Paralysis is so often a metaphor. A simile to express shock or fear. It is a word you use, but you probably don’t mean it the way that I mean it. I mean to say my spinal column was damaged after my six-year-old body jackknifed during an automobile accident and that was the last moment I felt the skin below my chest or moved my legs of my own volition. Unless you count feeling my skin with my fingers and lifting my legs with my arms to move them where I would have them go. I do count this. Do not discount this.
I liked to write as a child. My words took me everywhere my body could not. I lived lifetimes amongst the stars. I visited the depths of the oceans and made my home in Scottish castles. I am the first person to set foot on Mars. I was a writer, my family told me.
My high school guidance counselor asked my mother if perhaps I would consider a career in radio. No one would have to see me. No one would have to know. The failures of my body would not matter. I could transcend my physical form through language. And in the beginning were my words and my words were with me but they were not me. They were only a part of me.
I fell twice this year exiting the shower. I almost didn’t call for help. My words failed me. My legs were twisted, my strength dwindling, my abdomen sore. My body threatened to break if I lost the half-grip I maintained on my chair, suspended. I couldn’t pull up. I couldn’t fall down. Instead I called out. My friend came. She raised my naked body from this in-between to its proper place again, seated. I never touched the floor. I don’t know if my tears did. You can’t understand. But let me try to explain myself to you.
I hold fast to the arms of my friends so I do not lose my balance. I read the news and I imagine the end of the world. I know my body has no place in it.
Mine is not one of those paralyzed bodies that found a way to do all things, extending itself beyond its limit. My rotator cuffs are worn and they ache. My legs spasm, seemingly without cause and without remedy. My fingers grasp and stretch and feel, even if what they feel is pain.
Paralyzed in the same manner, in the same second as I, my brother James’ body fails him too. He told me about a game he played with his friends. Everyone in the room was to select the person whose life they would never want. They all pointed at my brother. They pointed at the body that would ruin them. It was supposed to be a joke.
I’ve hated my body more than you’ve hated my body. But I need you to know something. My body is not an anchor or a prison. My body is not a metaphor. You don’t get to call it a metaphor. I am the only one who gets to do that.
Look at me. My life is not a ruined life. My brother’s life is not a ruined life, even though you don’t want it. My flesh is numb, but it is still here. I am beautiful even when you don’t believe it. Even when I don’t believe it. I may be the person you carry from the burning building, down flight after flight before the walls crumble in on us. You may want to discount me. But I am alive. My lungs fill with air and my chest expands and my palms press into the tread of my tires and I keep pushing. My body propels me forward in ways my words alone cannot.
My whole diaphragm shook with laughter until tears fell the day my father and I staged pet robots for a scavenger hunt photo op. In 7th grade, my arms wrestled the boys and won, pinning their wrists to the desk. My mouth savored sweet cherry after sweet cherry until my stomach churned, overfull. My knuckles grazed the walls of the Colosseum in Rome, making me a part of its history. My head was covered with prayers and hands anointed me with oil before a surgeon spread my back open like a book. My body hurtled through the heavens in the corkscrew curl of a rollercoaster and all I remember thinking is This is delightful. My face was kissed by Conan O’Brien at a taping of his show, beloved by me since I was girl. He told me I looked really beautiful and I believed him. My older siblings carried my body in my bathing suit across the sand and I floated in the ocean, waves rolling over my shoulders. At Epcot, the Mission: Space centrifuge spun, compressing me, simulating a force of gravity two-and-a-half times beyond that of our Earth, holding me down until the pressure relented and I was not sick like my cousins were; my body was well. It understood how to break free from the atmosphere even while their able bodies did not.
I am not nothing. I am more than the words you are reading. I am somebody, not nobody. A body. My body. The only body I have. It needs so much care but has given me so much in return. Inconvenient and alive. I hate it and I love it and I wish I were just my words but I am not and I am so grateful to be more.