Walking Under Ladders
I grew up in a house filled with horizontal ladders. When I see a ladder leaning vertically against the side of a building, it seems as strange as someone doing a headstand.
Dad built my ladders when I was eleven, almost twelve. He was always starting some sort of project, like the time he tried to fix the car by himself. He’d seen a report on the news about a special school for kids with disabilities. The doctors had designed ladders that were horizontally attached to brackets in the walls, and the students practiced walking by grabbing onto the rungs. We couldn’t afford to fly to Philadelphia and meet the doctors who’d invented the ladders, and our insurance wouldn’t cover physical therapy. So, Dad spent a lot of time researching the exercises on his own.
“We can’t go out there, so what? We’ll do it ourselves. It’s the next best thing,” he said. Besides, he’d paint them any color I wanted. Unfortunately, I was still in my Batman phase, so I chose black and yellow.
My little sister, Katie, took one look at the alternating yellow and black rungs and said, “They’re so ugly! They look like a giant bumblebee.” I guess she had a point. If she’d been the one who needed the ladders, they probably would have been hot pink. Barbie ladders—what a terrifying thought. A few months later, I wished I’d picked blue and red because Dad and I always watched the Red Sox on TV. Sometimes we went into the backyard and practiced throwing and catching baseballs. I get spasms in my legs, but my hands and arms are much stronger. I had a few guitar lessons when I was nine, back when I knew all the Rolling Stones’ lyrics by heart. I got sick of that pretty fast, though. In middle school, it wasn’t cool to want to be Mick Jagger or to listen to the oldies station with your dad.
It took Dad a few days to paint and assemble the ladders. Mom opened all the windows and said, “Great, cigarettes and paint fumes!”
Dad tried several different kinds of brackets before he thought they were sturdy enough. While he worked, he played his records in the background and sang along in his quiet, husky voice. I remember one song in particular. The singer had such a deep voice that I thought she was a man: “I can walk under ladders. I’m lucky, I’m lucky …”
“That song doesn’t make any sense,” I said. “What does that even mean, she can walk under ladders?” Dad had no idea what it meant, either.
“We’re going to make a routine and practice every day,” Dad promised. “This’ll help with your balance, coordination, posture—everything.”
We developed our own routine. First, I pulled myself upright in my wheelchair and leaned on the armrests. Then I reached up to grip the wooden rungs above my head. For the first few days, that was exhausting enough. After a while, I could walk from rung to rung without even getting tired. The ladders might have made some people feel claustrophobic, like they were standing in a cage, but for me, they were a private gym or a training room. I’d never been so independent in my life.
Dad always supervised me while I exercised under the ladders. I couldn’t wait for our fifteen-minute session every day. He repeated the same phrases again and again, things I’d heard other dads saying when they played sports with their kids. “Come on, Joe, you can do it! Don’t give up! Concentrate!”
During our sessions, Mom would always run into the next room and pace around anxiously. She kept worrying that I’d somehow pull the ladders off their brackets and crush myself. Dad insisted they were completely secure.
After I’d been using the ladders for a few months, I noticed a huge difference. Instead of hunching over in my chair, I sat up straight, with my feet on the ground. I could even stand up on my own for a few minutes without touching anything. Mom kept thinking I was going to fall.
One night when I was in bed, I overheard my parents shouting at each other. They never argued in front of me, so I was sure this was the first step towards divorce.
“We both know he’ll probably never get out of that wheelchair,” Mom said. “I hate to see you giving him false hope. It’s cruel. We’re not professionals. We can’t even afford a physical therapist. Just admit for once that we have no idea what the fuck we’re doing.”
“It’s not hurting him, Meg! You always make it sound like I’m the one doesn’t give a shit about any of this.”
The next time I went to my pediatrician, he mentioned a surgery that might help my legs. They’d have to cut the hamstring muscles in my legs and then lengthen them. In most people, it led to fewer muscle spasms. It could even help me walk someday, but I’d have to spend every night wearing leg braces, called knee immobilizers, so my muscles wouldn’t seize up while I slept. “It’s imperative to decide this soon, before Joseph starts puberty or has any major growth spurts,” Dr. Katz said in his flat, mechanical voice.
“Can I still exercise with the ladders?” I asked him.
He turned to me, looking puzzled. I explained how we’d heard about the school in Philadelphia and built our own ladders.
“There are many experimental treatments available. I haven’t heard of it, but it sounds like it may be beneficial,” he answered, his gaze hovering somewhere between my parents.
I remember almost nothing about the actual surgery. I was nervous on the ride up to Boston, but the procedure itself is a blur. First, I was lying on the cold operating table with the surgeons’ faces hovering over me. The anesthesiologist kept telling me stupid, corny jokes, and for some reason, I laughed hysterically at all of them. (“How do you stop a charging rhinoceros?” “Take away his credit card!”) Then I closed my eyes for what seemed like a second. When I opened them, it was over.
On the way home, Dad asked if I wanted to stop at the science museum, just for old times’ sake. I hadn’t been there in years, but I loved it when I was in elementary school. After I first saw the models of the human body, I went home and pulled the arms and legs off one of Katie’s dolls, thinking they’d have fake blood vessels and muscles inside. I was disappointed to find only plastic. The doll’s leg had twisted backwards out of its socket, making a snapping sound. That was how my legs felt now: like they’d been pulled in the wrong direction. Dr. Katz had said that it was normal for patients’ muscles to feel sore after the surgery. But “sore” didn’t really cover it.
* * *
Katie was afraid of everything in the museum. She said that the wax figures were going to start moving and talking to her, like the ones of the Pilgrims in Plymouth.
“You’re too old to be scared of this stuff,” I said. “It can’t hurt you. Why don’t you go look at the animal exhibit?”
Two minutes later, she ran out, almost in tears. “They’re all dead!” she screamed. They were stuffed animals—not like her toys at home, but embalmed specimens staring out from glass cases. I felt like shit. She’s going to be traumatized for life, I thought.
Mom and Katie wandered around the gift shop while Dad and I explored the mummy exhibit. The room had long hallways and sloped ceilings, like the entrance to an Egyptian tomb. On any other day, I would have enjoyed rolling my chair down the corridors, but my arms were getting so tired that I asked Dad to help me. I was fascinated by the whole process: how they took the bodies apart and reassembled them, like pieces of a puzzle.
When we got home, I wanted to curl into a ball and fall asleep, but I had to put on my leg immobilizers. They reached up to my thighs and laced tightly with Velcro. I tried to lie on my side, but my knees were locked in place. Every time I closed my eyes, they kept popping open. I was surprised to see my legs extended stiffly in front of me, like I was staring down at someone else’s body. Eventually, my eyes stayed closed.
* * *
In my dream, I was dead. I’m not sure how I knew that; I just did. Everything was hazy, and I was lying stretched out in a sarcophagus, floating down the river of life. I couldn’t move, so I just watched while I drifted through a tunnel decorated with paintings of animal-headed gods.
Suddenly, I stopped. I realized that I was suspended over a platform, surrounded by people. Or at least I thought they were people. They had human bodies, but from where I was lying, I could barely see their falcon and jackal heads. Wait, this is backwards, I thought. They haven’t mummified me yet. They still have to take out my organs.
I felt my breath catch in my throat, and I screamed. At first I thought it was Katie screaming, really loudly, from the other side of the house. So I wasn’t dead. No, this was stupid. Of course I wasn’t dead. I opened my eyes and slowly adjusted to the darkness.
Wait. I was still dead. There was a heavy weight on my legs, and I couldn’t move. I kept trying to thrash my legs around and realized that the blankets had tangled around them.
This is stupid, I thought. It’s just a dream. But every night after that for over a month, I had the same freaking dream, right down to the last detail. It always ended right before the half-human creatures started dissecting and mummifying me. I’d wake up, feel relieved for a second and then realize that the heavy weight on my legs was real. My parents never heard me screaming from the other side of the house, and I never told them. After a couple more weeks, I stopped wearing the knee immobilizers, and my legs felt tighter and more painful than before. I wondered whether I’d ever use the ladders again.
* * *
Gradually, the ladder room filled with clutter: abandoned toys, my secondhand guitar, old clothes. Sometimes, I look for the album with the “ladders” song on it, but I think Mom threw away all of Dad’s old records years ago. The ladders are still there, coated in dust, but I can’t reach them anymore. Now they’re permanently above my head.