We look together at the x-ray, a vista of whites, greys, and blacks that light up the monitor. For me, this is a very familiar scene: the films, the diagnosis, the promise of correction. I am no longer surprised by your confidence (some would say cockiness) in the face of my errant body. But this time is different. I am different.
I tell you of a pain in the ball of my right foot. A searing pain that, unlike the other pains I juggle daily, I can no longer manage. You listen to my hurt, see its origin, run your finger along my illuminated and misaligned metatarsals. Now comes the familiar part: you talk correction of my toes, of my gait, of my foot drop, of my normal. A procedure reaching far beyond the three bones along which you skate your fingertips. Beyond this pain left by a previous surgeon sharing your corrective inclinations.
To correct is to make straight, set right, reform. Often, this verb is transitive, meaning it requires an object to receive the action. In this conversation, I am that object because the natural curvature of my high arches, the bending back of my hammertoes, and my swaying walk—a rhythmic rocking back and forth, back and forth, back and forth—are the very antithesis of straightness. Against the backdrop of my crooked body, the word correction sounds unnatural, violent even, as your finger jumps from metatarsal to tendon to phalange in the glowing image.
I was once told, as I sat in a chair very much like this one, staring at films of my foot two corrections ago, that my feet were a “surgeon’s dream” because of their need for correction. Imagine that! A dream. More recently, while sitting in another different but similar chair, I was told to anticipate a lifetime of surgeries, corrections upon corrections upon corrections. A lifetime of chasing that elusive straightness.
Like those surgeons, you understand that, for someone with my diagnosis, correction is always only temporary. Nothing, not your bone cutter or your scalpel, can strengthen the weakening signals to my peripheral nerves, arrest the atrophy of my muscles, or stem the gradual loss of my sensation, all characteristic of Charcot-Marie-Tooth Disorder. And yet. Our conversation is still about correctionrather than quality of life. Or pain management. While you stare at my x-ray, dreaming of straightness, I dream of a trip to the grocery store. A walk to the park, or even just down the street, with my children. A day at work. A life possible in this crooked body.
When I had this same pain in the ball of my left foot a dozen years ago, yet another surgeon suggested that, while I was under anesthesia, he “might as well” straighten my toes, too. As if it were such a small thing. Young and uncertain and quietly eager for the correction of my clawing digits, I consented. Six weeks after surgery, I stared in disbelief at my straightened, set right, reformed toes. Corrected! Having been fused, their straightness was a rigid one, carrying the aura of permanence.
Now, less young and less uncertain and less eager, I show you those same toes. At once inflexible and clawed, they have slowly, slowly moved their way back into their trademark position. Defying correction. Unlike the clawing toes on my right foot—ones that I can stretch out with my hands and whose ache can be eased with a light massage—these once-correct toes do not budge. Their fusion cannot be undone, even if their correction has been. To walk with them is painful, and to stub them, even lightly, excruciating. There is no relief. And yet you too believe you “might as well” create a matching pair during this proposed surgery, correct my toes even though you have seen the long-term prognosis.
But my fused toes’ incremental curling back is not open defiance, not really. It is the hard-won wisdom of a body that has been broken too many times in pursuit of a shape it cannot inhabit. Your dream of correction clashes with this body of knowledge, a body whose noticeable lessons you refuse to learn. This body, with its turns, weaknesses, and differences, is a good body. Though the scene is familiar, the difference is that I finally, finally know deep down that this is true. I can feel this knowledge surging as your fingers move along the screen, as you marvel at your own brilliance in the face of deformity, my body like the dust in your hands.
This body is a good body. I hug it close, protectively, lovingly. After so many years of sitting in chairs like this one, yielding to surgeons like you, this feeling is still a new one for me. This body is a good body; I did not come here seeking another. Can you ease this body’s pain?
Your surgical jargon fills the increasingly uncomfortable space between that still frame and my flesh and bone foot. There is nothing left for me to say, no more questions to ask. You, sensing my hesitation, remove your fingers from the illuminated screen and extend them in my direction. A card lightly grasped between them: your surgical coordinator’s phone number.
Before I limp away, I deposit this final gift of yours into the trash can sitting outside the room. A small victory, I realize, as the pain tingles in my foot, manageable for the moment. Just painful enough to remind me that I must find another chair to sit in. Another surgeon. But even small victories are worth celebrating.
Giuseppina Iacono Lobo is a teacher and writer living in southern Connecticut with her family and rambunctious pup. She can often be found with her head buried in a book, or in the kitchen experimenting with recipes old and new.