Last week, a writer friend visited. In the course of our conversations, I showed her this VA-issued orthopedic shoe I'd had bronzed by the same artist who'd done Kenny Rogers favorite cowboy boots. I keep it on the shelf in my writing room, just above my computer. It inspires me. And the purple laces make me smile and remember his wonderful sense of humor.
The shoe belonged to my father. He wore it, or one exactly like it, for fifty-three years. After he died, and I saw the way he'd laced them with those vibrant purple shoelaces, I knew that shoe was the one possession I wanted. But I didn't know why until I tried to articulate its meaning for my friend.
You can barely see them in the photo, but there are two holes in the heel to accommodate the steel brace he wore from ankle to thigh. When a grenade exploded in my father's hand during his basic training at Fort Jackson Army base, he was 21 years old. It took off the fingers on his right hand and broke so many bones that he was in a body cast for months. The doctors wanted to amputate his right leg, believing he'd be better off without it.
For the remainder of his life, my dad had incurable osteomyelitis and a major bone in his leg was rotting. Still, he refused the amputation. When they finally removed the cast, his leg muscles had atrophied and halfway between his knee and ankle, an open wound drained through a hole in his leg. It smelled terrible, like something already dead. All hope that he'd ever stand on his own crumbling leg drained away from every one--every one except my father.
No one believed his leg could be made strong enough to hold his weight of 145 pounds. But my father was not deterred. He suffered through two more surgeries and several skin grafts. Finally, at his insistence, they measured and fitted him with a metal and leather brace. Two steel rods clamped into the 3-inch heel of a shoe designed to compensate for his two inches of lost bone. Grueling physical therapy became part of his daily routine.
My father hated the word, cripple. He did his physical therapy and a year later, he limped out of Valley Forge hospital with crutches, his orthopedic shoes, and that steel brace to support him. The nurses, doctors, secretaries, ward clerks and the physical therapists lined the hallways as he inched through them like a football hero. Applause and whistles soared into the air around him. Some of the hospital personnel touched his back as he passed them, prodding him carefully forward. When he stumbled, my mother rushed forward, tried to push her way through to him, but his physical therapist held her back. He knew how much this walk meant to my father. When he reached the end of the corridor, my dad raised his good hand into the air and spread his fingers in the victory sign.
A few years before he died, he developed an aortic aneurysm. Because of the osteomyelitis, it could not be repaired in the usual way using mesh without amputating his diseased leg. My father would not agree to the surgery. With the size of that bubble in his aorta, it was only a matter of time until it blew. The irony didn't escape me. Another grenade--threatening to take his leg. We finally found a surgeon at Johns Hopkins who would repair it using a donor aorta. Once again, my father, a widower for more than a decade, walked out of the hospital.
His life long gift to me, his only daughter, was his tenacity. The way he never gave up on his dream to be whole. Tenacity is a wonderful gift for a writer. I can only hope that I will pursue my writing dreams with the same fervor with which he pursed his. Thanks to my writer friend, Martha R. for making me think about the reasons I wanted only my father's shoe. And thanks to my dad for the lessons of tenacity he taught me by his example.
Since I could hold a pencil, writing has been an integral part of my life. I've written diaries, journals, poems, novels, short stories and hundreds of letters. Along with most other writers, I have a strong compulsion to record the events of my life and my perceptions about them. I suppose it could be considered a self-centered or arrogant endeavor but it has given me a glimpse into the world as I perceived it at various times in my life. I like to think that it has helped me to know who I am and where I fit into the scheme of things.
Today I stumbled upon a letter I'd written to my mother shortly after I moved away from my family home in Delaware and settled in Tucson. My mother has been dead for many years and when we cleaned out her house, I reclaimed my letters. I put them in a sealed box and carried them wherever I moved. Today, more than thirty-five years later, I found the courage to look at them. And in the looking, I saw, more clearly than any photograph could have shown me, the person I was when I wrote them.
The letters are filled with news of my small children, our daily activities and then, every so often, something that surprised me. My mother was born and reared in the lush Virginia woods and never understood what I loved about the desert. In this passage, I was attempting to show her.
"Today as I hiked in the Saguaro-laden foothills west of Tucson, a rust colored bolder tumbled from the mountainside and halted against a gnarled Mesquite tree. Bits of granite dust thickened the air around me. I stopped to rest there and I can't really explain this, Mom, but I knew I would remain for a long while, contemplating the desert's contradictions in order to discover my own truths.
It's a wild landscape, secret and yet open at the same time. A place where wind circles the valley. It seems to come from every direction at once. In the spring, thorny scaled cholla, barrels, prickly pears and hedgehog cactus burst into transparent blossoms that seem fragile, yet eternal.
It's a place where pastel sunsets darken into shades of mauves, blues and fuchsia until the sun finally winks out behind the mountains and the night sky spreads its star-studded blanket above me. A place where I can sit and listen to the plaintive howl of a coyote and realize we are not the only animals who have feelings.
If you ever saw the desert during monsoon season I believe you would come to love it as I do. Huge thunderheads build up in the south and soon the entire horizon turns a blue black. When the rain comes, it splatters on the dry sand, carving moon craters that rapidly rush into white water washes that fill the summer-dried riverbeds. And all around, the creosote bushes spill their perfume into the air. If I were blind, I would know the desert after rain by the way that fragrance clings to everything.
I can tell you, Mom, the desert is an exhibitionist and she'll lift up her skirt and dance for you without provocation."
It has been more than twenty-five years since I moved away from Tucson. My mother never came to love the Sonoran Desert. But, because I wrote that letter, I clearly remember why I do.