When David’s 18th birthday came around, he didn’t really feel much like celebrating. He’d never thought he’d be spending the most important birthday of his life so far in the hospital, in rehab learning to walk again. He had gotten a lot better at walking with braces and crutches, but he still hated the way they made him look. He knew he was going to be looked at as disabled for the rest of his life.
The day of his birthday, he received a pass from the hospital to go home for the day. His mother brought him some nice clothes from home and he managed to get dressed all by himself. Jenny just helped him put on his braces and shoes, but that was it. As he stood up unsteadily, leaning on his crutches, Jenny flashed him a wide smile. “You look so handsome, David,” she said.
He blushed and didn’t say anything. He didn’t feel good about himself like this, no matter what Jenny said.
As David was crutching out of his room, Tom passed by in his wheelchair. David should have seen it coming, but he lost his balance when Tom deliberately knocked his wheel into one of David’s crutches. Before he could regain his balance, David found himself on the floor, his face inches away from the ground.
David had fallen many, many times. He had been afraid of falling at first, but now he knew it was part of learning to walk with braces. Arthur taught him to roll into the fall. He had a few bruises on him, but he was decent at falling these days.
“Tom, you apologize for that!” Jenny cried.
Instead of apologizing, Tom wheeled around and grinned wickedly down at David, who was struggling on the floor. “Hey Dave, I think I saw your family come in.”
David looked up and saw that his parents and little brother had all entered the hallway at the worst possible moment, and were now staring at him sprawled out on the ground. David’s face flushed bright red and he murmured to Jenny: “Please help me stand up.” He could get back on his feet by himself, but he didn’t want his family to witness that laborious process.
His father helped too and they got David back on his feet fairly quickly. Jenny handed him his crutches. His parents were smiling at him, although they both looked a little pale.
“You look really good on those crutches, son,” his father said.
David knew his father was trying to sound positive, but the words sounded ridiculous to him. He knew how he looked and “good” didn’t describe it.
David needed help from his father in order to get into the car. He leaned on his father’s shoulder as he handed over the crutches and then lowered his butt into the back seat. He unlocked the knee joint and had to pick up his legs to move them into the car. Once he was inside, his dad took his crutches and stored them in the trunk. Richie slid into the seat next to David and picked up a football that was lying on the floor. He began tossing it in the air as their father started the engine.
“Richie, I told you: not in the car,” his mother snapped.
“But Mom!” Richie cried. He sighed and dropped the football back onto the floor of the car. He turned to his big brother. “Hey Dave, when will you be able to play on the team again?”
That was all Richie ever seemed to care about. The car fell into an awkward silence. David knew that he had to tell Richie the truth eventually. But he wished he could keep lying for just a little while longer.
“Rich,” his father said slowly, “we already talked to you about this. David can’t play anymore.”
Richie rolled his eyes at David. “Yeah, I know.”
“It’s true,” David said. It was one of the hardest things he ever had to say. “I won’t be able to walk anymore without braces and crutches. I can’t play football.”
Richie frowned and looked down at David’s legs. He put the football down on the seat between them. When he lifted his eyes again, he looked like he had just been wounded. He didn’t speak for the rest of the ride.
When they reached the house, David saw that his father hadn’t put a ramp at the entrance so there were still stairs leading up to the front door. He hadn’t mastered stairs yet and he was concerned he might fall if he attempted these now. He crutched his way unsteadily across the lawn to the stairs and tested his balance by putting one crutch on the first step. This wasn’t going to happen. “Dad, I need some help getting up the stairs,” he said finally.
David felt like the eyes of everyone in the neighborhood were on him as he attempted to mount the stairs, leaning heavily on his father’s shoulder. His braces were probably visible from a block away. All he could think about was that he wanted to go back to rehab, where people wouldn’t stare because they were all crippled like him.
Sally Jones was thrilled when she heard from her parents that David Barnett would be coming home for his birthday. It wasn’t like she got to see David much before he got sick, but she found that she missed those occasional times when they saw each other and chatted for a few minutes. She missed David’s smile and his nice green eyes.
Sally had heard her parents speaking about David in hushed tones. They said that David was on crutches now. Permanently. “What a shame, he won’t ever be able to play football again.”
When she first found out David was sick, Sally went to her bedroom and sobbed. She couldn’t imagine David being crippled like those kids with polio she saw on television. She pictured him lying in an iron lung, struggling to breathe, and the thought made her wretch.
Yet, in a strange way, Sally saw this as an opportunity. In her darkest fantasies, Sally imagined David being brought home in an iron lung, completely crippled and helpless. He would be deep in depression, but Sally would show him that a woman could still find him sexually attractive, despite his paralysis.
David was now dependent on legbraces, but he was hardly helpless. Still, Sally knew that his old girlfriend Marilyn had moved on to another fellow, and he’d probably never be able to date a girl like her again. He wasn’t a football hero anymore. He was a polio victim.
Sally decided to go visit David on his birthday. She wore her best dress and set her hair the night before. She knew the rehab center where David had been was boys-only, so he probably hadn’t seen a girl his age in a long time. He’d have to be thrilled to see him.
She waited till the afternoon, when she was certain David would be home already. She skipped down the block and knocked on the door to the Barnett house. Mrs. Barnett opened the door and Sally was surprised to see how tired she looked. “Oh, hello, Sally,” Mrs. Barnett said, managing a small smile. “You must be here to see David.”
Sally tried to smile back. “Well, if that’s okay…”
Mrs. Barnett lowered her eyes. “To be honest, Sally, I don’t know if he’s up for it.” She bit her lip. “But maybe you could knock on his door. You might cheer him up.”
Sally didn’t like the way this sounded. She smoothed out her dress and patted her hair before she knocked on the door to the den, which was now David’s room. She was somewhat afraid of what she might see. The entire Barnett household seemed to have an air of sobriety hanging over it.
Sally cracked open the door and saw David lying on his bed, listening to the radio. She felt a rush of relief when she saw that he looked pretty much the same, although it was hard not to notice thick metal braces over his pants going all the way up his legs and the pair of crutches leaning against his desk. His tan from crouching on the football field all day was completely faded. Another thing she had never seen before was David’s green eyes rimmed with red. “Oh, hey Sally,” he said quietly.
She stepped inside the room, timidly inching towards him. He looked about twenty pounds thinner, although he still had the same broad shoulders, lean chest, and firm muscles peeking out from under his shirt. But it was the leg braces that drew her attention.
“How are you?” Sally asked him.
David managed a weak smile. “I’ve been better.”
“I’ve missed you at school,” she said.
“Me too,” David said.
Sally wasn’t sure what that meant, but she felt encouraged by his answer. A new rock and roll song came on the radio and Sally began bobbing her head in time to the music. “I love this song,” she said.
David looked down at his legs. “Yeah, it looks like it would be fun to dance to.”
Sally didn’t know what to say to that. She had pictured her first meeting with David a million different ways, but never like this. He wouldn’t even look at her.
His next question didn’t make things better: “How is Marilyn doing?”
As much as she loved David, she thought he was a fool for not realizing the real reason that Marilyn had agreed to go steady with him. Marilyn wanted a football hero, not some cripple with legbraces. “David,” Sally said. “Marilyn is going out with someone else.”
David’s eyes widened. “Already?”
“David, you know how she is…”
“Is he a football player?” David asked.
“Well, yeah. He’s, uh… he’s the new quarterback.”
David’s eyes widened for a moment, then he shook his head. “Yeah, of course…”
He looked like he was going to start crying and Sally felt her heart speed up. She gently placed her hand on his right leg to comfort him and she felt the stiff metal underneath her fingers. He stared at her. “What are you doing?”
Sally yanked her hand away. “Nothing. I just—”
“What? You want to see them?” David snapped.
“I don’t blame you,” David said. He pulled up his right pants leg as best he could, revealing his thin, useless limb that only functioned with the support of those heavy braces. “There? Does that satisfy your curiosity? You got a look, so now you can go tell all your friends that David Barnett is crippled for life.”
Sally felt her own eyes fill with tears. “David, I didn’t mean to—”
“Just go, Sally.”
The words I love you were on the tip of her tongue, but she couldn’t manage to say them. One look at the pain and hurt in David’s eyes was enough to silence her.
to be continued...