I have spent most of my life being afraid. When I was a child between three and four, fear and pain was my earliest memory. I remember the pain it took to walk or be physical like other kids, and then I was afraid I wouldn’t fit in. I remember I had a limp at age four and my father walked with me in our small Missouri town to get some new Keds. I remember specifically that they were Keds because for some reason that was important to me. Probably because in TV commercials, kids were super active in Keds tennis shoes, running and jumping and those were all the things I wanted to do but couldn’t. My limp continued even after the Keds and I felt my parent’s collective worry. But I felt fear taking hold and being worried, as a four-year-old is not good. Four-year-olds are supposed to free and wild, and that’s what I wanted to be. But I couldn’t.
I kept that pain hidden for two years. Counselors have since made a big deal of that but I understand it. I was afraid on two fronts. One, that my parents would be angry with me for being different and two, actually “being” different. I am not sure which fear was bigger. I wanted to be like other kids more than anything.
When I was six, my parents took me to a big clinic in St. Joseph, Missouri. I suppose it would look small now or regular sized, but at six the building and the machines they used to x-ray me were huge and overwhelming. I remember the diagnosis of Perthese and I remember having three choices, or indeed my parents had three choices, as I wasn’t asked. I could wear a modified brace and keep all weight off the right leg and still walk with crutches. I could be in a wheelchair and not walk, or I could be bed bound. My parents chose the brace option and I was fitted for a strap to go across my shoulders that would attach to a leather brace around my calf holding it up. Then I had crutches. That went on for three years. I know that is why I still have the shoulders of a linebacker.
I remember how lost I felt on the way home. My parents were ramrod straight in the car admonishing me before I even began on that journey that I was “never, ever” able to put any weight on my right foot until further notice. That was a very heady challenge for young child. And I was just a couple months into first grade. They murmured other things I didn’t understand until I got older, like “she almost lost her leg” and “necrosis.” All I knew is that my life as I knew it was over.
Now I “was” different. I couldn’t ride a bike, or play playground games. I couldn’t run and play tag. In fact, there wasn’t much I could do but read, and boy did I read. Looking back on it now, that was good and bad. All the books educated me, but I felt lonely and didn’t have any friends. And I felt this burning guilt. I must have been aware that my parents didn’t have the money for my handicap and I felt very afraid of that. Would they take it out on me? Would I be pilloried for being different?
It turned that no one knew what to do with me. Not my parents or the school. I was the only handicapped child in my grade school and in 1964 there were no special facilities for avoiding stairs or anything that catered to the handicapped. So I had lunches alone in the cafeteria to cut off activity. Then I spent recess sitting with the teachers watching the kids. It was humiliating.
After I was lucky enough to walk again, the fear persisted. I carried that fear far past Perthese disease and well into adulthood. Well past cheerleading practice and happy memories of being physical and well liked. I bent over backwards to both fit in and go my own way. Those two qualities don’t go together.
I built a life as a teacher and a single mom. I lost parents and remarried. But I was always afraid. I kept trying to shake it off but I couldn’t manage it. I couldn’t find a way out.
I didn’t start to heal until my husband died of a sudden heart attack when he was 55. I was 57. It took something that life changing to process both old pain and new pain and in the lifetime of pain was an anchor that was threatening to take me under. It was the aggregate of the pain from a lost childhood, and pain of an older adulthood alone. Both times I hadn’t known which way to turn. But this time, with skills I didn’t have as a six-year-old, I was forced to heal myself. Or die trying.
I did a lot of things after a few months had passed. I moved, I entered counseling. I joined groups, I made friends. I grew out of myself for the first time in my life. And it started feeling good. Growing still feels good. Sure, there are some growing pains but I was long overdue and tired of pursuing safeness. I had been playing it safe my whole life and now there was nowhere to hide.
Today I feel free, and it is a hard won freedom. I am 61 and am flying. I hardly feel any safer in the big sense of world events and sure, I get scared from time to time. But I have no more fear within.
And it feels good.
Clover Mahoney has been writing for over 30 years, both fiction, non-fiction and poetry. She has had several publications first for poetry in journals such as The Southern Poetry Review and The Alabama Literary Review. She has also had non-fiction articles published in popular blogs. Clover is from the midwest, and has moved a lot, but now lives in NC where she teaches college English and writes. She is married and has a rescue mutt named Zoe.
Image courtesy of Emma Francis Logan.