Cerebral Palsy · Sisters

Operation

Operation – 1966

I used tiny tweezers to remove the sick man’s spare ribs.  The procedure ran smoothly until Kelly leaned over my shoulder and nudged me. “Brizzit!” sounded and the patient’s red nose lit up.  

“My turn,” said Gayle, so Kelly leaned back and looked down at her folded legs. I had no desire to scold Kelly because tomorrow was my for real operation.

Momma and I would drive to a Baton Rouge hospital where doctors would perform corrective surgery on my skinny left arm. This time they planned to give me supination – the ability to make my wrist muscles move and allow me to turn my left hand over and face palm up. This would be the third operation on my crippled hand.  The first surgery put a straight pin in my left thumb at the second knuckle to give me better fine motor control.  The second took three incisions and gave me the power to bend my wrist up and down.  Before then my stupid left hand stayed bent and locked downwards. 

The doctors predicted the supination surgery had a 64% success rate.  I felt nervous. The worst part of surgery was throwing up after the operations; however, Momma would be there to wipe my mouth and face with a cold rag and hold back my hair while I vomited in a metal container.  The pas bon feeling lasted less than two hours, and then I ate popsicles, opened presents, and read get well cards. My left arm would be in a plaster cast for weeks, but I was used to keeping my left arm in a supporting role.  The big difference with this operation was I would miss a week of school.

Sister B. had embarrassed me in front of my fifth grade class on Friday.  Right before we lined up for mass Sister said, “All of you need to pray for Ginger today.  She is having surgery on Monday to fix her crippled arm. We want God and the Blessed Virgin to watch over her.”  I had stared at carvings on my wooden desk and allowed myself two quick blinks before I realized a third blink would leave wet drops on my desk’s “Scools dum” proclamation.

“You’re lucky to miss so much school,” a friend told me at recess, and a popular girl who rarely noticed me, said,”You scared about them cutting up your arm?”

“I don’t wake up until it’s over,” I said. 

“Does it still hurt?” she said as her index finger touched the wrist scar where you could count the six stitches from my second surgery.

“Nah,” I said and followed my friend towards the playground.

At home in our living room I now watched Gayle remove the Adam’s Apple, funny bone, and wish bone from the electrically-charged Operation patient on the floor between us. 

“My turn!” said Kelly. 

“Wait!” said Gayle as she focused on removing the Broken Heart. 

“No! No!” said Kelly as her sister’s tweezer made the game go “Brizzit!” Kelly readied herself to win the game, so I left my sisters without a word. I went to my room to read away my consternation. 

Pippi Longstocking

When I began reading chapter books at age ten, I looked forward to being alone – on my bed against my flowered bed rest. Books about talking animals, strange gardens, or brave kids took me to cool places like movies did.  I enjoyed conflicts that sent characters in crazy directions before returning them to clever, satisfying resolutions. This afternoon I had Pippi Longstocking to laugh with and admire. However, I read only four pages before Kelly burst into my room with Gayle in hot pursuit. Kelly locked the door just before Gayle pounded the wood with her palms and moved the door knob back and forth. 

“You chicken cheat! Open up!” yelled Gayle.

Kelly stared at me with her dark eyes, gave me a small smile, and then backed against the door like the peyank she was.

“Come on, Ginger! She cheated!” said Gayle through the door as she pounded. 

“Quiet it down! Don’t y’all make me get up!” said Dad from his bedroom across the hall. We knew better than to rouse a napping Dad, so Gayle had two choices: to tattle to Momma or to find other amusement.

After Gayle gave up, Kelly jumped on the bed a few times and claimed the pillow to my right. “Pippi is my favorite,” she said, waiting for me to read aloud. 

“She and Mr. Nilsson headed to the South Seas to find her sea captain father,” I explained. 

“Show me the pictures,” said Kelly who flipped the pages backwards.  I read with different voices and appropriate animation for over two chapters before I felt Kelly’s head fall slack on my shoulder. Kelly settled in and opened her left fist to release a tiny plastic heart.

I touched the scar between my own elbow and wrist. I heard Momma vacuuming the big living room and the back and forth appliance sounds took on a zydeco…zydeco…zydeco rhythm.

I adjusted a tan tunic as I followed the odd old man walking quickly through the stone streets of ancient Rome. The large sweaty man wore a tomato-colored toga and talked fast on his way to meet someone important.  His round face smiled like a snake or frowned like an ogre. He stopped by a group of men around a small wooden table and pulled out a container of dice. “Who feels lucky?” he said. I leaned in to watch because I needed as much luck as I could find. Tomato Red shook out two dice that equaled seven and the men watching him groaned; Red shook and released the dice again.  He rolled another seven and got more complaints.  Then a short curly haired man twitching with anxiety came up and glared at Red who grabbed some coins and his dice.  Curly turned and stormed off with Red with me close behind. The men huddled together and exchanged hurried, urgent words. I believed these two knew where I could find mule sweat. I needed this potent ingredient for tomorrow’s ceremony. I would become an elegant princess if I drank the soothsayer’s  prescribed potion.   A short, sad faced man wearing a purple hat and tunic approached me from behind, “Excuse me, but are you my long lost daughter?”  Before I could answer, Red and Curly showed up and led us all to a comedy parade.  Red burst into song and people in the street danced:  “Something appealing/ Something appalling/ Something for everyone – a comedy tonight!” Folks with bongos beat out the rythmn of the song.

opening scene in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Pad. Pound. Pad. Pound. “Ginger, come on,” said Gayle in a low voice.  “Let me in. Please, please.”   And she continued the soft door pads.  I left the bed, careful not to wake my youngest sister, and let in the middle sister.  “I got nothin’ to do,” said Gayle. She sat on the edge of the bed and pulled out a deck of cards.  She divided the cards into two stacks. “Wanna play?”  

I sat next to her.  “Just don’t wake Kelly.” 

Gayle made the stacks equal and we began a game of battle. I let the face cards and numbers distract me until I amassed a much larger pile than Gayle’s.  I relaxed inside and believed this lucky streak could follow me all the way to Baton Rouge General Hospital tomorrow.

Birthday party from 1966. Kelly & Gayle in center. I’m behind them.
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.