Heel, Toe- 1963 (101 Dalmatians)
On August 23, 1956 the oxygen in the Eunice hospital’s delivery room was not working, so the doctor who performed the c-section that brought me into this world had to give me mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. My time without oxygen led to a case of cerebral palsy that affected the left side my body, especially my leg and arm. My momma did not notice a problem until I started to walk and a cousin told her, “That child has a problem.” After my CP diagnosis, from ages two to ten I had weekly physical therapy sessions at the Cerebral Palsy Clinic in Opelousas, Louisiana.
I called my therapist “Uncle” Daly. He had a pink face and hair cut so close to his head it stood straight up. He smelled like Old Spice and liked to spoil me. “I got something for you,” he’d say at the end of my exercises as he held out two closed fists. “Which hand you want?” and even if I picked the hand without the treat, Uncle Daly opened the other hand and gave me the Bazooka gum. I hugged his neck when I first got to the clinic and when Momma and I left.
The thirty-minute sessions quickly became routine. First, I’d climb up wooden steps to lie on a padded brown table so Uncle Daly could stretch my left arm and leg. He’d extend my left arm as far as it could go and open my crooked, sweaty fingers in his large palm. When he tried turning my wrist palm up, it never cooperated, and I would see faint freckles underneath dense yellow curly hairs on his forearms. Then he moved my left leg up and down and side to side. The stretches felt necessary and my appendages enjoyed the forced movements.
But then came the individual exercises that lasted forever.
Uncle Daly first had me walking the length of a large room in front of a tall mirror. Wearing stiff white corrective shoes, I focused on my left foot. “Heel, toe,” was his directive. My foot had to be reminded how to walk properly since it preferred to drag itself along the floor, leaving my left shoe’s toe scuffed and worn down. I repeated Daly’s “Heel, toe” instructions with each step I took toward and from that full mirror. Of course, the “heel, toe” mantra could not correct my limp since my left leg was a couple of inches shorter than my right.
Uncle Daly also told me to keep my skinny, crooked left arm down by my side and not up at breast level with a bent wrist like some stroke victim. But my number one concern was my left leg, so my head repeated “Heel, toe” as I walked the length of the linoleum tiled floor. The back and forth monotony and the full mirror image of my uneven self made me yearn to be someplace else. It felt like I walked back and forth seventy-seven times, but it was really twenty times because I had to keep count in her head. “Don’t drag your left foot; remember heel to toe,” said Uncle Daly. So I did the first two lengths perfectly because my therapist was watching. Halfway through the fourth walk, I focused on the thuds of a kid going up and down the exercise steps and the clanks of metal weights lifting and falling. Like zydeco…zydeco…zydeco tunes on the radio, the rhythms took me away from my boredom.
I ran across a field of deep snow with beautiful even strides. My even legs let me keep pace with Pongo, my faithful Dalmatian, who barked his encouragement. We were guiding ninety-nine puppies towards a large barn in the distance. I had rescued the pups from the witch lady with two-tone hair right before the bumbling henchmen tried to kill them. Once inside the barn, the puppies raced with each other across the hay-scattered floor. Only Rolly had trouble keeping up. “Not only do we have the cutest puppies in London; we will also have the fittest pups in all of England!” I said. Pongo yipped approval. Using both of my nimble hands, I raked hay into neat bedding piles for the puppies after the barn’s generous milk cows fed them. Rolly preferred sleeping in my lap. I smiled knowing I had a secret plan to get all the dogs to safety in the morning. Pongo put his paw on my elegant left hand and gave me a dog smile of gratitude.
“Let’s go,” instructed Uncle Daly. “Time for your stair work.” I turned from the long mirror and met Darby at my next exercise station.
Now during these COVID19 times I go on early morning walks right after the sun rises. I maneuver the uneven sidewalks of my neighborhood, look down at my sneakers of two different sizes, and recall the “heel, toe” exercises of long ago. These uncertain days require awareness and concentration. Watch your step. Don’t trip. Notice things. Wear your face mask. Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. Keep social distance.
As a child, I followed my therapist’s directions to strengthen my under-developed leg and to teach my foot the proper way to walk. Today the “heel, toe” reminder keeps me from falling and it makes my unruly, worried brain stay focused and not race into dark rooms of disease and anarchy and hopelessness. I tell myself to think as I move through my day’s routines. Take my time, watch my step, and notice the tiny purple flower between the cracks of the hot concrete.