4 + 5 = 9
November 2, 2022 / Hayle Chen
What’s it like, having it better?
Once, when I was younger, I frightened myself by looking in a full length mirror. With baby fat still rounding my cheeks and a habit for regarding any reflective surface with an intentional pause, I found myself doe-eyed, at the mercy of peering into the looking glass. There was no ghastly sight, no egregious fashion faux-pas, but when my eyes tracked down the planes of my legs and landed on my bare feet, I jolted with something akin to horror.
It was a jarring sight, that specific aspect of my reflection that apparently so many others saw. When the shock wore off and I calmly regarded myself, I made a mental note.
So, this is nine.
I’m four years old and I’m in a room awash in fluorescent blue. There’s a chill within the four walls that seeps into the uneven planes and crevices of my body: the curve of my neck, the smooth expanse of my legs, the canals of my nostrils. It’s cold and it’s dark; it’s sweltering and blinding. I’m scared.
I have to lie in the bed and wear the heavy vest and I’m writhing around because it feels like I’m being restrained. I’m gasping for air, taking breaths that don’t reach my lungs entirely — they can’t because they’re too shallow and dry and all-consuming. If this is drowning, I think I’m drowning. This is a dream; it’s not a dream. It’s a garbled memory, a night terror that returns and returns and returns until its inky tendrils bleed into my psyche.
What’s wrong with me, what’s wrong with me, what’s wrong with me, what’s wrong with me.
What are they doing to me?
(I am on the radiology floor and this is my annual X-ray.)
I’m seven years old and I’m sitting in a corner seat of a child-friendly waiting area. There’s no clinical smell or disconcerting bright lights, but there are children around me that scare me so profoundly I don’t dare turn my head side to side.
From my peripheral vision, there is a girl my age whose spine so drastically curves her body that she cannot sit straight. There is a boy with no arms, another child with no legs. Around us vividly colored images whirl on the TV, and there are tantalizing board games I ache to touch amidst the small interactive play area. Toys sprawl across the floor on a designated playmat.
I am ignorant, I am confused, I am not like them, I think. I stay glued to my seat. This hospital is a mistake: a silly, confusing, annual mistake.
The doctors call us in. I strip my clothes and change into a flimsy medical gown, and I smile at the nice attending whose cold, probing hands inspect my knees, my hips, my small foot. He tells me that my legs are growing at different rates and my hips will be uneven. Surgery is in the cards.
My stomach roils.
I am like them.
I’m eight years old and I wear each excused absence note for hospital check-ups like a badge of honor. I understand where I’m going now. My parents make a holiday of the situation: we will wake up bright and early and hop into the car to drive to Dallas. I know after we traverse the Christmas market on the ground floor, peer into the kaleidoscope on the fourth, and meet with the doctors I’ve seen since I was an infant, we’ll get buttery popcorn from the carnival booth near the entrance and go to my favorite Chinese restaurant.
My parents will indulge me and make me feel exceptional and I will revel in it. I am different, and I love it. I see children my age with different orthopedic conditions and, now a little older — now less fearful of the surroundings that once felt so acutely foreign — I feel a deep kinship.
I’m like them, I’m like them, I’m like them.
I look down at my foot, swinging in time with my other one, encased in practical tennis shoes. No evidence that anything is amiss, that there’s anything wrong at all.
I’m like them.
I’m nine years old and it’s the summertime and I’m being prepared for surgery. I count down backwards from ten as the anesthesiologist grips my arm and I feel the prick of the needle, but by the time I reach eight I’m already unconscious.
I wake up in a haze of squirming pain, garbled “you did so well”s and assurances that the growth plates they stunted in my right leg will indeed allow my left leg to catch up. Lifelong hip pain averted.
When I was born, doctors told my parents an unsought prophecy: I would likely never walk.
In letters sent to me throughout the years — ones I would read at end-of-the year ceremonies and school and religious retreats — my parents would confess their fear of the difficult life I might live if I never achieved that crucial milestone.
I did: a miracle made flesh.
I was born with four toes on my left foot, arranged in an illogical formation that can’t be mentally conceived unless I were to show you myself.
If I tug on the aglets of my laces, slip off my two sizes too big left shoe, and shed the comfort of my cotton socks like I’ve been asked to many times in elementary school, it would reveal an obvious abnormality — a deep-seated insecurity.
Except I was raised in a household that potently celebrated my physical abnormality. Each shoe purchase was indulgent: I could select a pricier pair because having two feet in completely different sizes made simple purchases into painstaking ones. My soccer coaches would help me tie my laces extra tight before they cheered me on as I raced down the field to score the winning goal. I grew up proud of being a little different. I found joy in the specific instances of special treatment where any minor injury or momentary foot pain was a cause for a full barrage of coddling. On an annual hospital visit, I waited with bated breath hoping that the doctors would tell me that this irregularity was genetic because my foot was unique and cool and my future children could be as cool as me too.
Nobody in my family saw it any differently: I had one small foot and one regular foot and that was simply a fact.
That era of my life, the one before school and interacting with peers fully came into the equation, sometimes feels like a shuttered haze of naivete. Growing up with a physical deformation also made hushed whispers and pointed stares when I wore sandals, went swimming, or simply existed, par for the course. Outside the expansive home bubble where everyone already knew everything about me, life was decidedly different — more cruel, less accepting. For every derisive stare or outlandish “what is that?”, a sticky balm of embarrassment and shame would coat my lips, my throat, my heart. How could people be shocked and disgusted by something I could never change? Confronting those who celebrate differences in theory, but chafe and recoil in practice, is a lesson in resilience.
Life for me was always destined to be a little more difficult.
For all the saccharine memories I hold of comparing my irregular footprints with that of my siblings after emerging from the pool on a sweltering summer day, I also remember standing in a circle at the end-of-the-summer dance while my closest camp friend pointed at my exposed foot in borrowed heels asking if I somehow was playing a joke on them. And yet still — for all the moments I’ve grieved my chance at normality, annual hospital visits would sober me again.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve grappled with this notion of “having it better.” I would see a child my age that couldn’t easily slip their foot into a shoe and go about their day at school with nobody noticing. Where my peculiarity was a facet of myself I often had agency in choosing to unveil, other children perpetually existed in what I chose to be a revelatory moment, a trusted secret amongst friends.
In a way, I’ve always had to be that miracle that was made flesh. Wasn’t I lucky that I was able to stand at that dance at all? I’ve always had to value the fact that I could walk more than I noticed that my peers were cruel. That day, when I peered into that mirror and regarded the reflection of my small foot as others would see, I flinched. Not from fear of myself, but with the realization that my foot did look funny, alien from that perspective. For a moment I thought: How could I blame them?
Growing up, I’ve lived with a mental juxtaposition between valuing my singularity while wishing I didn’t have to brace for the impact of judgment. I often toy with different realities that will never come to fruition. I ruminate upon an existence that could have defined me so dissimilarly:
“She most likely will never walk.”
In another universe, I didn’t.
Perhaps it doesn’t particularly matter: the happiness and strife is all ultimately me. ■
By: Hayle Chen
Graphics by: Caroline Clark
Graphics by: Caroline Clark