I don’t ordinarily post memoir pieces but I have written a lot of first-person material as writing exercises. I’m posting one such piece now to share a little bit about being a very young disabled child.
Because my memories go back to the age of three and no farther, it seems as if I came into existence as I was (just barely) walking with my mother, and occasionally my father, through the long hallways of Rochester’s Strong Memorial Hospital around 1969.
In the confusion about what was wrong with me — cerebral palsy atypical was their best guess and a misdiagnosis until I was 11 — it must have been a strange relief to the neurologists and orthopedists to come upon scoliosis, a particular problem, discrete and treatable.
Gretchen Lowe, age 35 at the 90’s midpoint, was not dying, as she was at pains to point out more frequently than she would have wished. She had muscular dystrophy, a distinction often lost on those who equated strength with muscle mass, consciousness with cognition, and worth with productivity. A growing chorus assumed this would be her preference, death before disability, rather than the indignity of grappling with that terminal condition from which the chorus-members, themselves imperfect, suffered: life that is both enviable and bleak, and always, always unfair in distribution of the same.
Like so many of her friends, Gretchen had swapped one coast for the other after college and she left DC, a city of increasingly impossible winters, lawyers, and three years of an uninteresting technical proofreader job, and moved to San Francisco, a city of manageable weather, bike messengers instead of lawyers, and apparently no editorial jobs. Five years in, she was the administrative director of a small free clinic for women and had cycled through four shared flats before the Recluse, her boyfriend, gave up his Pacific Heights studio and moved in, more or less, to Gretchen’s two-bedroom flat on a quiet street in Cole Valley.
Like ancient Rome, San Francisco was a city of hills and, with few exceptions, honored its dead by housing them firmly and in perpetuity outside its official boundaries. Gretchen lived and worked firmly within those boundaries, mostly because taking public transportation to and from work everyday took what limited energy she had. She did have an increasingly hard time breathing and walking, her grip was undeniably poor, her fingers lacking in dexterity, but she had an even harder time imagining herself dead, or wanting to be dead.
But she had no master plan, no Disability for Dummies to be her guide, just a lifetime of experience in a body that was weak, breathless, and clumsy, and getting more so year by year. So Gretchen did what was practical and what made life – her life, none other’s – worth living. She kept to the flatter parts of town, used the bathroom before she left home and work, and thought more about her next meal than eternity. In this last concern she had the unwavering support of her family; Gretchen did know how to find a decent restaurant.
She needed this particular skill on this particular evening because her mother, Alice, had flown in. Festive feelings aside, Gretchen had serious misgivings to broach, misgivings that were about a clinical research opportunity that divided them called “Genetic Reparative Therapy.”
When Alice had first excitedly called her daughter months before about GRT, Gretchen couldn’t bring herself to say a hard, “No.” She herself didn’t know exactly why she was flat-out rejecting this “cure” — or why she couldn’t tell Alice no. She’d certainly done it before.
It wasn’t until she burst into tears after half-watching an old Sally Field movie about a mother not leaving her daughter that the feelings coalesced within her as a single as-yet-unspoken fear: “I could be taken from you and you would never get me back.”
“I’m not really looking to change, Mom.”
“Your life could be easier if you didn’t have muscular dystrophy. What I would have given for this Genetic Reparative Therapy when you were little.”
Gretchen poured water in the coffee maker. “Yeah, I’m well aware that there’s a list out there of Lives That Suck and — of course! — my name is on it.”
Alice continued. “I can’t believe you would even consider not being part of this study.”
“Well, jeez, Mom, I have to consider not doing it.” Gretchen leaned against the counter. The machine hissed and steamed. “Remember when they wanted to fix my foot and didn’t mention they’d be removing half of it? Good thing we pressed for details on that one.”
“I have to live with the results of this experiment – I will be the result of this experiment. And I gotta tell you – just because something can be done is not necessarily a good enough reason to do it.”
Alice’s schoolteacher handwriting greeted Gretchen when she flipped through the mail that evening. It was a floridly pious Mother’s Day card with a letter enclosed. Her mother must have sent it right after Gretchen had called about the board meeting fiasco. Oh Alice, Gretchen snorted pleasurably. I couldn’t have picked a better card myself.
Underneath the card’s summary appreciation for maternal sacrifices, physical and emotional, Alice had written, “Thought you might like to see the enclosed item right now. I think it confirms that we are related. I cannot take credit for why you are who you are but I did have a hand in it. Then again, you were always a rotten child. Not that I had anything to do with that. Love, Mom.
The letter was her mother’s same handwriting. Cheered, Gretchen set to reading it. It was dated from May 1970 and addressed to a Desmond Wallace, Chair of Fundraising Operations for the National Cerebral Palsy Association. Oh dear.
As the West-Hesperidan Free Clinic’s Administrative Manager, Gretchen was the closest thing they had to fundraising staff now that their Director was on stress leave. She was supposed to represent the clinic at these house party things but here she was wandering on the edges, again, frankly worn out just from hauling herself in the door. Here was a question: Why does philanthropy so often require climbing stairs?
What is it like to live with a disability? What do I want other people — younger people — to know? What do I see ahead? What are the ethical boundaries for telling other people’s stories?
These are some of the excellent questions posed by DearJulianna, #CrippingtheMighty, and #TheFutureIsDisabled. (Carrie Ann Lucas’s blog post currently carries the coveted — by me — title of, The Blog Post I Love Because It’s So Well-Written I No Longer Feel Like I Need to Take On This Difficult Topic Until I Want To.) People with disabilities are writing, reading, producing, performing, and arguing like nothing I’ve witnessed in 50 years. It’s wonderful and it makes me want to hide out under a blanket for a while and just let my mind wander.
When I can get enough mind-wandering time clocked, I work through stories that are the made-up kind: fiction. They’re stories that are “about” my life the way jambalaya is “about” sausage, rice, and a whole bunch of other stuff. I can’t seem to tell the truth without lying, which is “fiction” in a nutshell and why Hermes, that liar (and inventor of lyres), is the god of storytelling.
In terms of privacy, even badly written fiction is different from posting a detailed or disparaging description of your child who has a disability. But in thinking about who gets to write about who, and how, and why, I remembered a problem I’d had with conveying certain information about my main character, an adult woman with a disability. Me! Not me!