March 2, 2009
Strength From Way Back
My therapist has been paying me all sorts of compliments lately, telling me that I’m a strong woman with a well-defined sense of right and wrong. I figured that was just good business sense on her part. With the economy in free fall, a therapist who makes her patients feel good about themselves, (but not too good), will ensure herself a decent income in the coming months.
But then she asked me where my strength came from, and I realized she wasn’t just buttering me up. She was truly curious.
I was diagnosed with scoliosis, or curvature of the spine, on the first day of sixth grade. Within a couple of weeks I’d seen an orthopedist and was being fitted with a Milwaukee brace for my back. Over the course of the next eighteen months my doctor tried another type of brace and put me on a strict exercise regime. My mom woke me up at five each morning to help me go through a workout designed to strengthen certain muscles and prevent my back from curving further.
I did all the exercises. I never took the brace off for more than the allotted hour a day. I suffered through the hurtful comments my classmates made. I had a crush on a guy a grade ahead of me, and one day his sister told me he thought I was an ugly dog. It was one of the only times I remember crying, but I sobbed all afternoon over his cutting remark.
My mom wasn’t impressed. “It’s just words. Ignore him.”
I tried to tell her that it was impossible to just ignore someone you’d been fantasizing about kissing, but she wasn’t listening.
I thought I couldn’t endure any more, but I was wrong. The curvature progressed, and I had spine surgery during seventh grade.
My doctors inserted rods on either side of my spine, and took chunks of bone from my hip to graft the rods into the vertebrae. My scar runs from the bottom of my neck to the top of my butt. I was in the hospital and then home for weeks, captive in yet another brace I’d have to wear twenty-four hours a day for nine months.
My surgery was in January. The brace would come off in November. Most importantly, tryouts for the high school dance team, known for its high kick line, were in March.
I spent those months catching up on school work and learning how to walk and move in a strange body that was anchored by a stiff spine. My physical therapist assigned me exercises to do once a day. I did them all, and sometimes I went through them again, hoping I could achieve greater flexibility. I could bend from the waist and the neck, but not in between. When I reached over to touch my toes, my back looked like a tabletop. Arching my back was out of the question.
Some of my most wonderful high school memories involve the years I spent on the dance team. Twenty-nine years and another spine surgery later, several of my former teammates are now sweating with me at Jazzercise. Sometimes I close my eyes when I’m dancing and pretend I’m in a stadium during half-time.
The other night I was at a restaurant and I saw the guy who’d called me an ugly dog. I ignored him.
I told my therapist that my strength comes from the fact that I’m a bit like a superhero, a woman equipped with a titanium spine reinforced with screws and bolts. You can’t see them, but in my mind I’m wearing bright gold boots, and I’m confident that they can kick anything that gets in my way.
One year ago in My Tiny Kingdom: Prank O’ The Day