Now you see me I struggle to my feet, trying not strain my back. It’s only when finally erect that I realize my upper body is very weak. I stabilize myself, careful to lean on my new accessory, a black and silver cane. I resisted getting it even though the fall risk bracelet, placed on my left arm, made it clear that walking, which is learned to do at nine months old, was no longer something I was good at. You’d think the needles placed near my spine, just hours before, would’ve also been a painful reminder that my spine and the nerves leading to my legs were failing me. Still, until I was ordered into a wheelchair and handed the prescription for a cane, I remained in denial that my illness would no longer be invisible.
For two days, I clumsily maneuvered around my townhouse under the watchful eye of my mother, who reminded me that no matter how old I get I’m her baby girl and she will take care of me. I was starting to think I got the hang of walking with my third leg by the time I announced I was heading to work on day three.
My mother and I climbed into the car driven by my fiancé and headed to Newark Penn Station to start my two train odyssey and walk to work. At first, my mother didn’t seem to be hovering. She appeared her usual self, walking beside me, talking, joking and laughing. But, when we arrived at New York Penn Station, she morphed into a protective shadow; standing on my weaker side, ready to catch me should I lose my footing.
Slowly, I crept down the hallways in the crowded station, trying to pay attention to the form I was taught before my hospital discharge. Quickly, I figured out how heavy my non-functioning limp became as I dragged it over to the number one subway line. Sweat rolled down my chest between my breasts and I began to pant. A few times I was forced to stop to regain my strength before forging ahead. I guess my mother’s concern grew because instead of hoping on a downtown train so she could go to grand central station and over to metro north to head home, she turned and continued on with me.
I was embarrassed as I exited the train two blocks from work with my mommy beside me. Yet, I was relieved to know someone was watching out for me.
We headed over to the coffee cart and grabbed my morning usual: tea and a corn muffin. Of course, I wasn’t able to walk away without introducing my mother to the men who greet me five days a week with a smile and a kind word. Naturally, they noticed my absence. So, to welcome me back, they gave my mother a free coffee roll then wished me a speedy recovery.
My mother grabbed the brown paper bag with my snack in it. I suspect she did it because between the cane and my work bag I barely had a pinky free. I didn’t put up a fuss. Instead I turned and the two of us continued onto the bustling ABC offices. We snuck in the revolving doors in between fans of “Live with Kelly and Michael.” The show, which is taped on the first floor of my building, is always packed with people in awe of the celebrities and the TV business. Despite 16 right upstairs from the studio, I’ve never even seen that show taped. Although for a brief while when I was producing “Like It Is” with Gil Noble, I shared the studio space.
I tried to hurry pass the front desk, mixing in with the crowd, before the security guards and receptionist noticed my cane but they spotted it right away. I fended off the questions about my health and sprinted, well limped as fast as I could, over to elevators. As the doors shut, I sighed knowing the people on my floor would bombard me with similar questions.
I was ready for an onslaught of inquiries as I waddled into the newsroom. There were a few questions but most people backed off, unsure if they were free to approach me in front of my mother. Realizing the unintended benefit of having her around, I tried to convince her to spend the day with me. I gather my performance hobbling to work convinced my mom I’d be okay because she left less than an hour after we arrived.
The first day back to work people in my immediate area offered to get things for me or even grab lunch for me. I didn’t accept any offers. I should’ve because ended up without anything to eat after I filled my left hand with a venti English breakfast tea from Starbucks. I filled up with chips from the vending machine on our floor after I coaxed a co-worker to grab them out of the bin at the bottom. Seated, I’d almost forgotten my new handicap.
My legs and back were stiff by the time I stood up and began the arduous process of walking to the train at 6:15 pm. My fiancé, who works at the same job but on an opposite shift, tried to get me to take the car and drive home but my stubbornness would allow it.
I wobbled down the stairs to the subway and again down the flight leading to NJ transit at 34th street. I took my time, ignoring anyone in a rush. I knew there was plenty of room for him or her to go around me. No one said anything to me or stared too long; that is until I hobbled down over the platform gap and onto the train. People older than I rose to try to give me their seat. Yet, individuals closer to my age glared at me, trying to figure out what was wrong. Some people had a look of anguish like they felt my pain, others give an uncomfortable smile, and some tried to make small talk while periodically looking at my cane. Most strangers were too uncomfortable to ask about its presence. Then, there’s the last group of people who whispered to friends and travel companions, as if I couldn’t see them. I encountered this mix of people every day after the first day.
For twenty plus years, autoimmune disease and PCOS ravaged my pancreas, stomach, liver, lymph nodes, and ovaries but no one noticed. The scars that riddle my body were mostly hidden my clothes, concealing the adverse effects of my chronic illness. However, the moment the inflammation from my igg4 related systemic disorder damaged the nerves, narrowed vertebrae in my spine and s1 joint making it difficult to walk or lift my head and arm my condition was on display for the world, and that made me feel self-conscious, defective and needy.
For years, I plastered a smile on my face, prayed every day and tried to be grateful for what I have rather than dwell on what my long term illness was robbing from me; that’s my money, ability to be social, ability to bear a child or even to know how I’d feel or be able to care for myself from one day to the next. I was able to take it in stride because with my clothes on, smile affixed and pithy phrases no one knew the battle I was waging. Now, with my cane, I could see on the face of everyone I passed that I could no longer disguise my flaw.
Day by day I got faster with my cane, walking as naturally as possible. Holding my cane close to myself, fewer people noticed I was holding it. As weeks went on, I blended into the crowd of commuters racing to and from work. I was, at least on the surface, normal again.
Still, I look over at the cane I now carry to keep me from losing my balance and know what it feels like to have a condition that can’t be masked; to have people judge you, wonder about you. I have more compassion for those with apparent differences. I know, that like me, they wish people can see their capabilities and not limitations.
About the author
Nika C. Beamon is a journalist working in New York City. She is the author of the memoir, Misdiagnosed: The Search for Dr. House, about her medical journey. In 2009, Chicago Review Press published her non-fiction book, I Didn’t Work This Hard Just to Get Married. She’s also the author of two mystery novels.