I went to school in grade 3 with a girl, Lise. Poor, from “basse-ville” (lowertown), tiny, greasy hair, glasses, and a big-toothed smile which appeared only when she was still. She was often picked on, ridiculed, especially by the French kids who knew her from her “quartier,” or neighbourhood.
I temporarily appointed myself her protector.
She wore braces, from just above the knees down. They were cumbersome, all steel and leather. The kind of stuff you’d bridle a horse with, maybe even forged and crafted at the same shop. Saddlery braces.
She was left out… of almost everything. Though, I had nothing in common with her, me an Anglo, she “un Franco-Ontarien”, she was like my little sister that year.
Polio. This had felled this little geek. But her spirit? Oh boy. What a privilege it was to take her under my wing.
Of course, I have never forgotten P’tit Lise; moreover, her lessons are with me still. Her smile was sometimes directed towards me. To have a hand in that was reward enough.
I can still see her hobbling along, head down focused on the ground, hair hiding her face, hips moving in an exaggerated way as she brought each steel-laden leg forward into the next step while leaning on her crutches, little cuffs of leather at the forearm holding them to her. She was beautiful.
And later, decades ahead, in a recovery home for the addicted, I met Dale. He’d lost his leg to polio. Once he confided he was one of the rare cases, the one-in-a-million who contracted the disease from being vaccinated.
Dale was a bit of an asshole sometimes. Headstrong is probably a better word. I couldn’t see it at the time but he had learned his own version of truth, and was adamant about it.
But, what he had was balance. Not physical balance, mind you. No. He used crutches and later a rudimentary prosthetic which annoyed him. And he’d lifted weights and had good upper body strength. He was doing his best with what he had.
Somewhere along the way, after a suitable period rebelling and crying out for fairness, demanding he be treated by the universe differently than his reality, he lost his resentment.
He gave up his anger over losing a limb, replacing it with a kindness of spirit which inspires me to this day. He knew many were saved from the vaccine, and his casualty should be counted in that whole. He realized at some point, it was a numbers game. He shrugged as he told me this. He balanced things.
He looked when telling me this, expectantly, his defensiveness held back, below-surface, looking for signs of contempt. He didn’t trust me but took a chance telling me just the same.
He’d gotten straight before I did, so on the hierarchy of personal development, he could claim higher ground. And he was right. He was far ahead.
What he did so remarkably was this: he no longer asked, “why me?” and, instead, replaced it with, “why not me?”
Seems slight enough. Maybe too easy? When you lose a leg to nothing but the vagaries of life, to the well-intentioned efforts of those who were seeking to prevent the suffering of the Lise’s of the world, you need answers.
Dale found them, in his mind to be sure, but mostly inside his body, and eventually his heart. That one twist, a single reframe, was key.
He ended up marrying Shona, the hottest number to come through Our House in those years. The place was a unique recovery centre on James Street in Ottawa run by a recovered giver named Norm, and abetted by many of his converts.
I went to their wedding held at the Anglican church down the street, the church which had adopted our cause in recovery. We all attended Sundays as we sought to regain our spirits.
Together, Dale and Shona went off to serve the world. As far as I know, they still are.
What a difference one word made. N-O-T. Three letters.
Sometimes the smallest shift brings the greatest results.