Neil Armstrong took those first extraordinary steps on the moon the year I was born. “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” In the context of the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy, Americans were ready for something to, once again, give them hope. Mr. Armstrong and his crew, through their landmark achievement, accomplished that tenfold. To the millions watching him accomplish the unimaginable, it was as if anything was now possible, at least for that
For one family, at least, the activities on the moon were less captivating than the immediate questions and challenges presented by my birth. I was the first of my family born with a rare condition called ectrodactyly, leaving with me with only one finger on each hand, one toe on each club-shaped foot. Given my physical deformities, an astronaut walking on the moon seemed more realistic than the possibility than their own daughter would ever walk. But within fifteen months I did. My first small step was a giant leap for our family.
I was fortunate to be raised in an environment with supportive parents who never pitied me and certainly didn’t overprotect me. Because of their attitude I grew to be a fiercely independent child. Not only did I walk, but I learned to play tennis, bike, tie my shoes, play basketball, write, and, with the help of an extension device on the slide for my short arms, even play the trombone.
But my condition did not end with me. I share it now with two of our three children. Our eldest son Ethan was also born with only one finger on each hand, and our second son Charlie has two fingers. Unlike me, their feet are somewhat more developed with two toes on each foot, but still small and unusual. Despite their physical difference, we have been raising them and our daughter Savanna with a ‘can do’ attitude, assuring them that the world is their oyster.
Or so I thought.
In truth, as a child, while trombone seemed cool to me, the instrument that I cherished the most was the French horn. However, I never contemplated even trying to play it, given the horn’s multiple valves and my lack of fingers. And so, I held myself back, choosing trombone by default. When our oldest told me he wanted to play an instrument, I assumed the trombone was inevitable for him, too. Likely, so did his teachers in school. So when he came home announcing that his musical instrument “of choice” was the trombone, I simply gave him a hug, and felt relief that he had at least one option.
Since then I’ve changed my mind. Recently, I learned about a man named Tony Memmel, an accomplished guitarist who has played to audiences in the thousands. Tony was born missing his left forearm and hand (a candidate for my modified trombone, if ever there was one). I invited him to contribute a piece to my own website (www.donthideitflauntit.com) and he offered the following inspiration:“Learning to play the guitar was a serious challenge for me and required a lot of time and patience. It ended up taking me eight years to come up with my current method of playing which is to re-create a cast out of duct tape that secures a guitar pick to the end of my arm each time I play….” I was stunned when I read this. Tony, never gave up his quest to play the instrument he loved the most. I tried to think of something comparable in my own life and recalled spending an entire day teaching myself how to tie my shoes. Yet the persistence I employed in that small accomplishment paled in comparison to the years Tony committed to figuring out his own way to play guitar. I was in awe.
All of this got me thinking back to Mr. Armstrong and his defiance of that greatest restraint on our collective imagination, the Earth’s gravity. Inevitably, everyone’s life is filled with obstacles, both externally and internally imposed. Even though Armstrong made it and a small handful of others have followed, his space travels offer the rest of us at best a metaphorical example for overcoming great odds. The barriers most humans face are usually more of the self-imposed variety. We create our own limits.
When I chose the trombone, I believed there was no other physical option. I accepted everyone’s perception that I was just limited. Could I have mastered the French horn or something else? Now I think so. And for our son? I intend to use Tony’s example to inspire Ethan in the future to try something new, something he assumes is out of reach.
Each day presents new opportunities to ask ourselves if the difficulties we perceive are insurmountable, or merely mental. The more amazing people I encounter, however, the more convinced I become that reaching for stars isn’t as out this world as we might think.