“How did it happen?” The lady says gesturing to my leg.
In the rehab gym it is a common question. It is place of injury, accidents and often tales of woe. Here the common curtsey of privacy is ripped away and nothing is sacred nor personal. For many of the patients here in the gym, no question is too intrusive, no line of inquiry too invasive.
Most of the time I am happy to talk about my leg, this exciting surgery, the glittering future that awaits me when I leave this place but sometimes there is a tone in their voice and I just know that I’m not going to enjoy the conversation that follows. Her voice was dripping with this.
I told her I had osseointegration surgery and how exciting and revolutionary it was. I hoped in focusing on this I could steer this conversation in the direction I wanted.
She was not to be thrown off course.
“Yes but how did you lose the leg. Was it a tragic accident?”
“No I had the leg amputated when I was a child due to a birth defect.”
I could feel my body involuntarily brace, waiting for whatever insensitive remark was coming next.
“Oh how awful,” she said.
“My son was born with problems with his two pinkie fingers. Nothing like you but we thought he might want to be a pianist so we had them operated on.
“But I was sick through the pregnancy and I just kept thinking what else might have gone wrong. We were lucky. Your Mum probably thought the same when you were born, wondered if she had done something.”
I wanted to slap her.
I’m sure these thoughts ran through Mum’s head at some point but the way I was born was no reflection of her behavior. She was a model pregnant mum-to-be, it was simply a cut to the blood supply in the womb. Just one of life’s little hiccups.
But this condescending conversation wasn’t over just yet.
She asked what I did for a living and where I was from. She was most interested in the fact I was a journalist.
“The only other journalist I have known who has also known tragedy was a girl whose car was squashed when a truck carrying bundles of paper tipped all the paper onto the car.”
I was a little confused why this was relevant.
“Are you going to compete in the disabled games?”
This was not a new question. I have coped this all my life.
When I was born the doctors told Mum cheerily “well now she can compete in the Paralympics.” Almost like it was a consolation prize for being born with a disability.
It’s strange really. I can’t see doctors saying to parents of able-bodied children “you must be excited, they could compete in the Olympics.”
The question and suggestion followed me throughout my childhood and teen years.
I was a quite a good swimmer growing up. It was the one sport I excelled at. In the water I was no longer clumsy and cumbersome. I was smooth, streamlined and strong. I didn’t feel different to the other kids and I could match their abilities, often better them.
I competed at swimming carnivals and did well until the higher levels where it was a little more difficult to beat the elite swimmers of the state with the slight disadvantage of having one leg less then them.
The suggestion was that I should train for the Paralympics. I would be able to win against those more evenly physically matched to me.
I competed in a few disabled games type carnivals. They were right; I easily sailed down the pool and scored myself ribbons. I don’t know if it was a pride thing, a desire to be normal and not lumped in with the disabled kids or something else but despite the fact I won I didn’t feel proud. It was too easy almost.
Sure I could have gone on and perhaps been a swimming champion at the Paralympics but I decided I would rather lose to the able-bodied kids then win against other disabled kids. I felt prouder coming second last in the higher level carnivals in the regular events then I did winning the disabled races.
Looking back I wonder if I should have tried harder to train for the Paralympics rather than let my pride get in the way. But that is the thing with paths not travelled, you can never know what could have been, only what is. And I choose to live life without regret.
But having this operation has seen those Paralympics questions surface again. A few of my friends and many of the nurses have asked if I will compete in the event now.
It’s strange really, like not every able-bodied person wants to be an athlete nor does every disabled person. We are all still individuals after all.
Plus if I was to compete my chosen sport or event would be swimming and that is out of the question now since I am no longer allowed to swim in public pools.
This lady seems to think competing in the games would be great for my self-esteem and self-worth.
Don’t worry lady; I feel fine about myself thanks.
As I turn to walk away, she tells me she will be praying for me.
“I pray you don’t have anymore tragedies in your life,” she says.
It really is quite interesting people’s reaction to disability. Just because I am disabled doesn’t mean my life has or is marked by tragedy. Sure I have had my struggles, there have been tough points, difficulties and moments of self-pity and ‘why me’ thinking but I would not describe my life as tragic. Not for a second. I don’t need people’s pity or sympathy. Not in the slightest.
My life is pretty damn good actually. There is very little my leg has held me back from achieving. There have been very little activities I haven’t done because of my leg and I don’t feel my life is lacking in any major due to my absent limb.
Like I said at the very beginning of this story, I believe that everything happens for a reason. I have one leg for a reason and while of course it would be great to have two legs, if I was granted a wish to change one about my life or my past I’m not entirely sure my leg would be the thing I would change.
Wow I can’t believe I just wrote that, or thought that even. Perhaps I really have just taken another huge step towards self-acceptance.