“In many track races, competitors will not line up at one even starting mark. Instead, runners start in their own lane at different positions on the track. This creates a staggered appearance for the runners when viewed from overhead.” Joseph McAllister, Livestrong.com
I had to go to the bathroom so badly, but I did everything possible to stifle the urge. Instead, I lay there waiting for my college boyfriend William to get out of bed and take a shower. After an incredible birthday dinner at L’Etoile, a romantic restaurant on the Capital Square in Madison, WI, it was the next morning and we both had to get to class.
Somehow, during the night, my socks had come off. Although I carefully had felt the inside of the bed with my feet, I had only found one. Although by this time of my freshman year, we had been dating for almost five months, I still had not summoned up the courage to show William my feet. “Meg, do you want to take a shower first? I know your History class starts in less than a half hour.” I looked at him, feeling grateful for his consideration. “No, thanks. I am exhausted. It was a great night. I had so much fun and I loved the restaurant. “ I paused. “You go ahead,” I offered with a smile. “Your Poli Sci class is up Bascom Hill, which might take you awhile, given the snow.”
As soon as William left the bedroom, I lifted up his blanket and sheets, scrambling to find my other sock. To my utter relief, when I shook the sheet with a purposeful snap, the sock fell to the ground. Quickly, I scrambled to put it on and got dressed, before he returned to the room. The whole scene was a bit ironic. Unlike many girls that would never let a guy see them naked unless the lights were off, I was not ashamed of my body.
Well, that is, except for my feet.
I was trying so hard not to stare. After a brutal work-out on the stair-master and treadmill, followed by a ½ hour “crunch” class at NY Sports Club, it was still only 7:00am and I needed to shower to get to work. Although the gym was air conditioned, it was near impossible not to be drenched in sweat. I shuddered at the thought of having to take the subway downtown to my job. Although it was only early July, most of the country east of Chicago had been experiencing a record-breaking heat wave.
I had just undressed, removing all of my wet, sticky gym clothes in order to jump into the shower. Well, not all of my clothes. My socks remained on my feet. Per my own personal protocol, I would wait until I got in the shower stall before removing them. I had been sitting on the dressing room bench in front of my locker when I spotted her. She appeared to be in her early thirties, was quite tall, with mousy brown hair and a face that was neither pretty nor ugly. Most importantly, she was my first encounter with anyone who appeared to have my condition, ectrodactyly. Her arms were even more shortened than my own, and she appeared to have two fingers sticking out of what seemed like a small hand. Her feet were similarly disfigured, with two toes sticking out of misshapen feet. Noticing my presence, she exclaimed loudly, “Hi!” as she waived at me with her two right fingers. I then watched as she pranced off to the shower nude and barefoot, with only a small NYSC towel to cover her front.
I was stunned. There was nothing so special about this woman, and yet I knew she was emotionally exceptional. In that moment, although I didn’t realize it, I had just consciously encountered my first flaunter. In that moment, I knew she was light years ahead of me in the race toward unconditional self-acceptance.
This week I was quite taken by a NY Times piece, “The Finish Line” on Jeff Bauman, age 27, a survivor of the Boston attack. He had been waiting for his girlfriend near the finish line of the Boston Marathon on April 15th when the first of two bombs detonated and blew off both of Jeff’s legs. In the aftermath of the attack, images of Jeff’s shredded lower legs became a constant reminder of the horrific attacks.
According to media reports, the following months were excruciating for Bauman, both physically and emotionally. Discharged from a Boston-area rehabilitation center in May, Bauman found himself frequently relying on painkillers to manage through the day. Then he began to see new doctors and embark on the difficult road of receiving and learning to use prosthetic limbs.
But for Bauman, his experience was far from private. His front page photographs from that day catapulted him to practically a celebrity status. For instance, wherever he would go to eat, he never had to pay for any meals. And on a more public level, Bauman threw out the first pitch at the Red Sox game on May 28th. He also met publically in front of cameras with James Taylor during the Boston Strong concert.
Tim Rohan, the New York Times reporter who spent months with Bauman post attack, also provided candid insight into the dark side of Bauman’s experience. As Rohan described it, “There was no escaping all these people, all their pity and all their questions..…he felt hurt, tired and vulnerable for all to see.” According to Rohan, Bauman had a growing frustration with feeling like he was constantly on display.
All this caught my attention for obvious reasons, but it also had me thinking about something else. When people comment how impressed they are with me, amazed how I have “accomplished so much having only one finger on each hand…,” my response is always the same: “Really—it isn’t that big of a deal. After all, I was born this way and so it is all I have ever known.” I wait for the person to react, and then will always follow-up with, “But you know who I find most impressive? People that experience some type of difference along the way, like from an illness, accident or even impact of war. They are the ones that have actually lost something. Their road to physically compensate is far more difficult than anything I have ever experienced.”
But now, I have begun to think my response oversimplifies the comparison between those of us born with a difference and those who experience it along the way. While there is still no question that people like Jeff Bauman will have a long road ahead to manage his new body – just as my boys and I have had to figure out how best to manage in a world created for the ten-fingered and ten-toed – fortunately, he is already making great strides.
However, there is also the emotional level of both experiencing and coming to terms with having a difference. That particular goal is daunting, and that mission can take a lifetime, whether difference arrived at birth or after-the fact. These people can spend their life ashamed, even depressed. For me, although I now appreciate the beauty of flaunting, it took me well past Bauman’s current age to arrive here. And so, just like I experienced well into my thirties, Bauman has already begun his own personal race toward ultimate self-acceptance. I see now that I’m in the same race, but with perhaps no real advantage from the fact that I was born this way; I have just been given a seemingly staggered head start.
I now realize that regardless of cause, for any of us who have a physical difference or challenge, the goal becomes less about whether we win the race, and instead mostly about simply crossing the finish line, at our own pace.