She is 84, but she will tell you she’s 49.
I met Bert my first day at the rehabilitation gym in November 2014. She stands five feet four inches and weighs 99 pounds with her shoes on. She was on her tenth training program, which meant she had been working out for over a year.
My showing up at a fitness center especially for people recovering from serious accidents and operations assured me that I’d have things in common with patrons. But, I doubted I’d encounter anyone who had received two new jaw joints. Even the staff hadn’t worked with a history like mine before.
So, I arrived feeling vulnerable and afraid of hurting myself. I desperately wanted to strengthen muscles weakened from surgery and years of misalignment from jaw to toes, but my ability to differentiate workout pain from damaging pain felt tenuous. I had pushed through physical restrictions for many of my 50 years, adopting the “suck it up, Buttercup” philosophy and felt committed to doing this process differently - slowly and carefully. But how? What did that look like in a rehabilitation gym environment? This was completely new to me.
And then Bert arrived. I observed her confidently approach her trainer and give an overview. “My hip is a little tight today and my shoulder hurts. I’m not sure what I did to it but it aches.” No whining. A simple update and then onto the workout. Later I heard her stating that a particular movement didn’t feel good. With the activity adjusted slightly she finished strong and without incident.
Note to self. Reporting how my body feels and how it is responding to the demands of particular movement and exercise is beneficial. Clearly I could learn much from Bert, so I kept watching.
Bert admits that she does everything fast, something I observed as she whipped dumbbells up to her bicep and back down as if extinguishing a fire on her upper arm. She raced the stationary bike with vigor worthy of the Tour de France yellow jersey. And apparently she flies around her house, too. Well, she used to.
One day at home she picked up a wet carpet from her deck and quickly shoved her feet into slippers as she hoisted the soppy mat. On her way to the garage she grabbed a bag of insulation she had earlier stuffed. Why make two trips? Somewhere between the step down and the slip-on shoes she lost her grip and hit the concrete floor hip first, cracking the ball of the joint. “But if it wasn’t for the bag of insulation, I would have broken my arm and maybe my shoulder, too. God was looking out for me,” she declared--not a surprising view from a woman of faith.
And so she ended up in rehabilitation to strengthen her injured leg and catch the vision for increasing bone density through weight-bearing exercise. And can she bear weight! For months I watched this sprite hoist a barbell with poundage I only dreamed of lifting. And she does it with flare.
When a trainer handed Bert a metal bar with an elongated M-shape and asked her to curl it up to her chest she brightly replied, “Time to wrestle the steer." And if she isn’t pushing her butt far enough back in a squat the trainer will remind her to, to which she often says, “Oh right, you want me to sit in my pants.” When told it is burpee time she politely responds, “Excuse me, I need to go burp.” I now also “feed the chickens” with a cable-pull like her and we’ve even “chopped wood” together.
In my early gym days the anesthetic fog from my eight-hour surgery messed with my memory so I repeatedly asked how many reps to do or which leg to extend with which arm. One day, my face must have shown my embarrassment when I got wrong the foot/hand combination, again. Bert grinned and said, “Don’t worry. Just use your other left foot.”
Inspired by this spry woman’s approach I tentatively found my way with new training programs among unfamiliar machines and safely pushed my body beyond any goal I’d dreamed possible. I’ve seen her pedal a bike hard to the target distance and slump over the handlebars breathing heavily, accepting her exhaustion, then pop her head up with a smile and announce, “Okay, I’m ready for the next thing.” She often catches my eye and winks asking, “We’re having fun, aren’t we?” Yes, indeed we are. Who knew exercise could be such a delight?
Each Thursday I watch the door as I begin my routine in hope that Bert will trot in sporting her black Lulu Lemon-style tights, gray sweatshirt, lightly salted black hair styled perfectly and two gold chains around her neck. She isn’t afraid to show up with rings on two fingers, one symbolizing her 53-year marriage and the other just because it’s lovely. Her pretty bracelet jangles over her practical watch. I suspect the gym is not the only place this classy woman is hardworking.
Sometimes Bert forgets her hearing aid which hinders our treadmill conversations, but she’s not shy to ask for a repeat if I’m not speaking loudly enough. We agree it best to hold onto the rails while talking since neither of us want to be that person who sails off the end of the track. She routinely asks about my children and I inquire of hers. And her grandchildren.
Once our shared warm-up is over we part ways and take up our individual programs. At times I sit on the stationary bike willing one leg to drive the pedal down. And then the other. I’m tempted to quit and say I’m too tired today. And then I look over and see Bert back on the treadmill, running. She has turned the pace up and could be rounding the third curve of an 800-meter race. Yes, I can push to my goal.
Sometime heroes wear capes and fly. Sometimes they perform great acts of rescue or service. And sometimes they simply show up in life, being who they are and inspiring others to be better human beings. When I grow up, I want to be just like Bert.
With love and gratitude,
In The Midst