What is your first memory? It is probably from when you were around four years old, maybe three. One of my earliest memories was when I was sitting with my parents and a doctor at the Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation and Medicine in Chicago trying to fit a prosthetic forearm and attached hand onto my upper arm. I remember looking around at the other kids.
As far as I could see, nobody else had only one finger on each hand, like me. Rather, they seemed to mainly be missing an entire arm on one side, with a finger or two literally hanging from a shoulder or elbow. Those kids were there because of their mother taking Thalidomide. Thalidomide was a drug widely prescribed to women during that decade to treat severe morning sickness during pregnancy. Many women who took the drug in early pregnancy, unaware of the risks, gave birth to children with severe birth defects such as missing or severely shortened limbs. When it was my turn, I tensed. No wonder it was my first memory–it was the first time I recall really physically hating anything. The device was made out of materials that were both rubbery and hard. At first I was holding both of my parent’s hands and the next thing I knew I was being placed into an object that looked incredibly fake. To me, the device, and not me, looked abnormal. Appearance aside, I could not stand how it felt. Even at such a young age I had a strong spirit. I began to shake my arm hard enough that, to the surprise of my parents and the doctor, I somehow wriggled my way out of the darn thing. When the doctor tried to convince me to try it on again, I refused. Although I was extremely young, I knew I had disappointed my parents. They had driven more than two hours from Urbana with me to try on the device. At the time, they were at best uncertain regarding what I would be able to do physically. Wanting only the best for me, they believed that without a thumb for purposes of opposition, my life and my ability to do simple things like writing with a pencil or cutting with scissors would be significantly challenged.
Have you ever seen anything in person or perhaps on film where the visual shocks you back into your first memory? That happened to me last Sunday when I took our daughter Savanna to see the movie, “Dolphin Tale.” In the film, Sawyer, an eleven year old boy finds and then untangles a hurt dolphin (“Winter”) that was caught in a crab trap. Although Winter survives, to save his life his tail is removed. The movie is touching and Savanna, a great lover of all animals, was clearly moved. To assist Winter in swimming in a way that would not injure his spine, he was given a prosthetic tail. However, Winter hated the device so much that as soon as it was attached, he thrashed his body until it became loose and sank. Ultimately, the doctor developed a new gel-type solution so that the device was a comfortable fit for the dolphin, but regardless, my memory had been jogged.
So at this point of my blog, I have actually compared myself to an injured dolphin. You are probably wondering where this can possibly be going? So…here it is: What if my mom and dad had forced me to wear the prosthetic device because they assumed it was my only hope to living a somewhat normal and functional life? What if they were simply too afraid to walk away and face the unknown? Although I may have had some advantages had I worn the device, I am positive that my life and my determined spirit would have been forever altered. As a parent, I can now appreciate how frightening it must have been for them, given that any other option for me to live a somewhat “normal” life was at best, a question mark. Despite the fact that I was the first in my family to be born with ectrodactyly, and uncertainty was the only certainty they could count on, somehow my parents figured out the “golden rule” for parenting: They took a deep breath, gathered their courage, and let me simply be me.
I am forever grateful.