With the theme "Physical" of our latest issue, which appeared in February '23, we received numerous submissions, which we unfortunately could not publish all due to limited number of pages. Nevertheless, we do not want to withhold a few selected treasures from you and therefore start a small series on our blog with the title "Physically", in order to feel this topic a bit more and to let the train of thought slowly fade away.
by Caroline Bühler
My leg first became cold on a generic July afternoon. The ringing in my head clouded the crinkling shower-curtain being slapped in arbitrary directions with each new gush of water. My body was crooked, hanging over the shower ledge at the point of impact — split in two. My eyes slowly opened, noting after a beat that my naked upper-body laid on the cold bathroom tiles, droplets of water prickling my skin as the overturned shower head came into view. I didn’t feel the physical pain yet, only the realisation that my left side was at odds with the rest of my body. The loss of control hurt more than any bones breaking. Uncontrolled sobs spilled out, not because I was in pain, but because the loneliness hit me — no other person in sight, only the cold bathroom tiles. I laid there, shivering and gradually feeling the bathroom filling up with water as it meandered
beneath my faulty body.
The majority of me could feel the droplets soak my skin — occasionally twitching as goosebumps cracked through my epidermis, shivers crawling over me as the pain slowly seeped in. But a part of me was no longer there. A lifeless region, starting from the left side of my belly button and running down my leg. It was stuck in limbo, unable to respond to the growing plea my severed spine formulated into agony, begging me to turn off the still-running water.
My hands fumbled and slipped over the soaked bathroom tiles, my legs sliding off the shower ledge with a thud before awkwardly reaching to turn off the handle. A single thought ran through my head: “Twenty three years old is such a stupid age for this shit to happen”. Drenched in the heartbreak that the point of impact was what decided it all; waking up on cold bathroom tiles, with no warning nor time to say goodbye.
In the beginning, it was easier to pretend that what was gone had never left for good; delusions that it would come back mending the frustration of limping from my desk to my fridge and needing to order my groceries instead of walking to the store. The concussion erased that July afternoon from consciousness, but one thought never left: I didn’t want to care about it. The broken spine was transformed into a silly accident, lapses of memory from the concussion were justified as fatigue, and the unresponsive leg became a temporary separation. The cold bathroom tiles would soon become a ludicrous memory of a generic July afternoon, one to tell friends over drinks and laugh at the ridiculousness that haphazardly running soap down your body could make the world slip beneath your feet.
Reality caught up soon enough, keeping me up at night with throbbing pain needling the part that was gone. Ironically waking up enough sensations to remind me of what used to be, only to leave as abruptly as it had come. It loomed behind corners, waiting for the perfect opportunity to poke fun at me in the form of unexpected twitches, mocking my forced attempts back to normalcy.
I both craved to vocalise the pain, yet feared that the part that was gone would monopolise each conversation. An invisible hand tightened around my chest each time someone from the outside offered advice, guilt-ridden by the frustration that their well-meant words only reminded me of what was gone. I tried exercise to rebuild the few muscles that remained responsive, I tried not-
focusing on the pain in order to de-dramatise the situation, I tried massaging the area to de-contract the muscles. I tried.
The advice meant that they cared, but the words unintentionally pushed me further under the surface, as if I was not doing enough to get better. I had never imagined how lonely it would feel to sit in a room full of people suggesting self-help tips and gym classes to attend, unable to vocalise that I didn’t want advice, I just wanted what was gone to come back. The pain wasn’t simply something that exercise or massages could mend — it was the pain that a part of me was lost on that July afternoon, and I would inevitably have to come to terms with the fact that I wouldn’t get it back. It was pain that only I could feel. Only I had lost this part of me that day. Only I could make peace with it.
Two weeks passed before another world — this time, lodged in the center of my chest — crashed. One single phone call was all it took to transform the cold shower tiles into the silly tale I had desperately tried to craft for myself. A gut wrenching pit draining me from within before filling up with all the stinging love I had kept all these years for a single person, not knowing what to do with it now that my uncle was gone. His death was not as unexpected as that July afternoon. The doctors had said he wouldn’t live past the end of the summer. But no amount of time I had to prepare could have made that phone call hurt any less.
My mother had already asked my brother and I to book a bus ticket from Munich to Marseille to see him one last time. Most people still can’t believe it when I share the tales of enduring a 15 hour bus ride with a broken back and half a leg missing. I wasn’t a “badass” or “highly tolerant to pain”. I was heartbroken.
My brother was already inside, looking for our seats, while I smoked a cigarette in front of the bus. The traditional Corsican songs my uncle loved abruptly cut out from the earbuds, replaced with Siri announcing my mother’s call. The onslaught of emotions and thoughts crashing together cannot be rationalised into words. My eyes fell heavy, but my body let go of its weakness.
Immediately standing straight on what had once been wobbly legs, succumbing to the realisation that I needed to swim back to the surface and escape the introspective sulking that had permeated my thoughts for the past two weeks.
My brother wanted to cry alone. Turning away from me, his hood pulled down to mask his face as his forehead rested against the window. I looked straight ahead, playing a song my friend had sent me after I gave out the news, the relaxing beats cradling me as I hit replay long enough to finally fall asleep.
The tears reminded me of waking up on those cold shower tiles. My brother and I, together in the loneliness, two specks of dust picked apart from the rest of the bus, thrown into a world that separated us from the giggling tourists excitedly planning their beachside afternoons and touring downtown cafés. Trapped on the bus intended to see him one last time, the tears dripping from my chin, meandering down my sweater, unable to turn off the shower handle.
The loneliness was different. The grief was split into a multitude of fragments, collectively interlaced with those whose world had split in two, carefully keeping those on the outside at bay. The outside people, those I hurt by keeping at arm’s length, unsure how to fit them into my life now that I had this gaping hole in my chest — the sudden extra room in my heart, vacant of my uncle’s physical presence, yet overflowing with traces of the past.
A few days after the outlandish bus ride, I was looking at my uncle’s lifeless body at the funeral home, trying to ignore his yellow skin and deformed mouth. Desperate to find the perfect angle to find the uncle who passionately discussed politics with us, insisted on going on his sailboat despite being wheelchair-bound as the cancer progressed, sitting on the family-home terrace and listening to his tales of living in a cave for weeks in protest against my grandparents during the
1968 riots. His body scared me. It wasn’t him.
I felt dirty that day. I ran out of the funeral home once they started locking his casket in preparation for his incineration. I was supposed to be there until the very end. My body slammed into the bench outside of the funeral home, my lungs hiccuping for air. His body, while lifeless and disfigured, had been enough to temporarily avoid giving a proper goodbye. I hated myself for leaving him, the screws twisting into the wood, permanently locking him in.
After the incineration, we stayed under the same roof as we let the grief sink in. Night-time were my favourite moments. The charred star-dotted sky contrasted the oppressive day-time heat, unable to cool down in the nearby Mediterranean — the water, at times, warmer than the air. When the sun disappeared behind the coastline was when we escaped the guts of our home. We sighed in relief at the night-time breeze blowing the heat away from our faces, some of us lounging in reclining chairs and reading under the front-door lamp while others sipped rosé and alternated between laughter and tears as they shared stories of my uncle. It was nice. The void held us all under water, but we shared the space together.
The cold bathroom tiles only resurfaced when I was alone. The treacherous moments nobody saw but me; trying to find a comfortable sleep-position in the mattress-filled room we engineered, my hands gripping the wall as I limped to the second floor, wincing each time I drove my mother’s manual car and had to press down on the gear-shifting pedal. The lonely moments, those I couldn’t share with my family, reminded me of the pain I had to harbour by myself. I never
forgot about my uncle, but I couldn’t help the overwhelming guilt-ridden selfishness that, during those moments, he slipped from my mind for a beat.
We couldn’t keep ourselves cut off from the world forever. Eventually, each of us had to return to the lives we had before my uncle was ripped from it. My brother had to return to Munich to work on his PhD, my parents had to go back to work, my little cousin’s school-year started up again. One by one, the family-house emptied out until there was no one left but the urn sitting the piano mantle. Each of us moved back into our respective homes, separating us once more. Floating
to the surface couldn’t be avoided forever, but I didn’t want to go back to the cold shower tiles.
I decided to stay, at least until the end of my semester break. What was meant to be a two-week stay became three months. My leg became an invisible weakness. I didn’t want it any other way. I refused to talk about it, thinking it was a speck of dust only meant to be seen through the lens of an occasional stray of sunlight. My broken spine was harder to hide; trying to keep visible winces to a minimum, engineering chairs with scarves and pillows, forewarning friends and family not to hug me too tight. Looking from the outside, the severed spine mattered more than the leg. With a prognosis of giving up combat sports and running indefinitely and not being able to carry items over fifteen kilograms for a year, my leg seemed like the lesser of two evils. But the doctors confirmed these were temporary losses. What they couldn’t confirm, was whether the loss of
sensation in my leg would come back with the same certainty as being able to carry laundry baskets again someday.
When my parents were away at work, I invited my cousins over for tea. We’d sit in the garden, running through conversations about the lives that had awaited us at the surface, before inevitably plunging back underwater and reminiscing about my uncle. When they’d ask about my injury, I made sure to keep my reassuring smile convincing enough that I could keep that grief to
When it wasn’t tea-time with my cousins, I planned activities with my parents to show them that heartbreak could find its place in their lives; running through all the Bruce Willis films with my father, going downtown with my mother to eat tajine at the Vieux Port, accompanying them on their evening runs and sitting on a beachside bench when I got too tired from walking. The breaking point that had been frozen in time could find its place in the lives they had at the surface.
Sometimes we spontaneously cried halfway through “Die Hard”, and on some days they joined me on the beachside bench — the heaviness in their hearts too overwhelming to put one foot in front of the other — before going back to running once they had breathed out the weight of the world.
At times, I felt like a fraud for trying to guide my family, showing them that my uncle wouldn’t become a forgotten relic of the past as the world moved forward. I believed everything I said, but it was easier to convincingly help my family grieve if I kept myself on the outside. When it came to the grief that remained from that generic July afternoon, I couldn’t take on the role of an outsider, overwhelmed by the void pulling me further underwater.
What was gone would never fully come back, but I found replacement limbs. My hands gripped onto stair railings to prop me up, we put a stool in the shower for me to sit, my parents’ arms would loop with mine for me to put weight on when walking, I slept in lounging chairs because lying down was too painful. It wasn’t perfect, but it filled the void enough to appear functional. Enough to ease the weight of the grief, allowing me to slowly work through it while regaining control of my life.
I was more comfortable than in my feeble student apartment in Munich. Sleep was no longer reduced to a few hours of occasionally dozing off, tears no longer threatened to spill from my waterline after each menial task, my foot no longer dragged across the floor each time I walked. I was healing.
On good days, the replacement limbs kept me sturdy enough that I could temporarily forget that there was something missing. On an early-September morning, I found myself listening to music and carelessly dancing as I folded laundry. I escaped long enough to experience what used to be basic abilities for me in the past. Those replacement limbs had given me access to what I could
be doing now, had I not woken up on those cold bathroom tiles on a July afternoon.
On that September morning, time had frozen, the gears abruptly halting, allowing me to come up for air and breathe. Before I was inevitably plunged back into reality, I admired the beautiful simplicity of what I had once taken for granted. I wanted to pluck those few seconds above water from my mind, and tuck them neatly away, comforted in knowing that what was gone hadn’t vanished, it simply went somewhere else.
On bad days, the few seconds above water did nothing to comfort me; frustrated and greedy that I couldn’t get more. Angry that this had happened to me, angry that others could stand up without fearing that they might topple over, angry that my leg couldn’t handle tasks I had once thought of as basic — angry that, the more time passed, those on the outside slowly began moving on and forgetting about the void I was reminded of every day.
Soon enough, what would remain of that July afternoon would be myself and those cold bathroom tiles. I hated myself for the resentment, fearing that what was gone had in fact monopolised my entire personality. On those days, barricading myself away from the world seemed easier than zoning out during conversations and thinking of nothing other than what was gone. I wanted to care about others — I did care about others — but the unabashedly honest part of me knows that, on bad days, I didn’t have it in me to care about them with this void draining my thoughts.
I didn’t lose sight of the ones I left behind in Munich, text chains and daily phone calls nurturing a baseline connection. But they didn’t get it. I resented them for it at first, but quickly learned that it was better if they couldn’t relate to the pain. It meant they weren’t stuck in the same void I tried to claw myself out of. They kept me afloat, sharing stories of playing flunky ball at the Englischer Garten and raging about the city’s lack of air-conditioned buildings. I could only register
half of the information, too focused on the worlds I tried to put back together. But it was enough to remind me that not all of it had crashed beneath my feet.
With October approaching, I needed to start planning my departure from Marseille. My parents and I tried to cram a lifetime of memories into a weekend. My father cooked my favourite childhood foods, I held onto my mother’s forearm as we walk up the Marseille hills to admire the coastline, friends and family members came together for the apérétif as we discussed my return over
tapenade-struck-bread. Anything to remind me that I wasn’t leaving their world. I was simply temporarily going somewhere else.
I remember arriving at Hauptbahnhof and diving into a sea of German-speakers. I stopped at a store on my way home and accidentally said “Ciao,” to the cashier on my way out. I was in a different world — cast aside from the late-night chats with my cousin on my uncle’s balcony chain-smoking cigarettes and drinking beer in between sobs, sleeping beneath the warm August sky on a garden lounging chair, re-adjusting to Northern-Marseille lingo when I spoke to the dealers at the top of my street. Munich was a world I had practically forgotten about, had it not been for the outside people keeping me on tracks.
I was petrified, as I stood in front of the door that kept me separated from those cold shower tiles, changed by the three months that separated me from the life I needed to inevitably confront. I called my mother, heavily breathing as I unlocked the door. In my head, it was meant to be a dramatic return, but the cold shower tiles were menial at best. The big monster laying under my bed that I had materialised in my mind was, in fact, nothing after all. A part of me was disappointed.
Being back hurts. Not because of the cold shower tiles. But because I still don’t know how to mend the void when I’m in my feeble student apartment in Munich. I feel like a burden for asking people to walk slower, guilty when I have to shift in my seat once again in the span of two minutes, scared when I’m alone and realise there’s no one to come get me if I fall over.
I had an MRI in late-November, to check on my spine. I spoke to my mother shortly beforehand. She said, “Close your eyes and think of what makes you feel safe”. I thought of my uncle, and how I needed the time off from the cold shower tiles when I was focused on his loss. I spent thirty minutes in the machine, running back memories of the three months I spent in another world, noting the ache gradually escaping me the more I thought of him. One void to replace another, I guess.
They said the scanner images look good. I should be eligible to physical therapy for the partial monoplegia. I might get a part of myself back. Or not. We’ll see. Either way, as a good friend once said to me: “It is what it is”. It annoyed me when he first started saying that, until I understood what he meant. I lost quite a few things in those months, voids I haven’t been able to patch up yet,
and probably never will be able to. The pain is there to remind me, keeping me angry on certain days at what used to be, yet comforting me when I’m lying in my darkened bedroom, staring at the ceiling as if it could whisper secrets. I hate the pain, but it gradually fills the void. In the end, the pain doesn’t have to be bad all the time.
My friend was right. It is what it is.
is a Munich-based writer who grew up in Marseille and Canada. She primarily writes non-fiction. Currently, her focus has been set on sharing life-stories that touch on “loneliness” in its various forms. In the summer of 2022, Caroline both broke her spine and lost her uncle, which is the focus of this piece.