Anybody Wanna Leg?

Here’s a humorous excerpt from my book, I See Old People, now available on Amazon. It provides some flavor into my early years and the role my parents played in raising my brother Russell. To read more about my book, click here.

Russell and me circa: 1968

My younger brother Russell was born without a fully formed foot. Instead, he had a rounded stump with two little toes. His knee and most of his tibia were intact so if you didn’t see him in shorts, you’d never know his foot was missing. My parents wanted to make sure he had every advantage in life so they refused to help him when he fell off his bike or encountered some sort of obstacle typical of childhood.

A doctor suggested that my parents do their best to not treat my brother as if he had a disability. “Don’t treat him any differently,” the doctor suggested. In actuality, my parents DID treat him differently and this had a remarkable impact on his confidence and his independence.

My mother would say, “We didn’t help him when he fell off his tricycle. Instead, we gently encouraged him to get back on it and ride again. We wanted him to do just about everything on his own.” And just about everything was what he did. From snow skiing to water skiing to an award winning high school gymnastics performance, there wasn’t much he couldn’t master.

It also made for some comical moments. One day when my brother was about six years old, my mother was at her typical kitchen lookout watching for some neighborhood drama to perk up her routine day, when she suddenly screamed out the window, “RUSSELL, put your leg back on! IT’S NOT A WEAPON!”

My brother was about 6 and having a typical disagreement with his neighbor friend JW. JW was convinced Russell couldn’t beat him at whiffle ball, a popular sport within our cul-de-sac community of 26 children.

My brother who had incredible upper body strength combined with a fairly decent throwing arm and a strong sense of confidence knew better. “I’ll SHOW YOU JW. I can beat you at anything!”

Within seconds, he pulled off his very expensive and now dangerous artificial limb shaking it wildly over his head with the intention of whacking JW across his body.

We all knew that when my Mom screams, it’s time to stop. At the sound of her shrieking, Russell put down his prosthetic leg and immediately came into the house to receive additional admonishment. Meanwhile little JW ran home to tell his mother about the incident expecting her to be incredibly angry. Instead he became indignant when she began to laugh uncontrollably.

Though Russell never attempted to use his leg as a weapon again, he did however use it to get laughs on more than one occasion. During a family Thanksgiving dinner together, he asked if anybody wanted a leg, and then threw his artificial limb onto the dining room table. The act was received by my aunts, uncles and cousins with thunderous laughter. This sense of comedic timing was just another reason that Russell was the darling “baby” of the family. Not only was he mechanically inclined and very athletic, he was funny too.

Another time we were driving to our favorite vacation spot, Ocean City, Maryland, when he decided to become the funny man. Usually the three-hour long drive was accompanied by the same question, asked multiple times. “Are we there yet?” Back in those days, my mother would drive and chain smoke with the windows sealed shut. It made for a rather unpleasant journey.

So my brother took it upon himself to make the ride more interesting. He removed his artificial leg and put it on his knee so that his foot was facing toward his face. I can tell you that there isn’t a contortionist in the world who can make that happen.

My mother happened to glance back and saw the leg on his knee. With her cigarette dangling from her lips, she screamed, “RUSSELL, you stop that immediately. Someone is going to get into an accident!!!” My older brother and I were reeling in laughter and just loved these type of antics that made my mother frantic.

Russell wasn’t all fun and games, though. He could be highly serious sometimes and incredibly brilliant.

Each year, he visited Kernan’s Hospital in Baltimore (today known as the University of Maryland Rehabilitation & Orthopaedic Institute), the first orthopedic hospital of its kind in Maryland, operational since 1911. Despite his congenital birth defect, he was born with a functional kneecap, so he walked with a smooth gait. In fact, when he would get fitted for a new leg, the interns were hard pressed to identify which leg was the artificial limb. Nine times out of ten they were wrong.

The orthopedic technicians were amazed and amused that a five-year-old could give them legitimate directions on how to make his new leg. “I don’t want the straps. I like it this way. Take them off.” His word was final and the leg would be made to his specifications.

When he was five, his toes were amputated to give him a clean stump making his artificial leg fit more comfortably. It was the only time I saw my father cry. I think the phantom pain associated with amputation can be excruciating.

I was about 7 and feeling oddly sad to see the toes that I thought were cute disappear forever. I remember telling him so after the surgery. “Russell, I miss your little toes. I liked them. Do you miss them?” He tossed my remarks aside with an annoyed attitude that suggested I was an idiot for even having such thoughts.

My brother would go on to graduate from Northeastern University as an electrical engineer and have three beautiful children. Today, we share a collective rich history with color and character. He mimics the many sayings of our mother and our beloved aunt. One of our favorite sayings is “I can’t be fooling with that!” It was usually said in response to someone asking them to do something that didn’t require much effort.

One time my brother volunteered to wash my aunt’s car to which she retorted, “I CAN’T be FOOLING WITH THAT.” Attempting a rational explanation, he said, “Aunt Bette, don’t you understand, I’m washing YOUR car? It doesn’t require anything from you.” She retorted that it would involve her pulling supplies out. Russell rolled his eyes in exasperation, he knew there wasn’t much point in arguing.

While my brother no longer uses his leg as a weapon or slaps it onto the dinner table, he does continue to make me laugh. And I can hear Shirley laughing right alongside us.

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