KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 2: Winter 2015
Commentary: 885 words [R]

A Conscious Decision

by Ona Gritz

“I know why you write about me so much,” my son, Ethan, said to me once. “It’s because I’m so important to you.”

Writing has been a natural response to parenting for me; a kind of overflow. In poems, I’ve sought the perfect word to describe the particular blond of Ethan’s hair. Honey-colored, I wrote, because, as it changes with the seasons, his hair takes on the various hues of that thick, sweet stuff lined up in jars. I’ve attempted to describe the still, not-yet-animated face I glimpsed in the birthroom mirror seconds before he woke to the world. Calm as milk in its cup. I’ve written about the rifle he used at summer camp. How the hand that once lay splayed on my chest as he nursed has held an actual weapon. He’s a teenager now, but recently I drafted a poem in which I witnessed his tentative first steps, noting anew how they mirrored my own palsied walk.

My palsied walk. Disability is another subject that frequents my poems, but not because it compels me the way motherhood does. Writing about it has been more a conscious decision than a matter of inspiration.

When I was a child, there was a brown paper bag kept on the floor of my closet, on the left-hand side toward the back. Inside was a single shoe, ankle high with a leather strap above the laces, and a hole near the ankle where a leg brace attached. The brace was a thin metal pole with a leather cuff that buckled near my knee. I had to wear this contraption while I slept. Heavy and stiff, it got caught in my blankets and sometimes caused bruises on my knees. Though I understood that what I had was cerebral palsy, I thought of that shoe as my disability. More precisely, I thought of it as my secret inner ugliness. After all, it was kept hidden and mentioned only in private as my mother helped me put it on at night.

My cerebral palsy is relatively mild. I lack fine motor skills in my right hand, but learned early to compensate with my capable left. It’s nothing, I was told. I walk as though favoring a sore foot. Barely noticeable, people said. These comments were meant to be compliments. I was lucky, it seemed, because I wasn’t too different. Because I could more or less pass.

True, there were times I was forced to face my limitations—coming upon a winding staircase with no banister—walking down a slick, icy street to get home. But mostly when I thought about having cerebral palsy, what I focused on was how people saw me. It pained me to think that someone might not find me pretty because of my uneven legs and awkward gait. I didn’t know then that worrying over such things is a kind of luxury. My quirky walk gets me where I’m going. I can speak clearly, cook, shop, clean, and use my good mind to read, teach, and write. Scarcely hampered by it, I saw disability as primarily a cosmetic issue. That changed when, in my thirty-fourth year, I took on a job that was, in many ways, beyond my physical abilities.

The following tasks are near to impossible when you lack fine motor skills in one hand, and when your gait is less than steady: Positioning a newborn to nurse at your breast. Safely bathing that newborn. Swaddling him. Walking while holding him. Opening a refrigerator while holding him. Eating while holding him. Drinking while holding him. Preparing a meal while holding him. Answering a phone while holding him. Climbing stairs while holding him. Descending stairs while holding him. Pushing a stroller while holding him. Lifting a stroller onto or off a bus. Lifting a stroller onto or off a train. Keeping pace with a fast crawling baby. Keeping pace with a fast running toddler...

I’ve had cerebral palsy since the day I was born, but it wasn’t until my son was born that I truly experienced disability.

The first morning after I brought Ethan home from the hospital, I cried to a friend that he wailed every time I put him down.

“I can’t even fix myself a bowl of cornflakes!”

My friend, a mother of two, laughed like it was all too familiar. “Don’t worry,” she assured me. “Moms get used to doing things with one hand.”

What she didn’t understand was that the one hand I had that was capable of pouring cereal and milk, of using a spoon, was the same one hand that could safely prop an infant’s head. Hardly anyone knew this about me, and I found that fact frightening. Faced with caring for my baby and myself, I no longer wanted to pass as able-bodied. I wanted to be looked at squarely, limitations and all, so I could get the practical advice and physical help I needed. For that to happen, I had to take my disability out from the bottom of the closet and claim it. My great discovery was that it felt good to open up. To say, Actually, it’s not “nothing,” it’s this and begin to describe—first in conversation, and soon after, in poems—what it’s like to live in my particular body.

—From Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability, edited by Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black, and Michael Northen (Cinco Puntos Press, 2011); republished here by author’s permission

Ona Gritz’s
Issue 2, Winter 2015

first full-length collection of poetry, Geode, was a finalist for the 2013 Main Street Rag Poetry Book Award and was published in February 2014 by Main Street Rag. Her poetry chapbook, Left Standing, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2005. In 2007, she won the Inglis House Poetry Contest and the Late Blooms Poetry Postcard Competition; in 2009, she placed second in Lilith Magazine’s Charlotte Newberger Poetry Competition.

Her poems appear in Ploughshares; Bellevue Literary Review; Seneca Review; Beauty Is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability; and many other journals and anthologies.

Gritz is also author of two children’s books and writes a monthly column on mothering and disability at Literary Mama online. Her essays appear in The Utne Reader, More magazine, and The Bellingham Review, placing second for the 2008 Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction. She has received nine Pushcart nominations.

More on the Web: By, About, and Beyond

The Muse Gets Angry Before Leaving for School, a poem in Literary Mama (5 September 2009)

Abraham’s Hand, a poem in The Pedestal Magazine, Issue 40 (June/August 2007)

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