Breaking the Cast

Does living with a disability define a person?

The autobiographies of people with disabilities fall into two camps.

One the one hand, those who acquire their disability in adolescence or later have been enculturated into the non-disabled society, to which they want nothing so much as a full return. They tend to present their disability as something like an ugly Christmas sweater, imposed upon them by external forces, a nuisance that must not be permitted to disguise their “real” (pre-disabled) self.

If you are born with your disability or acquire it early in life, on the other hand, it defines who you are: you cannot imagine what sort of “you” you would have been had the disability not cast your existence. Indeed, such speculation is existentially pointless.

Peter Kavanagh was only two months old in 1953 when polio paralyzed his left leg and defined his very personhood as someone who “thought about the walking I had just done, the walking I would do tomorrow and whether I would ever be able to stop thinking about walking. Walking is the key to who I am.”

As parents inevitably will, his own parents tracked every faintest murmur of medical advancement in desperate, forlorn hope of a miracle cure. They moved to Calgary, whose doctors were internationally famous for experimental surgery to assist polio victims. Although their procedures seem bizarre to us now, the operations to which they subjected the nine-year-old Kavanagh had a surprising degree of success; they managed to lengthen his left leg to nearly match his right leg, although congenital problems with his foot still gave him a limp.

Unbelievably, an integral part of this procedure was to undo its “leg rewiring” after three years. The undoing operation led more or less to pains that were traced to a literally crippling discovery: the polio had obliterated any notice of the fact that he had also been born with a congenital displaced hip, a rare condition that could have been fixed if it had been identified before the age of six. In Kavanagh’s case, it was not. At age twelve, consequently, he underwent a cringingly primitive hip surgery that rendered his left leg seven centimetres shorter than the right and locked him into a full body cast for an entire year.

That year, although on the surface a lost one, set his career path. He could physically do nothing but listen to CBC Radio, read books, follow politics, free his mind to thrive in solitude. His year of total disability shaped him to become a media personality with special expertise in politics and public affairs.

Once liberated from the cast, Kavanagh not only had to learn to walk again, but he also had to learn new balance and posture because of the discrepancy in his leg lengths. The unsympathetic society of the times gave him only one option for dealing with the pain: suck it up and move on. As Samuel Beckett articulated it in the conclusion to The Unnamable: “you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”

By the time he was 40, Kavanagh’s body was aging prematurely. Constant foot breaking and global joint pain led him slowly to the bitter realization that this was not a simple mind-body dispute he could win through bullheadedness: “What I didn’t understand then is that until the war is over, there is always another battle to be lost.”

The next major battle, and the third time he had to learn to walk, came when the “backdrop of near-constant agony that was my daily experience” pushed him and his doctors to the discovery that, over the years, his adolescent hip surgery had deteriorated into such an appalling situation that he needed an extremely innovative and extensive hip replacement and leg-lengthening (again!) operation.

In three chapters Kavanagh gives an intense description of this procedure and its aftermath, i.e., almost hallucinogenic pain, a weird sense of not really knowing where his left foot was, the clashes between his go-slow surgeon and go-fast physiotherapy team, the rebuilding of leg nerves … until one morning he woke up and realized “my body was no longer dealing with or registering an almost all-encompassing and constant battle with intense pain.”

Incomplete as it was (“I’ll never run, my foot drop will always be there, I will never be completely free of my cane”), this long-sought relief from a lifetime of unremitting agony has given Kavanagh pause to reflect upon how his disability shaped his psyche and the lives of those around him: “Chronic conditions make everyone touched by the illness feel as if life to some degree isn’t what it could have been.”

He regrets not being close to his many siblings; spending so much of his childhood and adolescence in hospitals and therapy made him more a visitor than a member of the family, and the siblings had good reason to resent the favouritism his ailments demanded of their parents.

The most guilt-provoking of this collateral damage was Kavanagh’s mother. Her descent into drug dependency and multiple surgeries, being directly coincidental with Peter’s youthful operations, seemed an ominous foreshadowing of his own future: “The pain, the immobility, the need for walkers and canes, the dependency on drugs to slow and make manageable, but not eliminate by any means, the degeneration and the pain … I might be following her path, but I vowed to resist taking the steps she took.”

Also irreparably damaged was his religious faith. In training as an altar boy, the youthful Kavanagh was devastated to find himself more or less kicked out of the Catholic church merely because his limp would throw off the symmetry of the Christmas Mass procession. In adulthood he warily aligned with Buddhism, not for any of its religious aspects but because it provided him with “a clear perspective on my walking, my pain and how those two things affect my sense of self.”

Kavanagh knows how to write both evocatively and concisely. He starts the narrative proper in the fashion scorned by J.D. Salinger as “all that David Copperfield kind of crap,” going so far as to launch it with the words “I was born.” It does not matter. In the next 600 words he luminously creates the town of Deep River and the personalities of his parents. Then, in only 750 words, he lucidly explains what polio is, what it does, who it affects, how many and why it was so terrifying in the 1950s. He knows exactly how to identify and encapsulate the information that a common reader wants and needs to know, in straightforward language and using imagery that makes sense rather than impresses with creativity.

He closes the book with a beautiful, elegantly phrased confession:

An old proverb holds that in order to truly understand someone, you need to walk a mile in their shoes. After learning to walk many miles in my own shoes three times, I am now finally understanding who I am.