Every three or four months either my ex-husband or I, or sometimes both of us, take our daughter out of state to get a new EDF cast applied. “EDF” stands for “elongation, derotation, flexion,” the three functions this mighty piece of plaster and fiberglass performs upon our six-year-old’s spine. We’ve been doing this for four years now, changing the cast to accommodate our daughter’s growth and to stay on top of the spinal curve. Some kids with progressive infantile scoliosis experience a complete or near-complete correction. Other kids, like ours, are simply buying time, keeping at bay the inevitable surgeries, invasive and painful and infection-breeding.
Last year, at the tail end of the January trip, my daughter and I found ourselves in a general casting room with her physician’s assistant, who had to adjust the fit of the cast before we left town. We wrap up every trip with this simple and quick procedure. My daughter likes it because the P.A. directs his questions to her, and she gets to report on the fit of her cast and dictate the changes that will ensure her comfort, and I like it because it marks the end of the hard part of our journey. Ordinarily, it’s just us and the P.A. on these mornings, but on this occasion in January we shared the space with a girl—I’d put her in 7th or 8th grade—and her dad. The girl was having a cast sawed off her leg, and from the bits of conversation I overheard I gathered that she had broken her leg skiing--for the second time.
Back in the early ‘90s I went through a months-long workshop series called Lifespring. Lifespring used to be Est, and legend has it that Est participants were prevented from using the bathroom until they had had an emotional “breakthrough”: in the 1970s, self-actualization very often involved the genitals. Twenty years later, the organization had made progress. Lifespring trainers allowed us to go to the bathroom whenever we needed to; but they also served up a healthy amount of Kool-Aid, and for those few months in 1993 I drank it. One day I was assigned, along with two other young women, to perform Madonna’s “Vogue” to our group of roughly 40 Lifespringers. Costuming and amateur choreography were involved. I may have kissed a young gay man during the song’s crescendo. After our performance we had a breakthrough, the three of us: our trainer had assigned us this “stretch” to help us to realize our power as young, attractive, sexual women. In the three of us he had seen a resistance to “owning” this part of ourselves, and in our performance we had embraced it. We had not simply lip-synched early-‘90s Madonna, together we had become early-‘90s Madonna.
One of these girls—and, really, she was just a girl, not much beyond 18—was beautiful and athletic, an athlete. She was also sardonic, so I liked her very much. In a way, I wanted to be her. And then she had a very challenging day. Our trainer was walking us through some concept or another, and in the course of sharing, this girl revealed that in her 18 years on earth she had broken nearly every bone in her body. I remember that she said it lightheartedly, as if this were an interesting and amusing fact about her. I remember that most of us reacted in kind. But the trainer did not. He stopped the conversation to zero in on this girl. He said, “Why do you want to kill yourself?”
As it turns out, he was right. It didn’t matter that I thought he was overreacting or that the girl met his question with laughter and minor annoyance and the explanation, “They were accidents.” His interrogation continued, and a few minutes later she was crying, and she was telling 40 people in the basement conference room of a Holiday Inn why she wanted to die.
On that January day last year, my daughter and I left the hospital and headed to a bagel shop to get some breakfast before heading to the airport. Who got behind us in line but the girl with the leg cast and her father? We didn’t really know each other but had been forced into familiarity by the shared hospital room, so in the bagel line we greeted each other with an awkward “Great minds think alike!” While the four of us stood at the counter, waiting for our food, I engaged the girl in small talk. I told her I had overheard that she had broken her leg skiing, and I asked her how it had happened. She told me the story in brief, and her dad jumped in with some of the details. She looked miserable. I said, “And this was the second time you broke your leg skiing?” “Yeah,” she said. Miserable still. I asked, “Are you ever going to ski again?” She and her dad answered simultaneously. She: “No.” Dad: “Yes.” So her dad repeated, this time with great force and irritation, “Yes.” “The whole family skis,” he told me. Then he said to her, “There is no way you are not going with us.” I asked the dad if they ski a lot. They do—every weekend in the winter. I said to her, “You must be scared.” She looked at me with, I swear, gratitude and said, “Yes.” Her dad said, “You are not scared.” I said to her, “I would be, too.”What is happening to that girl today? I have to believe her dad has forced her to go skiing again. Maybe she’s broken another bone. Maybe this girl wears casts all year like my daughter does. Maybe these casts will bolster her, and to others she will seem beautiful and athletic and sardonic. Maybe she will have a breakthrough. Or maybe she will just continue to break.