A searing pain rippled through my lower back as I leaned forward to pull up my softball socks. Oh my God. I can’t move.
My hands started to sweat, my head started to spin: immediate panic. I returned to an upright sitting position and took a deep breath. Okay, this doesn’t hurt. I moved forward. Slowly this time, inch by inch, lowering myself into a hunched position to reach for my feet. Searing pain again. It felt like someone had set fire to my lower back, or like someone had wrung the muscles out like a towel after a day at the beach. The tears were instant. I couldn’t help it. I’ve always had a low tolerance for pain. When I was little, I’d bawl over skinned knees or a topple off my training bike. I’d even cried a time or two not because of the pain, but because of the scare or seeing someone else in pain. Like when I was on the playground swings and accidentally kicked a girl in the nose. Or when my sister slipped on a pool floor and got stitches in her chin. But this was no joke.
My teammate, just walking into the room from brushing her teeth, startled at the sight of me. “Marisa, are you okay?”
I couldn’t stop the tears, they just kept rolling. Once the storm breaks, it doesn’t stop for a good while. “I…I don’t know what’s happening.” I blubbered, “I just can’t bend over. I can’t move!”
There were forty-five minutes left until the team was scheduled to meet in the hotel lobby for breakfast and then take our charter bus over to the field for the doubleheader. But there was no getting up. “Kenny, get my mom.”
Every March, the Waldorf College softball team takes a spring break trip to play a tournament—it’s usually somewhere touristy and fun, but not the Girls Gone Wild Spring Break Edition type of place. My freshman year, it was Tucson, Arizona. Last year and this year, it was Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
We’d arrived just yesterday, and like everyone else, I was thrilled to be out of the Iowa thirty-degrees and snow. One by one we filed off the bus, and since I was in the back, I was one of the last, shuffling through with my softball backpack full of practice gear, my computer, and books [Lame, I know. But I had a lot of homework!]
This year, I’d tried to be more efficient with packing. My first trip to Myrtle, I’d dragged around a ginormous suitcase full of things I didn’t wear and assignments I didn’t finish. This year I packed everything I needed in one backpack and one suitcase. Compared to the rest of the team, I’d done alright. But my one suitcase was pretty stuffed.
I stepped off the bus and embraced the salty, humid air. I’ve never been a fan of humidity, but at this point, anything over fifty degrees was basically heaven. My suitcase was under the bus, tucked between a bucket of softballs and someone else’s squishy travel bag. I shrugged my backpack over my shoulder, twisted my body to keep it upright, and leaned forward to grab my bag with one arm. I felt my back muscles tense at the strain for a moment, but the feeling faded as I pulled the suitcase free and headed towards the hotel.
“Honey, what happened?” My mother knelt on the floor next to me, rubbing my lower back. “Where does it hurt?”
I pointed to the center, just above my tailbone, where the muscles felt like they were shredded into pieces. “Right there.” I whimpered.
My two teammates were dressed in their uniforms—black/purple/white short sleeve tops with slick-looking black pants and black socks. With thirty minutes left to eat and get on the bus, I could see them getting antsy. Kenny was twisting a chunk of her hair between her fingers. Kirstin was alternating between flexing her feet and stepping up on her toes.
“You guys can go,” I said, and as they protested, I shook my head. “Really. I’m fine.”
My mother gave me some Ibuprofen and helped me to my feet. The pain had subsided slightly, but I still needed help pulling up my socks and getting into the rest of my uniform. I felt incredibly weak and stupid.
“It must be from my suitcase yesterday,” I said, “I twisted my back pulling it out but it didn’t hurt that bad. I don’t know. Maybe it’ll just go away.”
I let my mom walk me to the door and tried to put a smile on my face. Today was the first round of games and I wanted more than anything to be out on the field. I had to be okay.
Just take it easy. You can do this. The team set off into a jog around the field and I hung back. On game days, I was usually in the front, sometimes even doing the final lap in a full-on sprint, just to get my energy out. Today there was no running, at least not yet. With each step, I could feel the muscles in my back, literally feel them moving around and tensing to hold my body upright. I imagined them like thick cords twisting around my spine and suffocating each vertebrae. Every step was painful. I had never felt so weak in my life.
I tried to push through, reminding myself to breathe, and to keep the budding tears from falling. I kept my eyes focused on the orange dirt under my feet. The rust color had always made me laugh. It was so weird compared to the brown, hard dirt of the Midwest. This orangey stuff was soft, almost like clay and stained your softball pants no matter how many times you washed them. I tried to focus on the dirt, on the sun barely poking from the clouds just to the left of center field, on the perfectly-tied bow of the teammate in front of me, but it was no use. I only made it to the end of the dugout before I had to admit defeat. There was no way I could play today.
“Here,” my chiropractor said, “that should do the trick.”
He was an older man, with grey-white hair and a thin frame. Dr. Rudy Chilton was his name and he owned a practice just fifteen minutes from the field. My mom had discovered him doing a search for alternative medicines. Everyone at the field had told her to just take me to the ER, get a Cortisone shot, and get it over with. But that hadn’t felt right to her, or to me, someone who is incredibly [and embarrassingly] terrified of shots. Cortisone would merely cover up the pain, not fix it. Plus I’d probably pass out from fear [wouldn’t be the first time] and that would do absolutely no good. So my mother’s search had led us here, to this little office that looked like a summer cottage from the outside, but was filled with soft-spoken, kind people and pictures of athletes on the walls.
I was face down on a little adjustment table, and Dr. Chilton had just cracked and stretched the bones and muscles in my back. I felt a little dizzy and a little weak, but when I sat up, I could reach forward and almost touch my toes. I felt like a new person.
“You should be alright,” he said, patting me gently on the shoulder. “But your muscles are very tight. You really need to stretch.”
My mother nodded, her short curly hair bobbing up and down. I looked down at my softball socks. There was a hole in the left big toe. I felt like crying.
“Here,” Dr. Chilton said, handing me a packet of paper. “These are some stretches I want you to do every day. You come back in tomorrow and I’ll readjust you, stretch, and then massage. You should be good to play by Wednesday.”
He smiled at me, and I studied him. He had a kind face, with a smile that reached to his cheeks, and a white mustache and goatee that made him look familiar, like an uncle or a distant relative. Earlier, I’d learned that he’d gotten in a car crash at age 19. That accident had paralyzed him from the waist down and completely changed his life. I didn’t know much else about him, but that fact alone made me love him, and trust him completely. And he was true to his word: by Wednesday, I was on the mound.
Featured Image Credit: LiveScience.