Sunday, March 9, 2014

5. ARM

(Today's word is "arm")

My left wrist is smaller than my right.  It is evidence of the mishaps of my childhood.  My poor left arm spent many months trapped inside a plaster cast during my formative years.  The first time I broke my left arm I was trying to shimmy across the top of a swing set in the rental house on National Drive.  My hands slipped, and my body met the ground elbow first.  My brother John was tending and I still easily conjure the tender feeling I had for him as he tried to comfort me until Mom got home. He carried me into the house, laid me on the couch and put a pillow under my arm. I was seven years old. They x-rayed and set it at Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh.  We returned to the hospital once a week for a couple months so I could show them that I could wiggle my fingers.  Now days they would x-ray again to make sure it was set correctly.  Not then. 
The second time I broke my left arm I fell from the crab apple tree in the front yard on Old Clairton Road.  We were pretending to fly a rocket ship, but I careened to earth without a parachute and once again I spent the hot summer in a plaster cast.  These were the sticky humid days of no air conditioning. Mom tucked her fingers down against the flesh of my upper arm and blew down into the smelly cavern.  We used a long metal milk shake spoon to reach down and scratch the sloughing skin, there in that dark, dank spot that saw no sunlight and no fresh water.  By midsummer when the cast was removed I sported one arm that was summer tan and another that was shriveled and winter white. 
That next summer, after I had purchased a stack of orchestral recording LP’s at the garage sale down the street, Libby and I choreographed ballets to the music of Greig. At one point my interpretation of Peer Gynt  evolved into a sort of Russian dance where I kicked my legs out in front of me.  My limited skill as a dancer, evident my whole life, found me on the floor with yet another broken wrist.  Right about the time I was due to have that cast removed our family took a trip to visit friends on the eastern shore.  I remember how uncomfortable that cast was, and feeling frustrated when the other kids got to swim.  Mom and I decided that we could just remove the cast ourselves. I had spent three summers protecting the plaster around my arm from water.  We wrapped my sweaty forearm in bread bags, tied with yarn at the top.  For some reason, because we had been so diligent in keeping water off the plaster, we thought a little water should just soften it right up and Mom could just snip it off with some pruning shears.  Not so.  I soaked that cast in a bucket of warm water for hours.  And I mean hours.  And I am surprised that we did not break the arm over again trying to get the thing off.  By the time we got the cast off the sun had set and my arm was a shriveled mess, the flesh itchy and sore, and my back hurt from the whole process. 
For years thereafter I would have spells when my left elbow would freeze up.  I could not straighten it out, and would sometimes wear a sling to school for days at a time until the pain dissipated and I was able to use it freely.  We never knew what caused those spells of elbow pain.  We assumed it was weather related.
When I was 22 years old and Dave and I had moved with our two babies back to Pittsburgh from New York, I was rolling down the window on our old yellow Toyota Corona.  The cars of our early marriage were bare bones work horses.  Dependable, and fixable by my husband because there were no electronic do-dads.  We had old fashioned windows you rolled down with your arm.  I heard a pop in my left elbow as I wound the window handle, and my elbow froze up.  Trying to carry and nurse a new baby, and care for a toddler with an arm frozen in the L shape soon became frustrating, besides being painful.  So I made a trip to the ER and they x-rayed my arm.  When the doctor came in to see me he asked if I had been able to use that arm.  I told him no, it had been stiff for days now.  He corrected himself, saying, “No, I mean have you been able to use that arm in the last ten years?”
“Yes.  Why?” 
“Well,” he went on, “look at this x-ray. See this joint in your elbow?  It is drastically misshapen.  In all reality you should not be able to use this arm, not in any normal useful way at least. You have obviously broken it and it was set improperly. A chip of cartilage has broken off and is lodged in your elbow, and it looks like this isn’t the first time the cartilage has dislodged.”
He gave me a cortisone shot and told me if I was able to use it at all then I should be grateful.  And indeed, I am. The ligaments or tendons that weave through the elbow joint have learned to adapt to their odd environment.

The doctor suggested that I must have had some physical therapy to make the arm useful, but I told him I had not.  It must have been a miracle.  I was a walking miracle!
In reality, I did have physical therapy on that arm.  I just didn’t call it physical therapy.  I called it making music. The gripping of the neck of my guitars, my elbow bent and my fingers clamping on and off the fret board, each finger doing its part in differing positions with my thumb stabilizing as the fingers pressed…all this was therapeutic and likely saved the arm for more practical uses like changing diapers and washing dishes and lifting fry pans and folding laundry.
Some might call it coincidence that my mother felt to purchase two Yamaha guitars and put them under the Christmas tree when I was 13 years old; one for Libby and the other for me.  Some would call it fortunate.  And for sure, it was. But I believe that it was not coincidental.  I think someone besides my mom knew that there were songs in me that needed to be written, and sung, and played.  And the same Someone knew that the process of writing and playing would also stretch those ligaments and make them useful to me, make my left arm useful to me. 

My left arm is smaller than my right, and it is not as strong, and I will never be able to do pull ups or push ups with it (not that I have tried, mind you). But I can play all my open chords on all my guitars, and barre chords, and hammer on’s and pull off’s.  I can do all this in spite of a joint an x-ray says should not work.


  1. Wow! I didn't know that! That is crazy. And amazing!

  2. Some miracles bring on blessings beyond measure...and we are the grateful recipients. Thank you for your gift of words this Easter Season...and every season past. We are so blessed by you!!