A Natural History: Steven Wolfe


A Natural History Of My Right Anterior Cruciate Ligament

By Steven Wolfe


1. Our friend the ACL:

The anterior cruciate ligament is one of the two ligaments deep inside your knee that cross and hold the joint tightly. The ACL keeps your knee from locking when the leg is straight and from moving forward and backward under stress.

This ligament has an interesting property: if it’s torn, it can’t heal. A torn ligament flopping around inside your joint could cause terrible damage, so when the ACL rips it shrinks and dissolves into your synovial fluid. Then, for the rest of your natural life (and after, if you become a zombie), you have a so-called “trick knee.” (See figure 1.)

Fig. 1

My ACL has dissolved. In its place is a dead stranger’s Achilles tendon, trimmed to fit and secured by two plastic screws drilled into the bones of my leg.  (See figure 2.)

Fig. 2


2. If you’d like to have a corpse-tendon of your own someday, here’s how to go about getting one:

  • ·whittle it down a few hairs at a time

1972 – 82: Play basketball on the school’s cement playground, in leather-soled shoes for some reason. Go in for a lay-up. Your right foot slips out from under you. Curl into a ball on the ground, hold your knee and rock in agony.

Repeat five times over the course of a decade.

By age 21 both knees will creak like an old wooden floor when you rise out of bed.

  • ·don’t give up — it’s hanging by a thread

1984: Heavenly Valley, CA; Perfect conditions, new skis. Two feet of dry powder over a seven-foot base. Wouldn’t it be awesome to jump that ledge down there? Go ahead. What’s the worst that can happen?

Curl up in etc.

Repeat as often as possible. You’re still young, dude. Go for it!

1992: Garden of the Gods, CO. Perfect weather, new tires on the bike. Dry slickrock, snowcapped Pike’s Peak looming far above. The trail courses down between boulders and over sandstone platforms, through hairpins, dropouts and fluffy copper-toned dirt. I’ll bet you can get down it without once touching your brakes. That knobby rubber grips anything, for sure.

  • ·the slave behind Caesar whispers: Remember, thou art mortal

2008: Mandalay Beach, Oxnard, CA.

POV: Me.

Age: 40s — never you mind which ones.

A crystalline California morning, dolphins cruising just offshore. There’s a vicious riptide and pounding shorebreak. But I’m a California boy, I know this beach, and after a year of the Gulf Coast I need to clean my pipes out. We’re going.

My ten-year-old daughter and I dive through the break and glide into the calm water behind, bobbing happily up and down. She’s never been out this far. Sunlight sparkles, the Channel Islands gleam on the horizon. A swell rolls in, we take deep breaths and let it flow over our heads. Another swell rises fast behind it. Inhale, duck, emerge. But the surf’s getting bigger. Can’t touch bottom. There’s yet another swell right on top of us. “I want to go back, “ she says, her voice tight.

I realize now we should not be out here. We could drown, not twenty yards from dry land. Look around — see how no one else is in the water? Never mess with the ocean. To get back to the beach we’ll have to plow through that zone where the waves are now smashing into the sand like fists, then fight the riptide as it tries to tear our feet out from under us.

She clings to me as we paddle along the surface, letting the current carry us forward. The wave rears up and explodes; I wrestle her through the backwash, bracing against the fierce current. Go, I murmur, and heave her forward. Her feet hit the beach and she gallops out of danger.

I’m half-turned when the next wave hammers against my legs. I can feel my right knee twist, just slightly, and a distinct pop! as something snaps inside.

I’ve washed up onto the dry sand, curled into that familiar ball. It doesn’t hurt, not yet. But any second –

It will be a year before I can comfortably walk down a flight of stairs again.


3. Tales of the Reconstruction:

  • ·At your first post-surgical visit with the doctor, you’ll remove your pants, then unhook and detach the brace, then unwrap the icepack, then peel down the compression stocking and feel a chill as you stare at the stitches. You have two joints that allow you to stand upright like a human being. One has had somebody poking around in it with metal tools while you were unconscious.

Near the end of the examination, the surgeon will glance at the MRIs and then manipulate your other knee — the good one — and raise his eyebrows in a very distressing way.

  • ·You’ll know what it’s like to limp with a cane, to groan and mutter every time you stand up out of a chair, to have young people hold the elevator door for you.
  • ·You’ll possess the world’s most sophisticated and expensive mechanized icepack.
  • ·Doctors in Los Angeles will want more than anything to prescribe you enormous amounts of Vicodin.

(I thought it was more than anyone needed. Then came the day when I slipped and fell off a stair. The joint swelled. I’d let the last dose of painkillers wear off. Slowly, steadily, each individual nerve began to vibrate, as if it were being scraped with a dentist’s steel plaque-pick.

I bargained with the Lord for relief. When that gorgeous opiate wave finally washed over me, of course, I forgot it all.)

  • ·One afternoon you’ll put your forsaken soccer cleats into the donation bag and drag it across the boulevard to the Salvation Army bin. As you cross back, the light will turn green and traffic will speed toward you.

Don’t run. They’ll slow and wait for you, the alte kacher hobbling to the curb.


Steven Wolfe is a pedibus usque ad caput not too bad. He rarely watches televison; parva scintilla saepe magnam flamam excitat. He writes, teaches, and warms himself in the bosom of his family. Dayenu. He wishes he was a member of AC/DC. (Abutebaris modo subjunctivo denuo. Sorry.)



“A Natural History of My Right Anterior Cruciate Ligament” is part of the Natural Histories Project. Click here to learn more >>


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