AND THE CHILDREN SHALL LEAD US
by Irving Kenneth Zola
It was freezing cold. I sat huddled behind the wheel of my car waiting, as I did every Wednesday, for Amanda to get out of school. The radio was blaring, the heater was rumbling, and I was absorbed in a paperback novel, so I didn't hear the first knock. With the second, I saw Amanda pointing to the window. Anything that let the cold in seemed outrageous, so I only opened it a crack.
"Daddy, you're such a silly," she said with a certain exasperation. "I meant the door, not the window?"
To me that seemed silly and I told her so, "You know you can't climb over me that easily. Why don't you go in the back door. . . . . like always?"
With a patience that a nine year old develops to deal with the older generation, she gave me a benign smile. "I don't want to come in. I want you to come out." And then, acknowledging with her hand another snow-suited young girl, she explained, "I want you to show Kristin your leg."
"My what?" I stammered in surprise.
"Your leg, the one with the brace," she said off-handedly.
"My leg," I answered softly to no one in particular.
"Yes," she went on, "Kristin often asks me about it. So when she brought it up today, I thought now was a good time."
Her matter-of-factness was almost hypnotic. And so turning in my seat, I first placed my left foot outside and then with my hands lifted my right to join it. And there I sat....a grey bearded forty-two year old clad in a olive-drab parka jacket and his favorite blue jeans.
"Well there it is," said Amanda pointing triumphantly at my leg. We all looked at it. Amanda, Kristin and another friend who stopped on his way home. The only 'it' that was immediately visible was the bottom of my brace, two pieces of shining aluminum attached to the heel of my shoe. Kristin shook her head and when she falteringly asked, "How, umm, umm....?" I knew the question. "You mean how high does it go?" She nodded in response.
"It goes all the way up here" and I traced the brace from my ankle to my hip. Very young children want to touch it and say so, but this older audience said little and so I didn't offer.
"Why do you wear it?" asked the boy.
Amanda smiled, "I've told them about the polio but," and she pursed her lips knowingly, "you tell."
And so I did, telling briefly about polio -- a disease already to them a piece of history -- something they knew about only indirectly, by "the sips they once had to take in school" to avoid having it. But they were more interested in how the brace worked. And so I began to explain, "Because of the weakness in my right leg. . .without the brace, my knee would keep bending and I'd fall. But this way," and I patted it, "the brace keeps my leg stiff and unbending."
"You know, Daddy, your leg doesn't look weak. I mean," and she motioned toward both of them, "they look the same to me."
"You're right" I laughed, a little nervously. This was something she'd never mentioned before. "They are almost the same. But if you look closely -- some day when I'm not wearing the brace, I'll show you -- the right leg is a little thinner than the left. And if you look at me carefully in shorts you'll see that I'm pretty big all around here" and I let my hands fall across my rather thick chest, "but that I'm much thinner below the waist."
This clicked off a memory in Amanda and she turned to her two friends, "The other day my Daddy and I were in a restaurant and we saw a waitress without a real leg." The two children gazed at her disbelievingly. "She had something else. I don't know what you call it. I think it was made of wood or plastic and looked sort of like a leg but not exactly. I know you're not supposed to stare, but my Daddy said it was better to be curious than be uncomfortable and look away. . . ." And then with a conclusive sigh, "It was amazing. She did real well," and nodded her head approvingly.
Her friends agreed and looked toward me.
"Do you have any more questions?" Amanda said in her most teacherly fashion. No, they nodded and smiling at both of us whispered, "Thank you," and trotted away in the snow.
Amanda with an air of satisfaction settled in the back seat. I turned around and asked what that was all about. "Well Kristin often asks me questions about you and about your leg. And when she asked again today, I thought you could do it better."
"Yeah, there's only so much I could say. Some things you have to see."
"Oh," I answered rather speechlessly.
"And besides", she continued, giving me a coy look, and tilting her head downward, "I thought you'd be comfortable doing it. You were, weren't you?"
As I shifted the car to start, I nodded "Yes," but to myself I added.....and every day I get a little more comfortable.