Cerebral Palsy

Truth Hurts

 1964 -Truth Hurts  (West Side Story)

Going to the camp on Good Friday epitomized “Lassiez les bon temps rouler!” for me.  A  pre-Easter family reunion meant cousins running all around Grandma Keller’s camp, fresh fried catfish, a softball game in the afternoon, and Stations of the Cross led by Monsignor Jeanmard in the morning, plus the main attraction: about 200 pounds of hot boiled crawfish! The relatives all fought for good standing room when fresh batches were poured over newspaper-covered tables.

Grandma closed the picture show to celebrate with her large family on this special holiday.  I wondered why Catholic considered eating seafood on Fridays a penance. Were not shrimp, crab, and crawfish three of the best delicacies on earth?  On this Good Friday in 1964, I did not consider the rationale or rules of being a Catholic. Everyone I loved went to mass every Sunday and various holy days of obligation, accepted the necessity of confession, prayed to the Virgin Mary, gave up something they liked during Lent, and went without beef, pork, or chicken on Fridays. And thank you, Jesus, they had crawfish boils on Good Friday!

About 6:30 p.m. I was in the car with Momma, Gayle, and Kelly driving back home. Kelly was fast asleep on the backseat next to me, and Gayle sat in the front seat, as usual. Dad was driving back later with Claude Emile since the males helped clean up all the outdoor cooking mess.  

I stared out the back window and Gayle bounced a bit on the front seat.  “She’ll be coming around the mountain, when she comes,” she sang, and Momma half-heartedly joined in.  I mouthed the words as if the lyrics were a secret.  

The day had been 82% favorable.  The softball game made insecurity settle in my eight- year-old heart. When the team captains were choosing kids, I heard a third cousin tell a first cousin, “Don’t pick the crippled one.” 

I was used to being last picked at school, but some of my cousins did not know I ran fast despite my weak left side.  These kids had known me all my life, and I usually felt at ease with them. Plus, the camp was my favorite place to be. 

A few minutes earlier Gina, my closest cousin, had pulled me by my right arm over to the crowd of cousins waiting to be picked.  The tallest leader picked Gina early on since she and her eight siblings were known for their athletic skills.  

The third cousin’s comment made me hold my stupid left arm behind my back. After several minutes of tense team choosing, I stepped to the side of the other two unpicked kids: a nose-picker and a crew cut cousin who had just then decided to join the game.  Third Cousin picked the crew cut latecomer, and one of my popular first cousins chose the nose picker.

I  walked head down to third cousin’s side and hid behind the tallest cousins.  First cousin’s team was first at bat, and cousin Chickie began arranging the batters from youngest to oldest. Gina took my good hand and led me out toward third base. My team’s captain was the third baseman, and Gina walked past him and pointed to a distant pine tree, “You go play left field for us,” she said and gave me a pat on the back and a soft shoulder nudge.  

I kicked pine cones and  needles on my way to where the ball never went. I could barely make out my little sister Gayle getting ready to bat at home plate. Overhead, a woodpecker did what it does and the lonesome sound of a fiddler playing mixed with the bird’s taps in a zydeco…zydeco…zydeco way.

I walked down a city street toward a fence-enclosed playground. I wore new navy jeans and a cool red jacket. As I walked, I snapped the fingers of my left hand. My feet kept the beat of a song in the background.  My short black hair was slicked back to stay in place.  Two boys with similar hair joined me on the street and picked up the rhythm of my snaps and steps. In unison V  the Sharks and I kicked, twirled, and jumped to the band’s expectant music.  My left leg extended high at hip level and I spun like a ballet performer while my crew and I approached a basketball court. Some kids shot baskets, but the guy with the ball froze when my crew came close. The Shark on my right grabbed the ball and passed it to me. I completed a perfect pirouette and made a basket!  The Sharks continued their snapping, side kicks, and twirls towards an alley.  

“Look out!” said the guy to my left.

I saw the softball fly over two cousins’ heads and head straight towards me. I held out my ungloved right hand but closed my eyes.  The ball plopped a yard to my right. 

“Get it! Throw it!” yelled voices.  I picked it up and aimed it at jumping Gina, but it landed a few feet from where I stood as the batter headed to third base. I felt every player stare at me and I silently cursed my stupid left arm.  

Gina ran to get the ball and threw it towards home plate. I went back to my position and took a knee to pretend to tie my shoe.  

Three hours later driving home, I relived my dismal first and last time to join the Good  Friday softball game. At bat I struck out both times I was up, and another ball never came close to my outfield area.  “I will never ever in a  hundred million years play that game,” I promised myself.

“Your turn,” said Gayle. “Pick a song.”  My usual optimism brought me back to our car ride home. At least singing didn’t require two good hands, so I choose my favorite song: “You Are My Sunshine.” Gayle and Momma joined me for what I believed was a rousing rendition.

The crawfish boil had disappointed my momma in different ways than it did me. Kelly did not keep still for a second, and Momma had time for maybe five crawfish for herself after peeling several for her youngest daughter and having to help the other mothers with organizing the dessert table. Dad stood around with other crawfish boilers and laughed and talked sports. Momma could hear him entertaining his crowd of men with long jokes that included both Cajun and British accents. When Momma finally got a reprieve from two teenagers who scooped up Kelly to play in the sand box,  she had hightailed it to the fried catfish spot where Lee Esther was already cleaning out the cast iron Dutch oven. “You missed the last of it,” Aunt Fanny told her.  And the skinny widow walked off with a paper plate full of catfish.  Once home she would face a kitchen full of dirty breakfast dishes, baths for three overtired girls, and a load of laundry to fold. Her own mother’s words “It never ends” echoed in her head.

Now driving home the girls’ off-key singing added to Momma’s hunger headache.  She made a right turn onto the road that led to Eunice and sighed.  

“Ginger, you can’t carry a tune in a bucket,” she told me. She did not notice my quivering  bottom lip when I slumped back on the seat and stared out at the pine trees that lined the ditches of the highway.

Gerry and Reginald, 1982, The Calcasieu River

Sisters

Playing School

Emile, Ginger, Gayle, Kelly ready for school, 1965

When I was seven years old I tried my hand at what would become my future profession.

On a late summer afternoon, I smoothed the front of a stiff red and white church dress, brought my tanned shoeless legs together, repositioned my white plastic headband, and looked my class over from the white brick fireplace mantle that raised me three inches above those I’d be instructing that day. Kelly, age three, wearing light blue shorts and a sleeveless white cotton crop top sat barefoot and crosslegged on the carpeted living room floor; she held a Big Chief tablet and a red crayon. Gayle, age five, wearing a faded hand-me-down t-shirt with a never worn navy blue school uniform skirt, sat erect on a small wooden chair and tapped her brand new letter-practicing book with a pencil and wriggled her toes as she stretched her feet to touch the legs of a red and yellow plastic chalk board that came with my special surprise birthday gift that year: a Suzy Smart Deluxe Doll Set!  

Suzy Smart with her chalkboard and desk

Suzy Smart, dressed in a white blouse under a red plaid jumper and standing two feet tall, completed the class and sat stiffly in her own red and yellow plastic desk. I smiled down at my class of three and held up a piece of chalk to draw a large capital letter “A” on the chalk board. 

“Today we practice our A’s.” I established eye-contact with each student and added, “Y’all must draw ten A’s for me. Now go!”  Gayle took to the assignment like a Cajun to hot boudin. Having to use her lap was all that kept her from making uniform A’s. Kelly tried her first A, but the slanted lines were uneven and her letter did not look like the teacher’s. 

“I’m gonna make the little ‘l’s’,” she said and started covering her first page with a letter she liked.

I focused on the obedient ones. “Good job, Gayle,” I said.  Suzy gave me her straight-forward stare. “Nice listening, Suzy.” 

Then I knelt down next to Kelly. “Your ‘l’s’ are very good, but we are working on ‘A’s.’  Here. Let me show you how.” I put my hand over her fist and guided the red crayon through the perfect A formation. “Like this.”  

Kelly pushed aside a stray strand from a pigtail and said, “OK,” and continued to drew more l’s. 

“I said ten letters and you made like fifty-five l’s already. You need to learn your A’s.”  

“No A’s in my name.” 

“Good! You know how to spell your name, but I’m teaching all the letters today.”

“ ‘A’ is the very first letter,” said Gayle as she completed her tenth “A” and gave us all, including Suzy, proud smiles. She wrapped a long strand of jet black hair behind her ear and waited for further instructions.

“How many letters?” asked Kelly.

Getting a bit of teacher inspiration, I said, “We should sing the A-B-C song!”

The human students stood up to belt out “A,B,C,D,E,F,G…”  Susie listened. As Kelly screamed out the final Z, she grabbed Gayle’s hands, and led her in circles for the “Now I know my ABC’s” part.

I knew I was losing control of my class.  “OK. Good job, y’all. Now let’s practice the second letter – B.”  The dancing pupils added impromptu hip-shaking for the song’s end.  “Sit down, class, sit down.”  Both obeyed, but first Kelly traded her red crayon for Gayle’s new pencil.

“Hey. Give it back,” said Gayle.

“Just let me borrow it.”

“You suppose to ask.”

“Can I use your pencil?”

“Please.”

“Pleeeease.”

“Say pretty please.”

“Pretty please, ya dumb sneeze.”

“She called me ‘dumb,’ Teacher.”

Kelly stuck her tongue out at the snitch. I clapped my hands together. “Class. Y’all gotta listen.” Gayle snatched her pencil back and bounced the crayon off Kelly’s pert pug nose. Kelly grabbed the letter practice book and ran behind me.

“I’m agonna rip this up,” she said. Gayle could not wait for the teacher’s help. She knocked over both Suzy and her desk as she rushed after Kelly. 

I tried keeping the girls apart, but Kelly danced behind me and moved the book in circles around her face. “Na! Na! Na! You can’t get me,” she chanted right before Gayle got ahold of her right pigtail. The letter book fell, the chalk board collapsed, and Kelly sprang into fight mode. With me between them, both girls got fistfuls of hair. For several seconds the hair-pulling tug-of-war was a stalemate. Gayle’s longer arms gave her an advantage, but Kelly’s hotter temper made it a fair fight.

“Stop it! Y’all are wrong, wrong! Stop!” I said as I got out from between them.  Kelly was biting her stuck-out tongue to concentrate. Gayle held both of her sister’s pigtails when Kelly dropped her sister’s hair strands. Her smaller stature lacked the force she needed to make Gayle release the pigtails, so Kelly leaned back a bit and kicked her left foot high enough to get her foe right in the tee-heinie. The taller girl let go of the shorter one’s hair and fell to the carpet. She put both hands over the place of pain and let loose the “OWWWWW’s”

“That’s what you get,” said Kelly.

Gayle moaned like a dying opossum.

I sat on the wounded girl’s chair in defeat. Kelly tapped a line of dots on the fallen chalkboard as Gayle moaned on the floor. The taps and the owww’s melded into a zydeco…zydeco…zydeco rhythm in my head.

I looked out the room’s picture window to see a black and white world. A door marked ‘Fire Escape’ appeared to the right of the window. I walked to and through the door and looked down a narrow London street. Four mop-headed guys rushed past me. I gasped when the last one turned back and said, “Hurry! This way, luv.” I ran to join George and the three other Beatles. An old, clean man with round spectacles passed me. “Outta me way! I’m parading,” he said. I wore a short purple mini-dress and groovy white boots. In my left hand I held a beautician’s comb. “Here I come, George,” I said and sped past the grandpa. I followed John, Paul, George, and Ringo down alleys, through doors, and over fences before I thought, “Why are we running?”  Grandpa gained on me and as if to answer my mental question said, “They’re getting closer, lads!” From around the corner sped sixty-two screaming girls!  George reached for my right hand and pulled me into a limo parked on the street. I squeezed between George and John. Paul smiled hello and Ringo tapped my knee with his drum sticks. I held on to George’s hand and John tweeked my nose and kissed my cheek. To hide my nervous joy, I started styling their hair. First, I combed George’s and then leaned forward to comb Paul’s and Ringo’s. John pulled his cap low over his hair, so I turned to Grandpa. “I ain’t got much hair, ya cheeky girl, but you could massage me bum,” he said. Paul winked at me and told Grandpa, “Stop being such a mixer now, ya old troublemaker.” The car braked in a flash and we all tumbled out the limo and through a stage door. Cops held back new crowds of hysterical girls. I lost George’s hand but kept up with the band down dark halls, past dusty props, and through curtained passageways. I saw a light ahead and anticipated a magical stage, but going through the final black curtain led me to the white raised brick hearth of my parents’s fireplace.

Kelly and Gayle held tennis rackets and were strumming them like guitars.  “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah,” sang Gayle, and Kelly shook her hips and moved her head back and forth fast enough for her bangs to keep rhythm with the “yeah, yeah, yeahs.” The rubble of my alphabet lesson littered the living room floor.  I began picking up chalk, crayons, a pencil, and writing tablets as my little sisters lost themselves in their music.

I sat on the formerly wounded sister’s chair in defeat and decided teaching was not for me.

Cerebral Palsy

Lost in Space

 Lost in Space – 1964  (Mary Poppins)

“Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!” yelled a third grader as she got into the robot’s part, waving her arms around like a frantic parent. I  got stuck playing a bad guy alien and walked mummy-like toward the girl who had nabbed the prime role of Penny Robinson. I added head jerks and let out,“Beep! Boop! Ding!” in the way an alien would do as I chased the Robinson family.  “Run!” yelled the good guys as I followed the retreating kids and raised my arms to seem scarier.   

At St. Edmund’s School my classmates and I recreated scenes from hit tv shows at recess. This week’s television obsession was “Lost in Space.” We girls vied for roles each day and half-imitated/ half-made up episodes about the Robinsons in outer space. During this Tuesday’s recess, I did not see the skinny new girl right behind me. Skinny Girl mimicked my spastic left arm movements and limping left leg.  A group of first graders giggled and encouraged the newcomer’s accurate imitation of my cerebral palsy crookedness. When I turned to see who was laughing, a popular seventh grader had cut across the playground on her way to the school’s front office and noticed Skinny Girl’s shenanigans.  

She yanked the performer by her fake-crippled left arm. “What are you doing?” she demanded. Before the child could answer, Seventh Grader lit into her. “How dare you? Don’t you see she’s crippled? How would you like to have to walk lopsided?  You think it’s funny?  Funny to be born with a birth defect – to be slower and weaker than everyone else?  Wait until I tell Sister Joan what you did!” And all during her lecture Seventh Grader shook the girl’s arm as other kids gathered around. First, they stared at Skinny Girl looking like a dish rag someone was twisting the water out of. Then they looked at me. Pity and sadness shone on each kid’s face. Had they always looked at me that way?   

Next Seventh Grader yanked whimpering Skinny Girl to stand in front of me.  “Apologize right now!”  

The younger girl’s navy blue skirt had a safety pin holding it up at her waist, and all that shaking had pulled the white blouse out of its tucked-in position. I noticed that her hem was frayed and stained. Also, the girl’s thin black hair was half-in rubber band pigtails and half-out. I thought that I should be apologizing to her for the mess of the way she looked. 

“Go ahead. Say you’re sorry,” Seventh Grader told her. 

The young girl stared at her untied, dirty saddle oxfords and whispered, “Sorry.”  

“Louder! So she can hear you.” 

“I can hear her,” I said, looking down at my own ugly, scuffed brown corrective shoes. 

“You ok?” Seventh Grader asked me, and I nodded without looking up. I knew if I said anything else, I’d be crying through the rest of recess. Skinny Girl was half-dragged towards the front office.

An empathic third grader put her arm around my shoulder, and the whole “Lost in Space” game was shot to shit. “That kid is just a stupid Yankee from Shreveport,” my friend said. I heaved a sigh and felt even sorrier for Skinny Girl. 

“Gotta pee,” I said before turning to run to the bathroom. Once safe inside a stall, I felt fortunate that I’d chosen one with a lock that actually worked. The words “crippled” and “birth defect” bounced around my brain over and over: “crippled…defect…defect…defect…crip…crip…defect…defect.”   I turned the words into a type of music I heard on KVPI.  “defect, defect, deco, deco, zydeco, zydeco, zydeco.” 

I tapped my black umbrella on the floor a few times and looked around the mess of a nursery.  I removed my neat black hat with white flowers on it and patted my neat brown bun. Two small children looked up at me. “First, we must clean your untidy room,” I said with a confident smile. I snapped the fingers of both hands. Music played, and a robin sang outside the nursery window. As I sang a song about sugar and medicine, I taught the boy and girl how to make their room as neat and sweet as I was. With a whistle here and umbrella taps there, the beds were made, toys were put away, and the room was “practically perfect in every way.”  I even had the robin accompany me in the song. The children loved my magic and we became instant best friends. Without warning, the song ended and a long ringing erupted from the hall.

Recess was over. I flushed the unused toilet, wet my fingers in the sink, ran them through my hair, and looked in the mirror to make sure my eyes were dry before I rushed outside to line up outside Sister Grace’s classroom door.