The tissue paper pulled taut over the examining table crinkles as I cross my ankles and wait for the doctor to come in. It’s a familiar pose, and I swing my legs to pass the time. The exam is short, mostly narrative on my part, trying to find the right descriptions for a lame foot that’s no longer lame. The PA is young, blond, and one of three Emilys that I have met since I added the practice as my primary care contact. I give as much context to the story since the culprit of today’s visit doesn’t show up on command. I try to piece together the events and describe.
It started with a twitch, progressed to stiffness, then began to affect my gait. Then it stopped. Then it happened again.
“What brought it on?”
Sand. I guess.
With a chuckle, “That’s interesting. How often?”
Periodically over the course of three or four weeks.
I take off my shoe and she runs a metal stick from heal to ball. It’s the other end of the hammer she will tap onto my knees, both of which perform on command. Yes, it feels the same on both sides.
“Walk to the end of the hall.”
“Tell me again what’s been happening?”
Three months before the wedding, my husband-to-be and I joined his family for their yearly vacation at the New Jersey shore. A week earlier, Eric’s mom Trena organized a shower, and before that I had wrapped up a week-long writing conference and signed the contract for a full-time teaching position. After a week at the shore, we planned to head up through Pennsylvania for a brief stopover with friends, then finish in the Finger Lakes, country of Riesling and pungent artisanal cheeses. With our October wedding manageably small and mostly planned, I had no worries about deadlines or dresses. When we found a simple band of white gold in a jewelry store in the middle Ocean City, across the street from brightly colored boogie boards and bracelets bound with sailor’s knots, it was one more thing to cross off the list.
The kitsch and commerce of Ferris Wheels and mini-golf was balanced with evening ice cream, and vintage photos. One morning, Eric, his father David and brother Andy and I stuck prescription strength sea-sickness patches behind our ears and met a commercial boatman who took us on a three-hour tour to catch bluefish, or bass, or stripers, whatever the humidity and haze had to offer. One after another, we threw up over the gunwale.
Most days, we joined the kids, Alex and Samantha, dragged the rented wagon up the street and across the beach, set up blankets, built sand castles, and took the occasional plunge. With my hands around Eric’s neck, we jumped the waves or let them crash over us, finding balance by linking hands as we made our way back to the towels, reapplied lotion and settled into naps.
Sitting propped on the beach chair, I dug my feet under the sand. The surface heat melted through my toes to the cool, dark sand underneath. Eric sat next to me, reading a book. I pulled my feet back to the surface, wiggled the sand away, and then felt a small twitch in the smaller toes. Just the ones on my left foot. Almost imperceptible, so I started again to knead the sand, thinking movement would clear them of their awkwardness. I held my legs steady, out of the sand, barreling in with my eyes to the bones, and there it was again. A twitch.
Back at the house, I washed the ocean off in the shower. We had dinner and took the kids to the boardwalk. That night I lay next to Eric in our twin beds, my leg draped on top of the blue comforter, sailboats and sea creatures mechanically stitched into the fabric. The air conditioning blew coolly on me, and I asked Eric if he could see my toes twitch.
“Maybe you’re allergic to sand,” he said.
I thought he might be right. Another beach day years ago in Rhode Island, I had sat next to my father in socks and sneakers, the two toes he’d lost by then to diabetes covered and protected from the sand. Sand fleas or biting house flies hovered around, landing then biting exposed skin. Their black forms were easy enough to brush away, but they were obnoxious, stinging without leaving marks, without waiting to draw blood or leave venom. As if the insult of annoyance was enough for them. We couldn’t stand it for very long, packed up and left. It was late in the season, but even so, I had never experienced sand flies before. Mosquitos sure, and one time at least in South Carolina I stepped on a jelly fish. Meat tenderizer, kept on hand back at the time share, was the suggested remedy.
In New Jersey, bug bites seemed a good culprit, especially since the twitches seemed to be confined to the beach. The episodes were temporary, seemingly isolated and inconsequential. Of all the hours we spent that week enjoying sea and shore, maybe twenty minutes were taken staring at toes and wondering about their curious, self-propelled dance. I’d have Eric massage the foot, but I couldn’t tell any difference, either in sensation or timing. If it was muscular, I couldn’t find the muscle responsible. Toes are tiny appendages, acting in concert with all the other bones and muscles of the body. But they seemed to fall back in line so easily, with hardly a reprimand. Maybe it was the beach.
Sometimes when I have the hiccups, I force myself to wait for the next one, thinking the anticipation of it will magically make them stop. It works sometimes. I’d watch my toes at night and lay as still as I could then will them to jiggle just so I could will them to stop. I tried to test the amount of control that I had over my body. Lying down, with movement so imperceptible, control seemed possible. But I couldn’t scare these away, not with massages or slaps, sneakers or dress shoes.
I’m not sure when the toe tics turned into clenching or which exact step that I took was the one that first decided to fail. But this was an exaggeration. It didn’t fail, just landed awkwardly, a slight drag. I doubted if anyone even noticed. We repacked the car, trading the muggy New Jersey air for upstate breezes and wine tasting. When the pieces drop on to the puzzle board, it’s not too hard to turn them to fit a picture of claret sunsets and waterfalls, rather than broken legs and bandaged toes. Call it positive thinking, call it blindness, call it standing under waterfalls with the spray of cool water catching the curve of your cheeks.
By the time we got to Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, to meet up with our friends Ryan and Jenifer, the occasional twitches had progressed to periodic clenching. When I walked, the foot wouldn’t even itself out to step flat, so I couldn’t settle into a rhythm, but wasn’t exactly limping. When I put my foot down to step, I couldn’t flatten it out. No pain and no regularity. Step, step, drag, step, step, drag. Step, step, step, no problem. Temporary. I don’t know how much was actual tightening and impairment or just a mental perception that the foot wouldn’t hold my weight, so the awkwardness was in my placement of it, not caused by any cramp. For ten steps, maybe fifty, maybe for hundreds of yards at any stretch—normal.
When we joined Ryan for a workout at his local gym, I stepped into the squat rack and had both a mental and physical break down. The same sensation was there—stiffness and clenching in my foot—not enough for others to notice as I walked. But I didn’t think my feet would hold me, and that tentativeness was enough to make me afraid. I turned from the bar, which had maybe 100 pounds, a weight I could usually squat. It was a fairly convenient excuse, since I was timid about working out in this unfamiliar gym, intimidated by Ryan’s expertise, and Eric’s regular form. Tears again, but forgotten once we left the gym.
Another day we hiked through Valley Forge National Park, close to their home. In the tall grasses of late afternoon, we intruded upon a small herd of deer. I saw two does look at us wisely from across the wooded lair. The group of us—deer and human—stared and shifted, but eased into a thoughtful gaze. Ryan and Eric stepped ahead, and I waited a few steps back and watched the youngest fawn learn its legs and raise its white tail in retreat. We were searching after our scheduled dinner, unprepared to give up our humanness and fall into a forest story. Our colors were too obvious to camouflage our inferior legs.
It’s only later that I recognized the mobility of the young deer as a contrast to my own. At the time there was no need to look for symbols, and no inclination to ponder too critically about causes or effects. Since I started hiking with Eric, I’ve always carried a walking stick. On less strenuous walks I wouldn’t bother, and that day, the softly edged dirt of Valley Forge offered few obstacles, so I didn’t have it. I can’t even say that I struggled through despite myself, tight lipped and determined to keep going. That wasn’t the case. The odd infrequency of the issue let me off the hook, and it was easy to slip behind the others and walk adequately without drawing attention to myself. Something between denial and grit and the luck of anomalies kept the tears in check.
Traveling through the wine country around Seneca Lake a few days later, we felt like butterflies floating from flower to flower, and at times the views alone were enough to get us drunk: bright sun, mile after mile of sculptured grape vines, cornstalks and fields of sunflowers. Lakes, glorious lakes. Even the clouds seemed content, or a hawk, or a man repairing the roof. I was able to pull the sunglasses over my face and let breezes turn my book’s page, buzzed but thankful. I hardly minded that twitching toes and dragging feet would take away my balance. A frightened walker who teeters off the shelf of land could find solace in the slate of lake waters.
The campground was crowded and our site had no shade unless we slipped into the shadow of the RV that pulled in next to us. But as the sun went down, we cooked pasta with diced tomatoes or roasted hot dogs and watched the pit fire burn in orange spikes, keeping mosquitoes away and warming us. Mesmerized by coals and embers, I drifted, thinking how the charred remains somehow seem forgiving. Though the flames die down, and the wood disappeared, I felt somehow cleansed by the idea that beginnings and endings are so intricately linked, always with the potential for renewal. The heat and smoke escaped, transformed with equal kinetic energy potential. We threw a bundle of sage onto the flames, blessing our future marriage. I read Flaubert and watched the sage crisp under the heartier branches of the log’s limbs. The next day we hiked up Enfield Glen.
The path up varied between rooted switchbacks and wide roadways. As we hiked around the lip of the waterfall, we stopped to watch a snake devour a frog, fascinated by the slowness of it. Really, this was a stop to help me correct my footing, retie a shoe. We paused long enough to collect my body and put my troubles on something else. Poor frog. But the hiccups continued, and between mental worry and physical hesitation, words turned to tears. Brief like a rain squall, the strained movement turned back to my regular steps, and we wound past the cascading falls, and took the path down into the gorge.
The August heat had dried up much of it and the land leveled out to a muddy riverbed, full of downed trees and glossy rocks. My foot held steady as Eric placated me with a song about the great battle of squirrels and rabbits in the year three thousand four. He would get used to doing this, making up ridiculous ditties to garner a smile or laugh, take my mind off treachery. Whether my knees ached or coyotes howled us into a run, he’d guide me down the mountain. I was beginning to see what marriage would be for us: partnership and song, sharing the load. We’d have four feet together. He carried me into the gorge, not because I was broken, but because I was loved.
We stepped through black muck, twisting branches, and what was recognizable as deer bones bleached away, somehow stuck in time. I noticed these tiny reminders of what the natural world seems to do so flawlessly: go on. Insects go about the business of laying eggs, feeding on plants or exposed flesh, dying without too much fuss. Skies turn gray, then black, then back to blue. Water ekes out of gorges a little at a time, the deluge masking the exactness of liquid carving water through dense stone over centuries. A man holds his fiancée’s hand and tells her a story. Space and time make usforgetthe tactile and the immediate: gravel beneath feet, the whisper of pine needles; lightning scars and burls on mighty trees. A snake swallowing a frog, its feet twitching in the finality of a meal. Bones recently part of a muscular beast, now driftwood.
Later when I wrote about that hike, I disguised my foot troubles, choosing instead the ambiguity of circling raptors and slick black stones. The bones, which I described later as those of a fawn, would fit nicely into a poem about recognition of unnamable eeriness. I would have no trouble, with some pondering and a pen, showing deer bones and swallowed frogs as warnings, to position death next to life. When we turn our fears on the landscape we see omens, not beauty. Maybe my foot will doom me; maybe it won’t.
The hiking that day wasn’t lengthy or particularly taxing. Had I fallen down, broken bones, or bled, it would have warranted triage. We carried antiseptic, band-aids, gauze and tape. We could have sterilized a needle and sutured a gash on our own. What’s the emergency if it goes away? Soon enough, I would come to love the phrase “remitting.” It goes away. It will go away. It went away.
It wasn’t that the doctor that September day was just an RPN or PA and not a specialist. It’s not that she didn’t ask the right questions, and it’s not that my descriptions were faulty. Not every quirk of the body demands expensive testing; diagnosis can’t necessarily be reached after examination and carefully triangulated deductions. I won’t answer the questions that start with what if and trail off after a long sigh and metaphorical ellipses. Four years later, for my thirty-eighth birthday, I got a spinal tap, an MRI, and a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. The quirky beach toes and forest feet became another chapter, not the first, not the last.
Something besides denial was going on, but I can’t name it. I can’t name the thing that makes me line up all the weights and place them one by one on the scale. A dream engagement, a long-sought-after full-time job with an office down the hall from my husband, a successful writing conference, a book publication, wedding showers and fairytales. A field of sunflowers. Perfectly toasted marshmallows. Wine poured into my mouth by gods I didn’t care to name. All these aligning one after another. And on the other side—a bum leg, quaking toes, half a limp. Nothing ever evens out. Tears come down wet, whether in fear, grief, delight, or gratitude. That summer, I let the leg anomalies slip off the scales and chose joy over terror.
Amy Nawrockiis the author of five collections of poetry, including Reconnaissanceand Four Blue Eggs, which was a finalist for the 2013 Poetry Prize from Homebound Publications. Her most recent work isThe Comet’s Tail: A Memoir of No Memory. She is an associate professor at the University of Bridgeport and lives in Hamden, Connecticut.