Born a Little Broken

Origin stories, and tales the body tells

Photo: Lisa Hartman

II was born a little broken. The problem was quickly diagnosed and named, so the professionals could easily discuss my brokenness with my parents. “A congenital hip problem,” they were told. A mild birth defect. It explains so much. Or maybe nothing at all.

To illustrate my problem, make a fist with your right hand. Now, cup the top of that fist with your left hand. This represents the hip joint — if you swing your right arm a bit, you’ll get a sense of how the hip bone moves in its joint when you walk, or run, or bend. Now, flatten your left hand atop the fist. If you swing the right arm, the fist slips away from the left hand. The joint doesn’t hold. That’s me. That flat hand atop a fist — that’s the hip I was gifted at birth. I was unfinished.

The hips are the center, the seat of power, the pivotal hinge. The hip is a ball-and-socket synovial joint, synovial essentially meaning lubricated. When the femur swings in its ball joint, as it is meant to, we have locomotion. Our bodies can then power over land, or through water, and stir up all sorts of trouble. If, however, the socket is a sandwich plate, the ball slips with movement and progress is impossible. Mine was a janky body and, without interference, would never walk, or run, or bend the way it should. I was going nowhere.

Cue the interference.

MyMy parents were very young and critically naive in 1963. They were kids, really, and one night they unknowingly made a broken kid of their own. The marriage was shotgun, and brief. With no gods to fault for her defective baby, my mother blamed my father. He took his new, pregnant bride to see The Seventh Seal, Ingmar Bergman’s tale of Death and chess on a beach. The dark film, an allegory of man’s search for meaning — a dense, plodding, Scandinavian affair — was not my mother’s genre. She is drawn to nature documentaries and feel-good romance. The Swede fractured her rose-colored glasses and broke the baby in her womb. She was sure of it; it was her best explanation.

The problem was detected quickly, thanks to the Barlow maneuver, a physical examination performed on infants to screen for developmental dysplasia of the hip. This was just two years after the conclusion of the test’s clinical trial, so I count detection as a bit of luck. The maneuver is performed by bringing the infant’s thigh towards the midline while applying light pressure on the knee. If the hip is dislocable — that is, if the hip can be popped out of its socket — the test is considered positive. I watched doctors do this with all four of my own newborns, holding my breath while they stirred the babies’ little knees around and around, solemnly feeling for skeletal irregularities. They were all fine; I avoided Bergman while pregnant, just in case.

History is a parade of defect, people climbing over their hurdles and getting on with it. Perhaps my early breaking had big plans for me.

The first few years of my life, I wore a cast on the broken side of my body. Daddy — the keeper of the tale — says the cast extended from armpits to knees, keeping my tiny body splayed like a spatchcocked chicken. There was a hole for diapers; they were just pushed in and pulled out as needed, no pins or fastenings, the cast being the container. It must have been a miserable mess.

I have no memory of it, but there are pictures. Girl in a cast. A tiny smiling girl, splay-legged on a wee trike; a shy, pale girl, stiff-legged on a bouncy horse; a goofy, curled girl, wide-legged on a blanket on my grandmother’s floor. It was all I ever knew — the trauma was largely for my parents to manage. They say I was hell on that trike, dashing about madly and terrorizing the small dog. We are adaptive and, without the ability to walk, wheels were my adaptation.

My distant ancestors would likely have abandoned me to the wolves, the needy little broken thing that I was. In low moments, I sometimes think I wasn’t supposed to survive. But that’s ridiculous self-indulgence. Claudius, the Roman emperor who conquered Britain, is rumored to have been hard of hearing and walked with a limp. Queen Elizabeth I suffered panic attacks and all manner of tooth and gum traumas. Stevie Wonder’s birthright blindness didn’t stop him. History is a parade of defect, people climbing over their hurdles and getting on with it.

Perhaps my early breaking had big plans for me.

AtAt an annual doctor’s appointment, through all my growing years, he would monitor my development and the severity of my infirmity. My parents were warned that I would always limp, and these appointments included a runway judgment of my gait. The doctor would instruct me to walk down a long, narrow hallway, away from him and back, as he inspected me for imperfection. I remember the discomfort of scrutiny as I got older, my blossoming girl body already edging into the harsh glare of the world. In my 14th year, he proclaimed me a miracle. Something about my walk that day, or his perception of it, must have been close enough to perfection. My grandmother, until her death, called me her “miracle child.”

My mother doesn’t speak of it; never once has she discussed my origin story with me. She gave me a plush pink bunny from my newborn crib and recounted her status as the only nursing mother on the ward — but not a word about my brokenness. My father says she was in denial. All the stories are from his perspective.

He tells how the hospital offered “extra exams that cost more” and how he said “yes,” in spite of his youth and his dollar-an-hour job. How it was one of those extra exams that discovered the problem. How the receptionist wouldn’t let him take my mother and me home until the bill was paid. “She stays until you pay.” He tells how he begged money from his father to spring us from the hospital and how he got aid to cover my subsequent treatment. How the doctor lectured him, after seeing my mother and grandmother shopping in town. “If you can afford that, you can afford this.” He tells of taking me to the Washington Sanitarium to have my cast changed, and about the pure, pit-of-gut terror he felt the first time he saw the doctor with what looked like a carpenter’s skill saw. The doctor promised the blade wouldn’t cut skin, and it didn’t. Daddy still seems to remember that terror with particular acuity — a man with a blade, aiming for his baby girl.

He has also mentioned taking me for traction. These sessions are largely lost to the mists of time, the work of a mind erasing the toughest bits, as my father can’t remember anything about it. He can barely recall that it occurred, but I remember him telling me years ago that it was the traction that haunted him the most. That, and the saw.

I remember none of it.

It’s interesting what we do with the stories we’re told about ourselves.

In all my memories of childhood, I am active and athletic. I rode horses and bikes, played racquet sports and softball, and was the fastest kid in primary school. A tomboy to the core, I spent summers up trees and underwater, and was fiercely committed to beating everyone on fields of play. The story of my first few broken years — the story of casts and traction and doctors — is just that, to me: a story. In it, I was a tiny brave heroine, unfettered by the cast and unfazed by the poking and prodding of professionals. If there was trauma for me, it’s not in the memory banks. It must, however, be part of the fabric of me; learned trauma a thread in the weave of my life. Perhaps the traction explains my occasional claustrophobia; perhaps the saw and my father’s infectious terror set the table for panic. I’ll never know. My father says I was never bothered by any of it, seemingly at relative ease with the odd medical rituals.

In the beginning, my parents were told that I would never walk correctly and managed it in divergent ways. My father soldiered through, filing away the terror for future stories; my mother chose the path of denial and was spared the worst of it, I imagine, by him. At night, I slept in something the doctors laughingly called a “cookie” — a metal bar with two shoes on it, designed to keep my legs in the same position at all times. It sounds medieval; my mother’s denial is not surprising. Daddy carried me on his shoulders. He says the cast rubbed holes in his shirts and left him with wounds. This is his story, the details stored in his consciousness, and he only shares when I ask. That is past, but a prologue to what?

TThe body is the foundation, the house in which we build a life, the architecture of being. The set of the bones lays the groundwork for the rest. Short, tall, wide, narrow, brittle, or resilient, the skeleton is the underpinning of the whole machine. It determines how we grow, how we move, how we rest, how we thrive or not. We want a house with “good bones” for good reason. We all want good bones.

As an adult, my hips are likely like yours, aside from the story. I walk distances and lurch ungracefully around tennis courts. I do yoga and ride my bike. I’ve had four uneventful pregnancies and four births that people would call easy, though each was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I squat to pick strawberries, bend to tie shoes, and carried children on each side for years, like saddle bags. These hips are solid now, even the broken one, providing me the foundation to live the life I’ve built.

When my yoga teacher says, “hinge from the hips and bend,” I do so without thought for the fact that I couldn’t, in the beginning. And it feels good. It feels normal, natural, an expected function of a body that works. The beginning is a story, told to me by my father, gauzily supported by a handful of old, black-and-white photos. The hinge was made whole by years in a stabilizing cast and some forgotten sessions in a traction torture chamber. My yoga teacher says the hips are the seat of emotion: “We hold a lot of shit in our hips,” she says.

I worry, because of this story, what does my future body hold? Will this forced socket support my aging? Is my hip as strong as yours, is it up to the natural weakening of the bones? Are my emotions trapped in that makeshift joint? Midcentury modern medicine wrestled my bones into submission, shaped my skeleton like clay, and crossed its fingers. When the hip complains, as they both do here in midlife, the part of my brain that has memorized the story lights up and panics. Is this it? The beginning of the final breakdown? Has my origin story written hip replacement surgery into the late chapters? I’ve taken this aching, aging hip to acupuncturists and massage therapists, along with the story, and they work out the kinks but don’t seem to know what to do with the narrative. A mildly curious “huh” is all I’ve ever been able to inspire, while to me this is the story of my body!

My infrastructure problem is theoretically hereditary. The same genes that gave me hazel eyes, an ample backside, and a quick temper also gave me a misshapen critical joint. The same genes that built me, broke me a little. Those genes gave me a first project, a challenge, and a mountain for my parents to climb. Trauma, perhaps more theirs than mine, was whipped up in utero and delivered along with me — their oops baby in a season of blushing youth. Having a baby as a kid will make you grow up fast. Having a broken baby will test you in the fires of fate and lay the groundwork for your big girl, or big boy, life.

Beyond the genes, though, it’s interesting what we do with the stories we’re told about ourselves.

“You were a good baby.”

“You were born with a heart murmur.”

“You never slept.”

“You were premature. Breech. Late.”

“You were broken.”

I was born with a flaw that could make me forever lame.

TThere is a nest of phoebes in the barn, one of the babies hanging over the side, its leg tangled in woven grass. We imagined it had been hanging there for a while, but it was still clearly alive. My husband carefully took it down and we delicately unraveled the material twined around the baby’s toothpick leg. He then carefully placed the tiny bird, who seemed spirited and quite well, back in the nest with its siblings. Three times later that day, the bird was on the ground beneath the nest; three times, we carefully put it back. The third time seemed the charm, as we saw no evidence of the baby outside the nest into the evening. The next day, however, we discovered the tiny body, dead in a bucket, just below the nest.

Had the mother bird rejected the broken baby? Was the dangling from the nest enough to damage the leg, causing her to kick it out? Was this some real-time Darwinian drama at work in my barn?

Our origin stories are woven into our identities, fact and fiction, for better and worse. Who I am is who I was is who I will be.

I sit here, post-yoga, with an aching hip. Aging? Hormones? Or is this the shadow, long-delayed, of my birthright brokenness? Motion is lotion, they say, so I’ll get on my bike. I’ll pedal slowly to town, maybe buy a bottle of wine, balm for the middle. I’ll get on the floor, or stand in the sun, and stretch. I’ll get a massage and take analgesics. It may be, however, that no amount of pills, pedaling, stretching, massage, or wine will calm my strange bones, artificially muscled into place in my unknowing baby body. Those years of immobility in the hinge of my center may have coaxed correct bone growth, but it robbed me of early training in motion. Though I am, supposedly, a miracle — walking well when no one expected it — perhaps I still have a hitch. Perhaps my left side, with its attendant aches and complaints, whispers to me daily of those early years. Perhaps my wonky left knee and my troublesome left foot are all born of my compromised left hip. Perhaps the broken isn’t broken at all — perhaps it was just a failure to fully form, a bun too soon out of the oven. Perhaps I wasn’t finished, and the finishing had to be cobbled together later, with casts and saws, crossed fingers, and sessions with strangers.

As birth defects go, mine is but a sneeze. Babies are born with all manner of abnormalities, from benign to fatal. Many suffer great hardship, many are born into a brokenness from which they will never recover. Some are broken down and forgotten. Some don’t live past the first days — they know only struggle, and their parents endure a brief, horrid window of hope and grief, followed by a lifetime of questions and mourning. To build an imperfect body elicits guilt, shame, anger, sadness, and a chorus of “why me’s?” And, as in my mother’s case, denial and magical thinking. “It’s Ingmar Bergman’s fault. Damn Freddy for putting me through that dark, Scandinavian nightmare.”

But this is the body I was given, and this is the body that has given me four children, buckets of strawberries, long walks, and bike rides. This is my structure and my story.

TThere’s a picture of me, on the beach, about five years old. I’m leaning on an off-kilter beach umbrella wearing a jaunty, navy blue one-piece. My hair is gold straw and my freckled face is full of sassy attitude, one hand on a cocked hip. Summer child, full of herself, staring down the camera and the sun with overbrimming confidence. It’s not the picture of a broken child, not the image of mending. The broken child, however, haunts me still. Even without memory, even with only a story — a distant tale filled with gaps and questions — my hip is still a haunting thing. It’s a thing I grapple with in sickness, a thing I worried when pregnant, and with the bodies of my babies. I was skewed and now I’m not. Or am I? I am still skewed somewhere, somehow. I must be.

Our bodies — the fact of them, the shape and the structure and the very sinew of them — are infused with experience and emotion. The fact of the body is fleshed out by the stories we tell, and are told, about it.

I write to connect, to find my place among my fellows and share a common experience. But I also write to know myself, to untangle the threads of my story and see if there’s an instructive truth in it. Is my temper my grandmother’s, or is it the hours of traction I endured with no language to complain? Is my caution inbred or is it born of baby trauma? Are these tears caused by the sappy advertisement or the mute sadness of broken beginnings? There is, ultimately, no pure truth hidden in these psychic haystacks. It’s like a stew, with each element touching and flavoring the next. Our bodies — the fact of them, the shape and the structure and the very sinew of them — are infused with experience and emotion. The fact of the body is fleshed out by the stories we tell and are told, about it. My body was broken in the beginning because I was told that it was. There’s a supporting narrative and — look! — there are pictures. See the cast? The cant of my legs?

OOrigin stories are filled with magical thinking — season, time of day, zodiac, complications, attendees. Born in a car, in a field, early, late. Born screaming, silent, born with a thatch of hair, bald as a cue ball. Born with a caul. My husband is told that his mother had all signs of a miscarriage while carrying him and, yet, here he is. The story is a twin, evicted by my husband, a ghost sibling in the tale he tells himself. I saw a shooting star through the skylight as I labored with my youngest, and now it is part of her origin story. Does it mean anything? Probably not, but it’s hers now. Conceived under Hale-Bopp, born under a shooting star. She’ll tell this story to herself, and to her future.

My parents were told a tale about me; a tale about a broken baby. It started with a problem, named at the beginning and setting in motion a narrative. Our origin stories are woven into our identities, fact and fiction, for better and worse. Who I am is who I was is who I will be. There are stories in bodies, and there is meaning in stories — because we put it there. We name the problems, set the stage, and watch the stories unfold.

Write it down.

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