A while back, I was working on a story about an animal shelter in Las Vegas. While talking to the director, he mentioned that an abandoned three-legged dog had just been brought to the shelter.
“Oh, how sad,” I said. “What are his chances?” I was thinking that a dog with such a disability might not be very attractive to potential owners.
“Oh, he’ll be gone before the day is over,” the director said.
He must have read the look on my face, because he quickly continued, “Oh, no! I mean he’ll be adopted. Dogs like that are snapped up fast.”
Well, I’ll be darned, I thought. The dog with a missing leg had an amazing advantage over a dog with all four. At an animal shelter, having only three legs was practically a super power.
This was food for thought, because I’m a three-legged dog myself. I was born with something called amniotic band syndrome. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s a trauma that occurs in the womb. For reasons yet to be determined, strands of tissue become detached from the uterine wall. This alone causes no problems, but if these strands get wrapped around the developing fetus, it’s a different story. Imagine wrapping dental floss around a baby’s wrist and leaving it there. The child grows, but the floss does not. Left in place, the floss would eventually amputate the baby’s hand. The effects of ABS range from minor (a toe is lost) to catastrophic (death by strangulation).
In my case, the bands would have amputated both of my hands and one of my feet. I say “would have” because I happened to be born in a hospital where one of the world’s foremost hand surgeons was practicing. He couldn’t save all my fingers and toes, but I did grow up able to walk and write.
In other words, I grew up a little like a three-legged dog. My physical anomalies are not something I can completely hide. Whenever I went to a new school, which was often because my family moved a lot, I had to put up with stares and whispers and questions. Fortunately, this period was usually short. I’d make some friends who seemed to stop noticing my differences, or at least stopped commenting on them.
Although I would settle into a comfort zone, I never felt as though my disability gave me an advantage. I couldn’t run fast, so I was a drag on any team I was assigned to. And when it came to music lessons, piano was out of the question. I did manage to play French horn for a brief while, and later a drum in a bagpipe band. I didn’t suffer, just felt some limitations. But don’t we all? And I was really good at art and writing. I concentrated on the things I could do, and tried not think about the things I couldn’t. Again, don’t we all?
All through school, I never once thought that my differences provided me with any positive benefits. They were just inconveniences that occasionally prevented me from doing things that I wished I could but knew I couldn’t. At first it was piano and sports. Later it was any kind of competition that involved physical appearance. I knew I’d never have a chance in a beauty contest. In addition to perky breasts and a slender waist, prom queens and Miss Americas always have ten fingers and ten toes and legs that are the same length. I shrugged it off and did science fairs and writing contests and outdoor survival skills competitions. Again, I didn’t suffer. I just looked for options open to me.
Only as an adult did it dawn on me that my so-called disability actually had provided me with advantages. As a teenager, I thought it had prevented me from being a beauty queen. As an adult, I realized it had saved me. And once I had that thought, others rushed into my head in a torrent. I couldn’t wear those strappy stiletto sandals, but I also didn’t have to. Someday, I might add up all the money I’ve saved on shoes, even though the customized shoes I do wear are expensive. Add in the time I’ve never spent shopping for shoes, and I get even happier. Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t wish my left foot on anyone. I’ve just learned to appreciate the unique privileges it has given me.
And this brings me back to the three-legged dog. Just like I never had to strut across a stage in a bathing suit, he will never have to prance around a ring at the Westminster Dog Show. We both may be missing something, but the longer I live, the more I realize I have gained from my differently sculpted extremities. Maybe someday, I’ll even discover it’s a super power.