Sunday, March 31, 2013

journeying back and back again

For the past 40 years, since March 27, 1973, I’ve kept a journal. The second entry, on March 28, relates “a big day” of getting the news that the back brace I had been wearing for the past year and a half to correct a curvature of the spine had been doing its job (at 25 degrees the curve was acceptable) and, just as importantly, I had stopped growing (topping out at five-six and three-quarters). The doctor said I could cut back on wearing the brace to 12 hours a day. A few months earlier, I had cut down to 14 hours, which had freed me from wearing the contraption at school. So everything was moving in the right direction, and soon I would
“be finished with that damned brace! That’s what I’ve been living for for over two years now!”
Two weeks ago I was in California to spend time with my mother. On the second day of my visit we were sitting in her apartment when she turned to me and asked, “Did you wear a back brace?” When I mentioned this to my sister, who lives near my mother, she told me that Mom often talks about “poor Leslie” and that back brace. So when I woke up the next day and got my tea and settled in with pen and notebook, this is what I wrote, slightly edited.
Thursday, March 14
7 a.m.
I have learned that I need to thank my mother for the back brace that I wore when 13, 14, and 15 years old. It was called a Milwaukee brace, and I wore it to correct a curvature of the spine and to prevent further curvature. The condition is called scoliosis.

The summer before eighth grade my mother noticed that my right shoulder blade stuck out more than my left. It’s one of those things that you wish, at age 12-going-on-13, that your mother would not notice, and when she does, that she would then quit bugging you about it. But my mother noticed and my mother bugged me about it—“stand up straight, “let me see,” “does it hurt?” blah blah blah—and soon my mother took me to a doctor.

The brace consisted of a molded plaster corset that snugged my waist from pelvic bone to rib cage, flattening my stomach, wrapping around my hips and buttocks. There was a gap in the back so I could slip out of it to take showers. (At first, that was the only time I took the brace off.) A metal shaft secured to the front of the corset went up to a metal ring that made a wide berth around my neck. Two metal rods went from the back of the corset, one on each side, to the neck ring. On the neck ring, one piece of hard plastic made a chin rest, and in the back two pieces made what I guess could be called head bumpers. The shaft and rods were adjustable
via screws and a series of holes, so they could lengthen as I grew. The brace was secured in back with a webbed nylon sash, and the neck ring must have opened and closed somehow, but I don’t remember. I do remember hating the brace and never once forgetting it was between me and the rest of the world.

The brace kept me ramrod straight from hips to head and two attachments worked on correcting the curves in my spine. One was a bumper on the left back rod that pushed into my lower back, and the other was a slightly curved pad on a sash that was attached to the front metal shaft and then hooked onto a back rod. It applied pressure to that right shoulder blade that was sticking out, a pressure that I could adjust. Adjusting the pressure of the lower pad, however, required a trip to the “brace place.” Both pads were rigid, covered in leather.

I learned to put the brace on and to take it off without help. Underneath, I wore a T-shirt.

I had regular visits to the doctor for x-rays and regular trips to the “brace place” for adjustments to the hardware. The doctor was a wonderful man in a nice office not far from home; the “brace place” was in a bleak warehouse-type building in a bleak warehouse-type neighborhood way down in the city. It was like going to the auto mechanic. Cold and metallic. My mother went with me to the doctor and to the warehouse, picking me up from school, staying with me, driving me back to school or home. I don’t remember that we talked much during these trips, but I do know we felt the same way about those starkly different places.

No doubt I have been ungraceful in my life, but this time with the brace was perhaps the first and one of the most profound. In the brace I moved like a hardwood board and stood and sat—perhaps “perched” is a better word—like I had a stick up  my ass. And I was not grateful that my mother cared enough about me to notice that there was a problem with my back and that it would be best to do something about it rather than to let it ruin my life
which a growing 36-degree spinal curve might very well have done. Instead, I sat stiffly in that car on those trips and behaved stiffly, being peevish and feeling put upon and probably blaming my mother for this monstrosity I was suffering. Felt I was suffering.

I guess it is difficult to remember just how bad my attitude might have been—I was, after all, just 13, 14, 15. I suppose I tried to keep most of it inside. But we all know how well that works, how leaky we are.

As difficult as that time was for me, it was as difficult, if not more, for my mother, in ways I can only imagine. At the time, she would have been in her early 50s, just a few years younger than I am now. That I might have added to her difficulty by never thanking her for all of it—for every concern, for every doctor visit, for every trip to the “mechanic,” for those few years in that damned, uncomfortable brace—has only just occurred to me. I view my life and tell my stories from such a narrow place.
Journals, then and now.

I had a few more days with my mom, so I thanked her for the brace, for making sure I grew up somewhat straight and tall, but I don’t know that it matters much at this point. Most likely she forgot my words soon after they were spoken. All I can do is hope that she knew all along.

Read last week’s post about hitchhiking and yoopers, or listen to an entry from the daily journal.

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