Todd Balf on adapting to disability, living in turbulent times, and the benefits of being stubborn

In Open Book - Scribd Originals by The Editors

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In 2015, writer Todd Balf was diagnosed with chordoma, a rare spinal cancer. Two grueling surgeries to remove the tumor left him partially paralyzed—an unexpected outcome that surprised even his doctors. Balf, a peripatetic athlete who was happiest when on a bike, spent years trying to regain full use of his legs. Then came another surgery, this one to repair broken support rods in his spine. Then came a stroke. Balf writes about his astoundingly star-crossed medical odyssey in the Scribd Original Complications. In this exclusive interview with his longtime colleague and editor Laura Hohnhold, Balf talks about adjusting to life with a disability and shows that, despite everything, his sense of humor remains fully intact.

HOHNHOLD: Todd, you and I go way back, to when we were young pup editors at Outside magazine. So much has happened since, especially to you personally, and in just the last handful of years. Without question, you’ve been through the wringer. What are some of the things you’ve learned?

BALF: We do go way back. As I recall, you were the mastermind behind my mock Outside cover going-away gift. I believe you wrote the cover line “Balfing: hoops, hummus, and a laugh like a harp seal.” That cover is still on the wall in my barn office, or was until squirrels invaded and began poking holes in the plaster.

Have I sufficiently avoided the question? I’ve learned to expect changes day to day. Physical, emotional. I don’t have any epiphanies. I know I find joy in doing anything I didn’t think I could do. I remind myself to ask “Can I do this?” and not to assume my disability disqualifies me from even mundane tasks. Could I create a workaround to transport trash, prune a peach tree, train a puppy? One highly active paralyzed friend had a laudable “try before July” conceit which included everything except maybe sled hockey. I think I’ve learned to keep my imagination engaged. Weird ideas entertain me, and I seem to have them in abundance.

Both your career as a writer and your life as an athlete have changed dramatically since you were diagnosed with chordoma. Which has been the harder adjustment—redefining your working life or your sporting life? How so?

Spontaneity, for better or worse, had always been my thing. A friend likes to tell the story of stopping at my house one day and finding the car door open, assorted half-done projects scattered about the driveway, and me nowhere to be found. I had raced away to grab a bike ride before my wife, Patty, came home and I had to pick up the kids from day care. That kind of spontaneity I miss. Writing-wise, I feel spontaneous to a dangerous degree. For the first time, I wake up wanting to write about things nobody has paid me to cover. I just trust that if I’m jazzed about a story, it will find a home. My sporting life is, on balance, far more impacted. However, Patty recently called me out on something that came in the mail: a detailed map of the Colorado portion of the TransAmerica bike route. I had to confess to scheming a future expedition.

What’s an average day look like? Feel free to discuss wardrobe choices.

This will get embarrassing. I am now woken up by two pandemic rescue cats brought from New York City by my daughter, Celia. Each takes turns on my chest at daybreak, sweet-seeming and all but really just encouraging me to get up and feed them.

Most mornings, I find my way to the barn office, where I have been recently distracted by found files of stories never published. I wonder what happened. Journalists can’t abide their bad writing being wasted.

I write in the mornings, then I do research and work on my favorite pandemic project: digitally archiving my late artist father’s thousands of paintings. His paintings are a special escape. They’re vibrant, colorful, and center on his passions—jazz, landscapes, and lobsters. Most afternoons, I ride my adaptive three-wheeled bike. I recently wrote a travel story for The New York Times about my surprising love affair with it and how I used one to re-create a pioneering ladies’ trike ride around Boston’s North Shore done in the 1880s. Some of us dressed in period costume.

Oh yeah, you asked what I was wearing. Picture Coach Ken Reeves in any episode of the Eighties series The White Shadow. Jock wear, I’m afraid. I am not going to be mistaken for Tom Wolfe.

How did you come to write Complications?

I did a lot of searching for books that would speak to me and my experience. There were some good ones: Laurence Gonzales’s Deep Survival, Christopher Reeves’s memoir, and the Norman Cousins’s self-empowerment classic Anatomy of an Illness. But none of them quite fit with my experience. My friends kept telling me somebody should write about me. I decided to do it instead.

What do you hope people take away from Complications?

Obviously, a lot of people struggle. A quarter of the populace has some sort of disability. We are the way we are until we are not. A friend who is a climber recently encountered a mysterious chronic neuro condition preventing him from climbing and running. His family encouraged him to pursue nonphysical things, adapt—he was having none of it. He became pretty depressed. It impacted everyone. He reminded me of me. I hope if I can make inroads in adapting—I’m known for being stubborn—others can, too. I think there are a lot of regular people feeling and thinking things that don’t square with self-help books or victory memoirs. We have moments, good and bad. We can fall on our face wielding a weed whacker and belly laugh then suddenly start howling. That’s the truth.

You’ve written three acclaimed adventure books and a biography of Major Taylor, America’s first Black cycling hero. How do you think your illness and recovery, combined with the global pandemic and other seismic events, might inform your work in the future? 

“I don’t know” is the quick answer. I guess I’m a little frustrated not being on the streets to protest, but in reality, my worth isn’t there but hopefully in telling impactful narrative stories. A week ago, I went to the Beverly [Massachusetts] Historical Society archives with a mask and special gloves to research the story of Juno Larcom, a local woman who sued her Massachusetts “master” in superior court because he was planning to sell her children to a slave owner down south. Looking at the documents—her statement in court and a bill of sale for her eleven-year-old child—was shocking. I’m also working on a more personal story about a young man, a refugee from Sierra Leone, whose life has been intertwined with mine for the past ten years, beginning when I was a soccer team parent manager. His arrest as an eleven-year-old, in which he appeared shackled and handcuffed in court, was deeply upsetting. The juvenile court system in this country is broken. His recovery from that experience, to become a master’s student in religion and philosophy at Harvard this year, has been amazing to watch—and learn from.

You’re a big fan of the show Hamilton and listened to the soundtrack a lot during rehab. How about a similar adaptation? Complications: The Musical. I think it could take off.

If Larry David can make Fatwa! The Musical, I see no reason why not. Note to producers: I cannot carry a tune, so plan accordingly!

Complications by Todd Balf

Lifelong jock Todd Balf’s life seismically changed when he was diagnosed with a rare spinal cancer, and this frank account of his long medical misadventure is both moving and surprisingly full of joy. A Scribd Original, Complications is as much a chronicle of surviving a physical catastrophe as it is a meditation on finding the balance between striving to recover and accepting one’s limitations.
Read ‘Complications’ by Todd Balf
Todd Balf’s Scribd Original, Complications, is currently available to read in full on Scribd. It’s also available as an audiobook.
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