Disabled
Yet Intact
stories from a life in progress

Walk Straight and Die
by Harilyn Rousso

" 'And who asked you, you old battle axe?' "

"What's wrong with you? Why do you walk that way?" asked an elderly woman in an ugly brown winter coat, interrupting my adolescent self-absorption. I had been walking home from school, thinking about a chemistry exam I had just taken; it was difficult but I felt I had done smashingly. Fantasies of being the top student in the class and maybe winning the Nobel Prize were stopped short by the reality of being perceived by a stranger as a common cripple. I wished I could have come up with some smart ass answer, but at the torturous age of fifteen, physical differences based on anything -- weight, breast size or in my case, having cerebral palsy -- were not experienced as a laughing matter. "There's nothing wrong with me. I have a disability that affects how I walk, but it's no big deal," was the best I could come up with at a moment's notice. "Oh, I'm so sorry. Have you asked Jesus for help?" she went on. "I don't need help, and besides I'm Jewish." When she said, "Oh, He won't mind," I thought but did not say "But my rabbi will. And who asked you, you old battle axe?" I abruptly crossed the street to stop the conversation.

My mother was home when I arrived, and she immediately picked up the cues of my distress. "What's wrong with you?" she asked, and I said, "Oh no, not you too," and immediately described my encounter with the old woman. She responded the same way she always did to my disability tales. "Well, if you'd practice walking straight in front of the mirror like I keep telling you to, people would stop staring. I don't know why you won't do it. Don't you want to walk straight?" "No, as a matter of fact I don't!" I shouted and retreated to my room, slamming the door. Once safely alone, I resumed my Nobel Prize fantasy while beginning my homework. My studies had always offered a refuge from strangers' stupid questions and a world that was constantly telling me how to walk, talk and be. Thank God I was smart, but never quite smart enough to figure out a good answer to those questions.

My mother and I had struggled over my walking for as far back as I could remember. Of all my disability-related characteristics -- my uncoordinated walk, my slightly thrashing arms and shoulders, my slurred speech -- the way I walked had been the greatest source of distress for her. She explained that she grew up with a girl who was "pigeon-toed" and the butt of endless jokes. By coaxing me to improve my walking, she hoped to save me from even worse abuse. I sometimes wondered whether my mother herself was the pigeon-toed child, she seemed so identified with her. Yet family stories suggested that she was extremely well coordinated and an excellent athlete. If that were so, it must have been hard for her to see herself in me, falling over my own feet the way I did. In fact, the "crooked" way I walked was the most immediately obvious aspect of my disability and the stimulus for much of the teasing I had received from peers. Often I turned the other cheek, but sometimes the teasing would make me cry and I'd vow to practice walking every day until I walked like everyone else. Such vows were short-lived.

 

 

When I was about five, we moved to a new house in Queens and my mother immediately set up a full-length mirror on the far wall of the basement. The basement was a fabulous play area, full of nooks and crannies where my older sister and I would play hide-and-go-seek or set up a pretend school with lots of activity corners. But I would always avoid that mirror. On and off, my mother would hire a physical therapist to work with me on my walking in front of the mirror. But I was not a very willing patient, and invariably, my mother would dismiss the therapist "No sense spending good money after bad" and drill me herself. "Walk toward the mirror. See how your toes and legs turned in? Point your toes out, more, more. Now that's it, walk just like that." I would follow her directions exactly while under her watchful eyes, but as soon as she left the room, I would abandon the mirror and go back to my old ways of walking. "Why don't you want to walk straight?" she'd ask, totally exasperated.

I never knew how to answer her. I just knew I didn't want to walk the way she or anyone else wanted. Part of it was that I wanted her to love me the way I was, crooked walk and all. Also, I knew that although maybe I could improve my walking, it would never be good enough for her. She wanted me to walk like everyone else, to look "normal." That was impossible, even if I practiced walking from here to eternity. My disability would not go away. But there was more: I didn't want it to go away. I had always been uncoordinated -- since the day I was born. That was just the way I was and who I was. I learned to identify my body and myself partly through my jerky way of being in the world. My mother's attempt to smooth out my crookedness was tantamount to murder.

"One day, the mirror mysteriously disappeared..."

 

 

 

 

 

 

I never could or would explain why I wouldn't practice walking but my mother must have sensed that it was a life and death matter because eventually she laid off. One day, the mirror mysteriously disappeared from the basement and found its way to the inside of a storage closet. Occasionally I would fiddle with it; it became a safe place to put on more make-up than my mother allowed. Not that she and I stopped fighting. We just fought about other things, like skirt lengths and padded bras. My mother never liked how I walked; but she did learn to keep her judgments to herself. Perhaps it was partly because as time passed, she found herself facing a world of criticism about her own body. Not about her walk, but about her weight. The nasty comments never inspired her to lose weight; quite the contrary. She seemed to resist as I did, determined to hold onto her soul.

I was relieved when my mother finally got off my case about my walking, but I longed for so much more. When that old lady in the ugly coat asked "What's wrong with you?" I needed her to be there with me to confront the questioner, to challenge her authority. My mother seemed unable. She agreed with the old lady's assessment and tried to change me. I wanted her to change the old lady.

 

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