Thursday, February 18, 2010

Self . . . Correcting

What happens to you when a crutial part of your self-image is turned upside down? What if pieces of the puzzle that you create about your personality suddently stop fitting? Or what if they still fit but the picture created isn't the same as it was last time?

(I know that this sounds like the first sentence of a Young Adult novel . . . and maybe it should be . . . but right now I'm asking it about myself and things I discovered that was not what I thought I knew.)

Let's step back a bit. I've written before about my orthopedic problems and challenges when I was a young boy. To provide a bit of additional recap, I was born prematurely and was very underweight. As a result of all of this I had/have (?) a mild case of cerebral palsy that manifested itself in some malformation of the hamstrings and tendons in the back of my legs. As a child I wore various leg braces to help my posture but eventually it was decided that I needed surgery to detach and reposition the hamstrings and tendons into something closer to what nature intended. This would prevent increasingly bad posture and growing back problems as I grew taller and the tension on the affected areas grew worse.

So, when I was eleven or so I had surgery in Albany to deal with the problem. I wore casts for much of that summer while the legs healed. And, to my recollection, things were successful and the doctor told me that things had worked out as he had hoped. But I had been going to that doctor's orthopedic clinic for several years and I would continue to go there for more years after that first surgery. I always looked up to him because he was cheerful, kind, and treated me with respect. (And during these years, there were times when I did not feel equal and felt singled out and I am sure his attitude toward me endeared him to me.)

A few years later, it was determined that I needed a second surgery, this time on my left foot. It was developing a bad habit of rolling over on the outside of the foot when I walked and the doctor wanted to reposition some tendons in the ankle area to pull the foot into a more proper, forward alignment. And so, this surgery was performed. I remember the doctor telling me that they had detatched a tendon from the back area of the ankle and somehow passing it through to the top of the foot, in front of the ankle bones to "pull" it into alignment. He also cut some grooves into the bones that form the dorsal area of the foot, to encourage them to grow in a straighter fashion. As I recovered from that surgery, I wore a smaller cast on my left foot.

After this surgery was complete, I was given therapeutic exercises to flex the foot and ankle, to strengthen the muscles and work on overcoming the atrophy that naturally occurs after the muscles had been encased in plaster immobile for a month or so.

And life went on. I continued to visit the doctor for a few more years and we talked about how things were going and how my orthopedic state was. But eventually it stopped. I grew up, became a teenager, and my life began slowly settling into how I would become. My physical situation was what it was, for better and for worse.


Now . . . I knew things weren't perfect and never would be. I had started from a negative position and no matter the surgeries and the work, I would not be "normal." But I also knew (and know to this day) that I had very little to complain about. Given my birth weight, I should have died back in 1971. But I did not. Given my factual diagnosis of cerebral palsy, I could have had far less motor control and mental ability. But I was (for all meaningful intents and purposes) entirely healthy and blessingly gifted. My early childhood years of feeling singled out due to visible braces and awkward question about my limp had changed into an acceptance of myself and . . . honestly . . . something of a happiness that I was different. We all need to define ourselves, to find a way to make ourselves stand out as significant. This was part of my way.

And yet . . . there were things I knew. I knew that my left leg had a numbness along the outer calf. I knew that my left foot was not as strong as my right. I knew that I could not wiggle the toes of that foot like I could with my right. I knew these things. And I thought that these deficiencies were because of insufficient therapy when I was thirteen. What thirteen-year-old wanted to lean against the wall stretching out his hamstrings? What thirteen-year-old wanted to lay on the floor and lift his leg up, then down, then flex his ankle up, moving the foot up off the ground? I didn't want to do these things consistently and so . . . well, I did them haphazardly. And I thought that was why things were as they were and would always be.


Fastforward to four days ago. I get an email from my mom and dad which is itself a forward of an email conversation between mom and an old parish priest of ours. They are discussing an old prayer request from many years ago about my foot. And mom explains that this must have been submitted to the church during the time of my surgery. And then she mentions that during the surgery the doctor mistakenly damaged a nerve in my leg and it resulted in a weakness in my left leg, etc, etc.

. . .

I was perplexed. And when Lynda read the email, she said, "You never told me this?!" And, well, it was because (I believe) I didn't know it was the case. I couldn't remember knowing that nerve damage had ever occurred. I said as much to mom in my email reply and she responded with dismay and shock. She was sure that she had told me about this within the last ten years or so. She and dad had NOT told me at the time because I was young and because I had a close relationship with the doctor.

(And I absolutely agree with that decision and do not want to make it seem that I question that choice.)

But they swear (and I really don't dispute their memory here) that they did tell me the full truth of it at a later date. And that I listened, accepted it, and--I guess--just moved on with things.

And I guess they are right, but I surely don't remember hearing this news until just a few days ago. And I'm trying to process it now like it is news to me. Maybe I had a very good reason for not appreciating the information before, but I'll be cussed if I can figure out what that reason was then. So, for better or for ill, I'm dealing with this news now like its the first time.

And so, I guess I'm wondering what do I do with this?

The short answer is nothing. As Daniel Faraday *[see comment] said in last season's time-travelling episodes of LOST, "Whatever happened, happened." And I know that to be true. Nothing will change what is now. My leg and my foot are whatever they are. I know that and I've come to accept it. But to realize that it wasn't due to my negligence . . . but was actually someone else's negligence? That is the shocking part. And to think about what mom and dad must have gone through as a result of it all?

We spoke about it at length on the phone Tuesday night and they told me everything they could remember and some of it was (again?) news to me and somewhat surprising. But I told them that I completely understood the decisions they made then. So I hope my writing about it here won't be a problem. I just felt like I needed to spend some time with it myself . . . and I think I'm going to continue spending time with it going forward, trying to figure out what it means to me, trying to understand what all of this tells me about how I think of myself?

Will it take away some sense of guilt? Am I even aware of some feeling of guilt? Maybe . . . I guess I used to feel that way about it. But whatever that was, it was always leavened by an even stronger awareness of luck, blessedness, and appreciation for the many, many, many good things that define who I have been.

So, what does it all mean? And where do I leave all of this?

I guess the only real answer right now is . . . I don't know. I guess I'll just say "To be continued?"


David said...

Originally I published this post with "Miles Faraday." Obviously, that was incorrect so I made the proper edit.

I guess I wasn't using the TV part of my brain when I wrote this last night, and due to underutilization, the rest of my brain couldn't handle the load.

Jack T. said...

I wouldn't have noticed the "Faraday" thing, nerd. But thanks for the post. I can't relate in such an intense way, but it's questions like this that lead me to be as ahistorical as possible.