The Body Divided

A woman with cerebral palsy gets comfortable in her own skin

Cerebral Palsy

image by Charmagne Coe / www.charmagnecoe.com

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Drops of rain slide down the dirty glass. From the backseat I ask why I feel less on the right side of my body. Though my father is driving, my mother doesn’t turn toward me. “Because your heart’s on the left,” she says. “Like everyone’s.”

Cerebral palsy does that, works like Novocain, divides me in half. I can test the temperature of water only with my left hand. Eyes closed, I have to move a coin from my right palm to my left to tell it from a paper clip or a stone.

I don’t know I walk differently. Limp. But the new kid asks me how I hurt my foot. The gym teacher tells me to sit down. That’s a gallop, not a run.

 My two hands are sisters. Left, beautiful in her grace. Right, Clumsy-Girl, with lesser jobs. Run the sponge down Grace’s arm after she’s soaped and scrubbed the rest of the body. Hold Barbie still while Grace works the tiny buttons on her blouse, her small fingers steady and sure.

The damage is in the part of the brain that sends messages to the muscles. The messages are short-circuited, garbled, not unlike the messages I’m given about CP. It’s barely noticeable. Why do you walk like that? There’s nothing you can’t do. Here, let me do that for you.

My friends dance beneath twisted paper streamers. A boy takes the chair beside me, straddles it backward, compliments my eyes. We sip watery Coke until the Bee Gees give over to Bread—Hey, have you ever tried / Really reaching out for the other side. . . —I hope he doesn’t notice my limp as we head toward the floor, think I see his smile flicker but I’m not sure.

Tennessee Williams’ Laura Wingfield with her shyness, her small glass animals, her one bittersweet dance. Is this who I’m supposed to be?

In college I discover that different is hip. This from girls in black turtlenecks, Indian print skirts, the habit of raising their voices at the end of each statement as though they’re asking a question. I wonder, though only when I’m stoned, why if “different is hip” we imitate each other with such care.

In yoga class, where the mats smell of dust and feet, I learn that the heart is barely left of center. It rests on the diaphragm so that as we breathe it moves like a buoy on a quiet bay. One of my classmates cries when she hears this, tears streaming artfully down her cheeks. I’ve cried in class too, hard sobs while I was doing the butterfly stretch. Feeling the pull in my inner thighs, I thought of men whose touches felt halfhearted in the dark.

I sip tea with a woman whose walk is like mine. We lean into the table, finish one another’s sentences. How did your parents explain it? Did you know anyone like us growing up? Dating. God, dating! “Where have you been all my life?” I almost ask.

Unexpectedly, I catch my reflection walking, my gait a bit like a dance.

Beautiful, he says, fingers grazing my uneven legs. I touch his rough chin, the perfect bones of his shoulders, the hollow of damp hair on his chest. This is how I know him in the dark: Left whispers the details. Right listens and believes.

Better half. Best to stay on my good side. You don’t know the half of it. Too true.

Resting against my right arm, the baby’s head is a vague but pleasant weight. Only when I shift him to the other side can I feel the heat of it, distinguish the tapering at the neck. That leaves only my right fingers free to explore the skin of his face. I might be touching silk or rubber. His hair, too, has no specific texture, nor does it divide into single strands.

Even. Whole. Maybe it’s not about the body and its limits. Maybe it’s a destination, all of us hobbling there as best we can.

My son works his way toward me from the far end of the kitchen. New to walking, his steps are halting, a bit like my own. Flushed with effort, his face looks blacklit. Mama, he says, throwing his weight into my imperfect arms.

Ten post-pregnancy pounds linger. I power-walk the promenade, self-­conscious about my awkward moves. But soon I’m adrift in the feel of my heart pounding, muscles working, how sunlight studs the slow-moving water at my side.

 

Reprinted from the Bellingham Review (Spring 2009), a journal associated with Western Washington University that brightens Utne Reader’s library once each spring. The Bellingham Review publishes poems, stories, and essays “so beguiling they invite us to touch their essence.” www.wwu.edu/bhreview