**This is an excerpt from a longer essay in my creative thesis/book/whatever we’re calling it this week. The longer essay is structured around definitions related to limb difference, but I’m posting this section in honor of my mom.
a • nom’ • a • ly
- something that deviates from what is standard, normal or expected.
According to my mother’s telling of the story, the first word that hit my earthside ears was a profanity. When the obstetrician instructed my mother not to push, she could no more “not push” than hop off the gurney and run around the block, and I, as the story goes, emerged with speed and force on the last involuntary push. The obstetrician greeted me: “Damn it!”
My mother was not pleased.
Mom, who has never uttered a curse word in my presence in all my forty-five years of life, never told me what the doctor actually said, only that it happened. Whether the profanity was uttered because I made my entrance with haste into an environment that was possibly less than sterile, or whether it was because of the hand deformity I arrived with, don’t know, but I spent my first few hours of life sealed in a plastic box called an Isolette.
While the other mothers in the maternity ward were brought their babies to nurse and bond with every few hours, mom was forced to make the walk from her room to the nursery to visit me behind glass and plastic, for my first day or so at least. Meanwhile, Mom’s roommate was having trouble breastfeeding and swore at her baby in frustration, which saddened and angered my mother, who’d have loved to have had the opportunity to even try to nurse me.
I was a longed-for child. I was born in February of 1973, well before the days of routine ultrasounds for low-risk pregnancies. My parents had no idea I would come into the world with a left hand half the size of my right, fingers fused like a mitten. As the story goes, mom and dad had tried for a pregnancy for years, unsuccessfully, and they were about to pursue adoption when I came along. I’d heard the story of my birth in short sketches as I grew up, but it wasn’t until I was around ten that I asked the question that had been burning in my mind, but I hadn’t mustered the courage to ask. When you’re ten, you start to notice things. Things like an expectant mother saying to another mom, “boy or girl, I don’t care as long as it’s healthy…” You notice the devastated reactions of mothers told ahead of time that their child will have Down syndrome, or a missing organ, or a developmental delay. You begin to understand that babies not born with all the expected equipment can be a tragedy and a disappointment. I couldn’t stand not knowing whether or not I was once one of those tragedies, one of those disappointments. I asked Mom in the kitchen as she was making the salad for dinner, “So, what did you really think when you saw my hand for the first time?”
She didn’t hesitate, didn’t even look up from the cutting board, as I remember. The doctor told them first about my hand, she said (I then remembered the story about my being whisked away to solitary confinement right after birth). She was just glad to have a baby, she said, and it just wasn’t a big deal. My grandparents, of course, were concerned, maybe more than she and dad were themselves. The doctor explained that I could have surgery on my hand at a year or two to separate my fingers and make it easier for me to do normal things like hold a pencil or grip the handlebars of a bike or type. It just wasn’t a big deal. They loved me just the way I was, and we’d figure it out.
“So, you weren’t disappointed? Sad?”
Now, I know my mother. She worries. She’s the kind of mom who, when I skinned my knee or fell off my bike, would lecture me on being more careful before she handed me the Bactine and the box of Band-Aids. Prevention is a love language to my mother, and worry is just another dialect of that love language. I’m sure that in those hours in postpartum recovery with me having been whisked away to my plastic box, she was plenty worried. I don’t even know that she got a chance to see any of me, let alone my hand, in those chaotic moments after birth. Being a mother myself now, I realize that she never had that moment I had with my own children, that exhaustingly triumphal moment of holding your own brand-new, bloody, messy newborn baby to your chest, making introductions. I’m sure that she worried, lying there listening to her roommate curse at her baby for being unable to latch, unsure of how much this unexpected difference would affect my life, let alone hers. In those first few hours and days, every mother, I think, imagines their newborn as they’ll grow up. We imagine what their voices will sound like, envision their first steps, their first day of school. I suspect her imaginings were colored with uncertainty. How much is this going to affect her? How much is this going to affect us as a family?
“No,” my mother replied to my question. Not sad or disappointed at all. Just glad to finally be a mom.
My parents’ nonchalant reaction to my limb difference colored my attitude about it and how I dealt with it as I grew up. I didn’t see my hand as a tragedy, because mom and dad never gave me reason to think of it that way. Neither did they make excuses for me. I learned to tie my shoes, to jump rope, to write my name. When people asked me questions about my hand, I was encouraged to answer them on my own, if I felt comfortable. My hand was just a part of me, not the most important part of me or what defined me. Not a big deal at all. I just had a different hand, and a mom and dad who loved me no matter what.