Part of the reason that I am so certain about this is that I clearly remember my last thought at the moment I caught my foot on the edge of the church step:  “maybe I should get in the car and go out to the nursing home for a quick visit with Mom.” After I spun around, broke my ankle, and landed on the ground, before the pain and shock hit me, my first thought was:  “or maybe not.  Maybe I should stay home today.”

I am similarly certain that part of the reason I felt such a deep sense of peace when I returned from the ER and lay on my couch was that this burden had been lifted from me, at least temporarily.  I was being forced to do something I had not been doing, and that is truly trust God with my mother’s health, life, and death.  The fact that my mother actually improved instead of dying in the first few weeks after the injury is proof to me that my constant presence was less necessary than I had convinced myself it was.

The fact of the matter is that my three-week “vacation” had been anything but, and I was about to enter Lent stressed and exhausted.  Although coping with the limitations of such an injury is exhausting in its own way, I was still able to spend much more time at home and off my feet than I would have otherwise, and it gave me the opportunity to accept help and care from others instead of giving myself into exhaustion.  I have come to know that “closing the circuit” of giving and receiving is a necessary aspect of wholeness and healing.

So, yes, I had prayed to be injured.  The Holy Spirit searching my heart, knew that I yearned for a (different kind) of break, and what transpired was the perfect answer to that unconscious prayer.   And what has transpired since has renewed my faith in God’s goodness, and intimate knowledge of our every desire, no matter how hidden those desires might be even from ourselves.

The Dream

Jacob came to a certain place and stayed there for the night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. And he dreamed that there was a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. – Genesis 28:11-12

The first night after I broke my ankle, I went to bed certain that I was about to have a disturbed night of sleep, if I could sleep at all.  By nightfall I had come down with the chills and mild flu-like symptoms that had accompanied every broken bone I had experienced in my life (which included breaking my left foot once, bones in my right hand three times, and more broken toes than I can remember).  With that heavy plaster splint again up on pillows and the upset of the day, I lay down in bed quaking and praying for at least a small amount of quality sleep.

I fell asleep after a very few minutes, and slept quite well.  That would have been enough to qualify for a miracle to my mind, yet something else happened that night.   At about two-thirty in the morning – I had just glanced at the clock briefly – I had a very unusual dream.  I dreamt that I was showing people my plaster splint, and that as I was showing it to them, it began shrinking and dissolving.   This upset me in my dream – I remember crying out, “Wait! What’s happening? I need that!” yet the cast kept dissolving until it disappeared.  Still in my dream, I decided to see if I could stand on my right leg, so I did, and felt no discomfort whatsoever.  So I rejoiced in my dream at being thoroughly healed, and spent the rest of the night “walking around on my foot” with the injury completely gone.  The sensation was very pleasant, and I passed the night relaxed and happy.

Of course I woke up the next day and found that the obnoxious splint was still on my leg, which brought me back to earth.  But not completely.  There was a conviction about that dream; it wasn’t just “wishful thinking.”  It felt like it came from outside of me, and that it had the force almost of a command.

Now this is the first time I have ever had a dream like that.  I know many people get messages from God in their dreams, sometimes regularly, but that is not the usual way that God communicates with me.  I’ve always been alert and awake when I’ve received a “message” from God, sometimes deep in prayer and sometimes not, usually in the sense of the deep inward “still small voice,” and more rarely in more audible form, but I have never had a dream with this kind of message.

So the dream startled me, and I wasn’t exactly sure of its meaning beyond that the splint would come off and I would be healed – which I already expected would happen in due time.  I was still “pondering this in my heart” as I went to bed the next night, and I had a similar, less elaborate dream.  This time the splint did not dissolve but the whole night long I dreamt of having nothing at all on my foot and it felt perfectly fine.  Again, I walked around all night on my healed foot, and again I woke up to find the splint still on my leg, which still could not bear any weight.

The Healing

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. – Isaiah 43:19

So did that dream – those dreams – really come from God?  Let me tell you what transpired and you can decide for yourself.

Ash Wednesday fell two days after my injury.  The only real pain I had been feeling since I was injured would occur when I transferred my leg from the elevated position to below my knee, and I still could put no weight on it.  That day I took a taxi to the church and managed to make my way on crutches into the sanctuary.

Because I couldn’t put any weight on my right leg, I was literally carried up to our choir level by our assistant priest and sacristan (a very dramatic entrance) and sat in a chair in front of our altar.  I requested a sedan chair (a request that could not be honored), I presided over the Liturgy of the Ashes and preached the homily while seated.  Then our assistant priest took over for everything that required a vertical priest:  imposing ashes, and presiding at the Eucharist.  Oh boy, I thought, this is going to be a major drag. Through all of Lent no less.

But the very next morning, 72 hours after my fall, I tested my leg as usual, and was shocked to find that I could put weight on it.  Although still wearing the splint, I could step on my right foot and walk.  It was awkward and my foot was weak, but it didn’t hurt.  So I presided over a lengthy funeral the next day standing the whole time, four days after the injury, keeping one crutch by me for insurance, but I hardly needed it.

The following Monday, exactly one week after the accident, I went to my orthopedist for my follow-up appointment, expecting an x-ray and a new, hard cast, as had been predicted in the emergency room.

To my relief, my doctor immediately threw out the awful plaster splint contraption.  Then he asked me twice when exactly I had broken the ankle despite having read the ER report.  He seemed confused that it was only one week since the break.  He examined me closely and rapidly, said it was healing very fast and beautifully, told me I didn’t need an x-ray, and asked me to walk, which I could do with a slight limp but without much discomfort.  Then he pulled a support sock and a small ankle brace out of a drawer, fit me with it, and told me he didn’t need to see me again unless I regressed.  I could wear boots and shoes as soon as they fit and drive whenever the foot felt strong enough.  I did not need to see him again.

At the two week mark after the original injury, and I was walking with a limp but generally without crutches (although I kept a single crutch by my side for steps), and was able to spend almost six hours on my feet in church with nothing but minor swelling, which easily remedied by elevating my foot.  Eventually I took a few sessions of physical therapy to get some exercises for strengthening.  But the cast had indeed “dissolved” off of my leg, and shockingly quickly.

The Angels

Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. – Hebrews 13:2

As God had done many times before in my life – particularly when I went through the full panoply of cancer treatments (chemotherapy, surgery, radiation) in 2008-2009, angels appeared to minister to me immediately following my diagnosis.  This time, within hours of returning home from the emergency room, I had more than enough help to negotiate my day-to-day life.  There is a retired couple who I have been friendly with for many years (I first met them at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 1985) who live two blocks from me, and for some reason they have decided that it is an important part of their lives to care for me through various health trials.  The Liddicoats immediately set up a food shopping schedule for me, and once I was out of the cast, they brought over a selection of large hiking boots that I could wear over my ankle brace in the street.  The housekeepers and doorpersons in my apartment offered to take turns doing my laundry, take out trash, pick up minor items on their breaks, and so on.  My colleagues at Intercession offered to do anything else needed, including take me back and forth to church.  Our assistant priest took weekday services and came early on Sundays to help with all three of our Sunday services.  And my brother in Baltimore offered to commute as often as he could to visit our mother and help oversee her care.  I have learned to rejoice in the blessing of the angels, and the gift of learning to receive love and aid.

The Lessons

And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. – The Letter to the Philippians 1:9-12

Life can change in a moment.  We all know that changes in our circumstances, even the end of our mortal lives, can occur in a flash, usually when we least expect them.  In our Compline liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer, we pray that we might be so grounded in God that these changes may not overcome us:

Be present, O merciful God, and protect us through the hours
of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and
chances of this life may rest in your eternal changelessness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

But beyond reliance on God in the midst of challenges, we can use the lessons we learn during times of trial as seed for the gospel, building blocks for the kingdom of God on earth, both in ourselves and in those around us.  Often, this is a difficult and weighty challenge, especially when the change in our circumstances alters our health or living situation:  these are challenges that demand our full attention, and leave us little time or energy to perceive what may be going on with the eyes of the spirit.

In the quotation from Philippians above, Paul speaks of “knowledge and full insight” – the Greek word for knowledge here is very strong, and translates as “total discernment.”  It is worth remembering that, as Teilhard de Chardin once wrote, we are not human being having a divine experience, but divine beings who are having a human experience:  we all were created with immortal souls, and we were all ultimately created for heaven.

That means that what happens to us here on earth informs our eternal souls, so every challenge becomes a lesson from heaven, for heaven.  Not all suffering is redemptive, but all suffering does come with lessons that we can learn, if we heed the voice of the Holy Spirit.  The Second Letter of Peter gives us the progression of our education in the Spirit:

For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. – 2 Peter 1:5-7

And that is the true blessing – and lesson – of the broken ankle.