I Remember This: I Am Thirteen and in the Recovery Room After Spinal Fusion Surgery

Cover of Mythology by Edith HamiltonYou are flat on your back under a glaring light. The bed is hard. It hurts. You don’t move because it doesn’t occur to you to do so, it’s so far beyond you. Each part of you that registers – reports in, so to speak – registers through pain. You body is mapped as a topography of pain. No face or distinguishing characteristics. You are a ground-colored shape dotted with points of glaring, popping pain. Where your head aches on the stone-stab mattress, where the gravel of the sheet is under your arms, where it rasps all along the tube that snakes down your throat, to an unidentifiable pressure on your front, low down.
Your back. Oh. Your back is a barely contained thorn patch in a mad stabber’s arsenal.
You’re not alone. There are voices, professional ones. But no one is talking to you.
There is a nurse above you, meeting your eyes. Her head blocks the light. “You’re awake,” she says. “You’re in the recovery room.”
You make a sound. It sounds dreadful. The first sound Frankenstein made on his slab. The thought of the monster brings back your past, all there was before this light, this slab, this pain. And the face in your reunion with memory itself is: Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein.
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I Remember This: I Find Out I Don’t Have Cerebral Palsy. I Have Muscular Dystrophy. Probably.

By the time I was ten in early 1976, my father finally found a job he seemed likely to keep and we settled into our second tiny Connecticut town. I’d been to three public schools during fifth grade and was wearing the Milwaukee back-brace 23 hours a day. 
A color rendering of a large mid-century red brick building with a large rounded marquee over the entrance. It's placed on parkland.

The only picture of Newington Children’s Hospital I could find that resembles the building as I saw it in the 1970s after its renovation in 1968. This is a color rendering from eBay.

I’d started being seen in 1975 in the pediatric neurology clinic at Newington Children’s Hospital, up by Hartford. (It had been formerly known by the delightful names Newington Home and Hospital for Crippled Children, as well as The Newington Home for Incurables.) Dr. Russman and Dr. Drennan, my neurologist and orthopedist, respectively, questioned my diagnosis of cerebral palsy atypical but continued the familiar routine of x-rays and exams every 3 months to monitor my always-worsening scoliosis.  
After growing the tissue from two nerve and muscle biopsies taken from my upper arm and calf (an experience that included my first overnight in a hospital, my first pre-procedure Valium, and hearing the words, “Skin stretcher, please,” uttered in connection to my own personal calf), they scheduled an appointment for the verdict. I was interested in a detached way; I was comfortable with not really being one thing or the other, medically. 

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I Remember This: What Getting My First Milwaukee Backbrace Was Like

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.
Color photo of a Milwaukee back-brace.

Milwaukee back-brace used to treat scoliosis, or curvature of the spine. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian, National Museum of American History.

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There’s No Cure for Gretchen Lowe: I Could Be Taken From You

There's No Cure for Gretchen Lowe
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.”
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There’s No Cure for Gretchen Lowe: The List of Lives That Suck

“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.”
Silence.
“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.”

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There’s No Cure for Gretchen Lowe: A Mother’s Day Card From Alice

Another Excerpt from: There's No Cure for Gretchen Lowe, a novelAlice’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.

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#CripLit Excerpt from “The Copier God Unleashes the Flood Waters”

Another Excerpt From There's No Cure for Gretchen Lowe a novelAs 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?

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