I’ve been having lower back trouble for a few months now. Well, to tell the truth, for about the last year or so. I would extend my back too far backward in bed while stretching in the morning (you know, that weird, tense writhing that most of us do when we wake up) or while lifting weights, and pain would shoot throughout my lower back the way that I imagine it would feel to actually take a chair to the back during a WWE match. From there it would be sore for days, keeping me from exercise, flights of stairs, or just general movement like I was someone under the age of 85. Truly awful. The most frustrating thing about it was that I never had a clue where it came from or what exactly I did to trigger it. I would stretch this way and that, yoga, pilates moves, feng shui, but nothing seemed to help. It would just generally go away so long as I didn’t contort myself too hard getting out of the bed in the morning.

This went on for most of the last year–me living in perpetual fear that one wrong move would send me into all-too-real agony after taking the metaphorical chair to the back. I finally broke down this spring and went to a doctor. As it turned out, one of my discs were likely bulging out, the way a jelly donut would if you stepped on one end, and this was putting pressure on the nerves in my spine. The doc gave me some muscle relaxers and anti-inflammatories, both of which I almost immediately stopped taking because they made me feel like someone was gently holding two-thirds of my face underwater. Minus the drowning part. Mostly.

Before you tsk-tsk me, I have the predilection to avoid the doctor at all costs. It’s absurd, really. Both of my parents are physicians, and I have many fond (and some not so fond) memories of hanging out a clinic while Mom and/or Papi worked. In no way is a medical office a hostile place for me. In fact, that slightly sterile smell with the cold lighting and industrial carpet or tile feels like home. Or at least like your preferred home bathroom. I think my distance stems more from a certain level of distrust, knowing that my parents, who are wonderful human beings and excellent doctors, were never 100 percent on diagnosing us kids growing up. There was a lot of “well, it is probably” or “it might be” when pinpointing and treating our ailments. So I wasn’t keen on some recent med grad being able to do much better. In all likelihood though, it is just good ole fashioned mule-like obstinance on my part.

My back, however, gave no fucks about obstinance or med grads. I stretched one morning in bed and was seized by WWE chair-pain, except now it felt like I was also getting kicked in the kidneys and had a cattle prod being shoved in my leg. I just lay there motionless hoping for the pain to subside, wondering if cows have to take a minute after being prodded. The rest of the day was spent gingerly walking around, attempting to stretch the cattle prod away along plenty of medication to ensure that molasses feeling helped suffocate it. Oh, and I helped my brother move his girlfriend out of her apartment. But I digress.

At this point, I finally broke down, accepted my old-person fate, and went to a physical therapist (something the doctor had recommended in the first instance). I trust the idea of physical therapy even less than the doctor’s office, with a somewhat different reason–the median age seems to be about 63. However, after the initial round of PT and a week-long motorcycle trip, things were markedly better. Apparently, the gentle jostle of sitting on a cruiser for 8 hours a day does wonders for a bulging jelly donut. On a Friday morning, I returned to the small brick building with its yellow walls, unimaginative carpet, and weights and treadmills and machines that do god-only-knows-what organized around the edges of the room. My PT assistant strode across the room and greeted me. We’ll call him Hanz. Hanz was at least six inches taller than me, with boyish good looks, a smile that indicated he could run for office, and arms that expanded into the edges of his shirt all the way around.

On a Friday morning, I returned to the small brick building with its yellow walls, unimaginative carpet, and weights, treadmills and machines that do god-only-knows-what organized around the edges of the room. My PT assistant strode across the room and greeted me. We’ll call him Hanz. Hanz was at least six inches taller than me, with boyish good looks, a smile that indicated he could run for office, and arms that expanded into the edges of his shirt all the way around. You couldn’t fit a piece of paper in there if you soaped and shaved it first.

He got me to warm up on a stationary bike whose difficulty setting was a little too hill-like for me, but as it turns out, was on the lowest possible setting. As I was trying to maintain my nonchalant lawyer look by not breathing heavily or sweating, Hanz naturally introduced conversation into the mix, specifically about my occupation, since it was already apparent what he did for a living. I told him I was an immigration attorney, which generally prompts one of two responses from people– 1) “Oh, that’s, uh, that’s nice” or 2) “Really? I bet that’s a tough gig right now.” I’ll let you decide which one indicates that the person feels about immigrants the way I feel about musicals (hint: I’ve never, ever, attended one).

Hanz fell into the latter category. As we transitioned between exercises I related to him the account of a newly-minted 18-year-old I had accompanied to an ICE (immigration police) check-in early that morning to ask them to give him another year in the country to wrap up high school. The kid had never been in trouble with the police, had stayed in school and worked hard to overcome the language barrier. The officer decided to review the request and let him depart that day to return another, but told me that, frankly, under the new administration, she was not hopeful. This came as neither a shock or even a surprise. In fact, I was far more shocked that our boy got to leave that day at all.

But this information plastered a look of utter disbelief on Hanz’s face. “Really?” mouth gaped open, handsome brow furrowed. “They would really take him away even though he’s in school and hasn’t done anything wrong?” I just nodded with my lips pursed and eyebrows raised, a signature look inherited from my mother. In between exercises, while still trying to balance a ball overhead or kneeling and swinging a weighted cable across my body, I answered Hanz’s questions about the functionality, or lack thereof, of the immigration system, how families can be kept apart for decades waiting for visas, or the fact that many of the immigration judges used to work for ICE as attorneys.

He had no idea. And why would he? As a citizen, it’s a process that one never has to come into contact with if you don’t want to. Amidst the discussion I also gently disclosed my own struggles with maintaining the faith in fighting for the cause, and that ultimately, the daily tragedy was becoming too much to bear. Starting to feel a little self-conscious about the growing level of pity I sensed pooling around my ankles, I decided to change the subject and explore Hanz’s existence, since it seemed like a nice PT job would offer a more positive outlook on life. I was simultaneously right and wrong. Hanz thoroughly enjoyed doing PT work with people (and given his charm and bicep size, I’m sure many enjoyed working with him) and maybe one day would go to the doctorate level. He and his wife were also in the process of adopting a baby of 17 months, which I eagerly congratulated him for, as this seemed like a high point in our otherwise dismal discussion thus far.

Only a half-truth, as it turns out. As I inquired into the length of time until the process would be over, Hanz gently related that they were waiting for all of the appeals to be finalized for the mother’s parental rights to be terminated. The little boy had been in foster care most of his life with Hanz and his wife. They had sat through the termination hearing. All of it. Having worked on a couple of appeals regarding termination of parental rights, I knew that the circumstances regarding the removal of children from their parents almost always involved extreme poverty and sometimes horrifying living conditions. I also knew that parents almost always lost appeals, so Hanz and his wife were likely the new, permanent installments in this little boy’s childhood pictures.

Now, the irony is not lost on me that the same judicial and legislative system that is largely stacked against poor immigrants, like my client that morning at ICE, mirrors the system (albeit a different process) that was allowing Hanz to adopt this baby boy. I lay on the exercise stand, trying not to appear in cardiac distress while completing the remaining sets.The same weight of despair that I had clutched every day for the last long while felt as heavy as the ball I clutched overhead and lowered past my head, again and again, growing heavier with each repetition. I have struggled with that weight much longer than my back has had the cattle pain or jelly donut squeezing, and I have even contemplated whether it was time to put the weight down altogether.

I don’t think any similar thoughts crossed Hanz’s mind as he jovially told me that next time would probably be our last session since my back seemed to have improved tremendously. “See you next week!” he said as I departed, slightly sweating, still trying to muffle my heavy breathing, and still feeling the twinges of despair. Whether I continued in this struggle or not, families were going to separated, for better or for worse. The system would continue to work for some and not others.

At least my back feels better.

Originally published at millren.wordpress.com on July 2, 2017.