Signs of Faith

I'm driving home in the rain at seven-thirty on a dark Wednesday night. I forgot to eat lunch; my last meal was a late breakfast of shredded wheat, and my head is pounding. I've been proofreading all day; my eyes feel totally shot. I'm sitting at a red light at the intersection of Washington and University just outside of Stadium Village waiting to take a right-hand turn. I'm watching the last couple of cars in a light stream of traffic from the left cruise by me, I'm ready to step on it and round this bend toward home. I hit the gas and feel the power of the car as it begins its forward lurch. Out of the corner of my right eye, I catch a flicker of movement. It is a pedestrian dashing across the street in front of my car. I slam on the brakes. He's already safely past me, oblivious to what nearly happened. I lay my head down on the wheel; thank you, thank you, thank you.

I know I'm not in this alone. I have always know it, but I've also been given proof.

When I was thirteen years old, in the middle of my eighth-grade year, I bent over in gym class for one of those routine scoliosis checks. "Umm, just a minute," said the teacher's aide who was eyeballing my bare spine. "Can you come over and take a look at this one," she called to Ms. Nick, the gym teacher. "Hmmm, I see," said Ms. Nick. She told me to stand up and get dressed, then she handed me a form to take home to my parents. I didn't pay much attention until my dad looked at the form later that night and said I had to have a doctor's appointment, and mentioned the girl down the street who had a brace. A brace? I'd read Judy Blume's Deenie, a book about a teenaged girl coping with scoliosis and living in a brace twenty-four hours a day. No way could I survive that.

But that's exactly what the doctor ordered a couple of weeks later when my dad took me to our regular family practice clinic. Pretty soon I was getting cast models made for a plastic brace that would be fitted around my torso from just under my breasts to the middle of my backside, and it would fasten from behind with heavy-duty Velcro straps. It wasn't the kind of metal brace that had a neckpiece sticking out, thank God, but it was obvious upon its arrival that I would have difficulty hiding it under my clothes.

My mother took me shopping at the mall to buy new clothes, a very rare treat. This was the early eighties, and right along with skin-tight jeans, "baggies" were in style, and I selected a pair of loose fitting black corduroys with elastic around the ankles, a couple of other pairs of pants, and some roomy sweaters. At first, when I got home and tried these clothes on over my brace, I thought I might be able to do it. I let my best friend, Kim, who was also my next-door neighbor, in on my terrible secret. She was sympathetic and accepting--and honest about the questionable success of my attempts to camouflage my thick, plastic corset.

The first day I wore the brace to school, I was a mess. Terrified someone would touch me and feel the dreaded hard plastic instead of flesh. Paranoid the lumps and bumps of the molded brace were visible beneath my clothes. Convinced people were laughing and making fun of me behind my back. By the time the week was over, I was physically and emotionally wrecked. And I had also used up all my new clothes at least once or twice. What would I wear the next week?

Since neither of my parents was at all sympathetic to my pleas to simply put me under the knife to get a steel rod in my spine (thank you, thank you, thank you for not letting me go through with that surgery, which was the other main treatment option offered to scoliosis patients at the time), I had no choice but to find my own solution, which was, predictably, to stop wearing the brace during the day.

At first, I'd leave the house on school mornings in my plastic gear, and then sneak out of it at Kim's house, where I'd stash it away before the two of us headed to the bus stop. Later, I realized my dad wasn't paying that much attention, so I started hiding it under my own bed before I left for school. I'd put it back on whenever I got home from school. All this drastically reduced my peer-related stress, but it created a new kind of terror as I fought off haunting visions of a lifetime of hunch-backed disfigurement in return for my adolescent vanity.  

When school let out that spring, I left my dad's house to live at my mom's townhouse where she resided while completing her graduate degree at the University of Minnesota. With summer's skimpy fashions, my noncompliance with daytime brace-wearing became more evident, and my mother's worries for my long-term health only exacerbated my own blackest fears.

To her credit, she tried just about everything to get me to wear the brace. Things that now, as a mother, I understand, but things that then, as a teenager, I became enraged over. For example, she told my new best buddy in the housing complex about my brace (I hadn't told any of my new friend's about my albatross) and she asked my friend to help me understand I could still be loved and accepted if I wore it. I was mortified, and grew more belligerent than ever. Next my mother arranged a lunch date with a grown woman who had survived years of scoliosis brace-wearing: I was cold, unresponsive, and unmoved by the encounter.

Finally, she told the doctor who did the regular X-rays on my spine that I wasn't wearing the brace. This very old doctor glared at me and hissed that if I didn't start wearing that brace, I'd be twisted and bent like the letter "S," and that furthermore, my lungs would eventually collapse from the pressure placed upon them by my misshapen spine. As he recounted gruesome tales of the sights he'd seen during his days of military medicine, the small, olive-toned examining room swam and spun before my eyes. I felt like throwing up, like I couldn't go on, and ultimately even less able to be seen in public in what had become to me a symbol of my grossly flawed development.

By the spring of ninth grade, I was in complete despair. I still refused to wear my brace during the day--though refuse feels like the wrong word, since at the time, it was just a complete physical impossibility for me to be seen in it. My mom, meanwhile, could not let go of her mission to help me see the light. Finally, she discovered a special scoliosis clinic through a local hospital system, and she talked my dad into getting me an appointment there. I suppose he had to pay for it, since it probably wasn't covered on the insurance plan. Anyway, on the night before that appointment, I lay on my dear friend Heidi's wooden twin bed and I closed my eyes and I prayed and prayed and prayed.

My prayer was simple, and it went something like this: I know I'm strong, I know I can handle a lot. But this is too much. Between my family's problems, school, and my back, I just can't manage anymore. Please, take something away. One problem. Just one thing. Just one thing. Just one thing. Please, please, please.

The next morning my dad picked me up and drove me to the clinic. My stomach roiled and clutched. My dad seemed nervous, and I felt embarrassed to be causing everyone so much trouble. I knew it was unreasonable of me not to wear the brace. Judy Blume's Deenie had somehow adjusted to wearing hers, after all. What was wrong with me?

We rode the elevator up to one of the top floors, and waited in the lobby until we were called back to meet a handsome young doctor with a kind smile and an easy-going personality. He had me bend over for the millionth time in my life and took a look at the curve of my spine. He pinned my X-rays up against a lighted wall. He asked me lots of questions, most of about how long I'd been getting my periods, which made me blush, but ended up being my passport to freedom.

"Well, I'd say you're pretty well done growing, considering your menstrual history. Your spine isn't going to change rapidly now that your growth spurts are finished."

"So I don't have to wear the brace?"

"What brace have you been wearing? The Milwaukee?"

"No, it's not that one. I don't know the name of it."

He held out a chart showing many models of back braces, all so innocent-looking on the glossy, laminated brochure. "Can you pick it out here?"

I pointed to the brace that sat guiltily at home under my bed.

"Hmmm. That's odd. That brace wouldn't have any effect on your curvature at all. I guess I'd recommend you go home and make a planter out of it."  

A clear, white light flooded the hallway as my dad and I left. As we stood before the elevator waiting to go back down to the car, we threw our arms around each other in an uncharacteristic, whole-hearted embrace. We laughed out loud. And from the depths of my soul arose the words I would repeat again and again throughout the rest of my life, at the most unexpected times and places:Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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