1954, Part 5

David’s braces were essentially ten pounds of metal, turning his legs into two stiff rods. The metal ran down the full length of his legs, from his heels to his groin. They bound around the thigh and calf with thick leather cases, and there was a lock at the knee, but it didn’t really function anything like a real knee joint.

On his first day of rehab with the braces, one of the nurses named Jenny helped him put on the braces while he was lying in bed. Jenny was a pretty young nurse only a couple years older than David was—twenty years old, at the most. As she showed him how to lock and unlock the knee joint, he realized how pathetic she must have thought he was, needing those heavy braces to walk. It was harder to transfer into his wheelchair with the braces, so he needed Jenny’s help.

As he watched her moving his feet into the footrests of the chair, he blurted out, “Would you ever date a guy who wore leg braces?”

David couldn’t believe he had said that. He had been thinking it, but somehow the words had come out. He immediately blushed and turned his face away, “Sorry.”

Jenny didn’t seem embarrassed at all. She sat down on the bed so that she was eye level with him and smiled kindly. “I wouldn’t date one of my patients,” she said. “But if I met a fellow somewhere else who was as cute as you, I wouldn’t care if he walked with leg braces.”

David returned her smile, although he doubted her answer. He wondered how Marilyn was going to react when she saw the braces. He couldn’t imagine she was going to like them much. He wondered if it might be possible to conceal them under his pants.

Jenny wheeled David to the gym for his rehab. The gym contained many sets of parallel bars, each with mirrors at the end of them. There were guys on each set of bars, struggling to walk. Some were walking without support, but most of them had on heavy braces. Several guys had on orthopedic corsets to support their weak back muscles.

Jenny wheeled David up to a set of parallel bars, where a man was waiting for him. “Hi, David,” the man said. “I’m Arthur, your physical therapist.” He held out his hand and David shook it. “I hear you’re a football star.”

Not anymore. David shrugged. Now that he knew he’d never walk again on his own, it felt like salt on the wounds whenever someone brought up football.

“They probably worked you pretty hard in football practice,” Arthur said. David nodded. “So then you should be used to it. I guarantee you’re going to be working hard in here, but it’s your only chance of walking with these braces.”

Arthur bent down and examined David’s legs. “Lot of atrophy here,” Arthur commented.

“I know,” David mumbled. Compared to how his legs looked before he got polio, they looked like useless sticks (which, he supposed, they were).

“Some of these muscles are dead and you’ll never get them working for you,” Arthur said. “You’ve got to work on building up what you’ve got left.” “I’ll work hard,” David promised.

Arthur nodded. “Okay, let’s get you on your feet.”

This was the first time David had stood up since he first got sick. Arthur helped him the whole way, locking his knees for him so that his legs became like solid rods. It was a dizzying sensation to be standing and he felt very precarious—he held onto the parallel bars for dear life. But still, it felt great to be standing up again.

Until he looked in the mirror at the other end of the parallel bars. He saw the reflection of a boy with heavy leg braces, his arms shaking with the effort of keeping himself upright. A word immediately popped into David’s head: cripple.

“Oh god,” he whispered.

“What’s wrong?” Arthur asked gruffly. “You gonna pass out on me, Dave?”

He couldn’t say what he was thinking. I don’t want to be the crippled kid. But it was obvious from looking in the mirror that’s what he was now. He’d never be able to hide the braces in a million years. It made him feel like giving up. He could already get around with the wheelchair...what was the point of walking when it made him look like such a freak?

Somehow Arthur read his thoughts. “Look David, the only way you’re going to walk again for the rest of your life is with braces and crutches. If you stay in the wheelchair, you’re going to be a lot more limited than you will be with the braces. Believe me, you’re going to get very comfortable with the braces.”

David lowered his eyes, trying to avoid looking at his own reflection. “Okay,” he finally said.

Arthur gave him instructions on how to move his legs. He felt like he was walking like Frankenstein’s monster, with wide swinging steps, but at least he was walking. Sort of. Last year, David used to run a hundred laps a day and now he became drenched in sweat just from going half the length of the parallel bars. His face was red and flushed and his biceps were twitching.

“I think you’ve had it,” Arthur said. He didn’t look impressed. “I thought you were an athlete.”

“I guess I’m out of shape,” David said. He didn’t feel like arguing—he just wanted his wheelchair.

Arthur brought the wheelchair up behind him and unlocked his knees so that he could sit down. David collapsed into the wheelchair, breathing hard. He was disappointed in himself.

“We’ll try again later,” Arthur said. He frowned at David, “Don’t expect to get out of that chair if you don’t put in the effort. Compared to this, football practice is going to seem like a walk in the park.”

To be continued...