[parts of the spine and how they work]

NONFICTION

By ANNA GILES

[lumbar spine — “the lowest part of the spine”]
It’s your seventh grade year, and you are fidgeting in a long line in your middle school’s gym. You run your tongue over your braces; your hands are clasped in front of you as you shuffle forward. At the front of the line, you follow in the stead of students before you and bend over, trying to touch your toes. Your hands end up somewhere in the vicinity of your calves, even though you stick your fingers straight out. You let gravity pull you down farther until you can almost touch the white tops of your socks. You hear a nurse’s pen scratching against a clipboard and her muttering, “Yep.” You’re sent out of the gym and back to your class.

[intervertebral disc — “shock absorbers”]
You get a phone call or a letter—something so trivial, you can’t remember, but it’s addressed to your parents. Perhaps the man or woman on the phone was a straight-talker and said, “We’re sorry, but your child has scoliosis.” Or maybe it was a letter, recommending The Parents of You to a fine spine specialist or orthopedic surgeon. In either case, all you remember is your parents arguing in the waiting room of the doctor’s office, blaming one another about “whose side of the family she gets it from.” And you think of Deenie, by Judy Blume, and how your lives are so closely related that for all you know, Judy could’ve stalked and studied you for months in preparation for her novel. It’s all there in the book: how Deenie thinks she’s the only one in the world who masturbates, how superficial she is in her aspirations to be a model, the way her parents fight, her scoliosis and back brace; it could all be you if not for the fact that it was first published in 1973, sixteen years before you were born.

[vertebrae — “the building blocks of the spinal column”]
It was surprising that a middle school nurse even caught your symptoms. The curve of the spine has to be severe in order to be noticeable. Your spine was around 23 degrees off, resulting in an S-curve. You either had Dextroscoliosis (a convex curve on the right side of your spine), Levoscoliosis (a convex curve on the left), or maybe both, which would explain the “S.” This severe curvature makes you the one out of 2,500 people who has the increased chances of becoming a hunchback. You didn’t really understand this statistic when you were 13. If you had, you probably wouldn’t have taken off the brace when you got to school every day, shoving it into your backpack, books and notebooks and pencils snug in their cases, filling the hardened plastic the way your bones were supposed to. At home, you practice your Quasimodo shuffle. Step, drag, step, drag, hunch, hunch, hunch.

[neural foramen — “where the nerve roots exit the spine”]
The first time you are sent to the doctor, you are asked to remove your shirt and bend over again. It is not sexy. You never have your armpits or legs shaved when you’re supposed to, such as when going to the doctor. You always forget to put on your nice underwear, too. Instead, you wear holey panties that have faded to a dismal grey color in the wash. You don’t care much about impressing the doctor, but you are 13. You want to impress everyone.

You later find out that the “bend- over test” is called “the Adam’s Bend Test.” It could be called this because scoliosis is more common in women. The curvature of our spines could very well be God’s punishment for making Adam stoop to our level. You will do the Adam’s Bend Test every time you see your spine specialist for the next three years.

Your X-rays confirm that, because of your age, you have adolescent idiopathic scoliosis (AIS). You will need a Thoraco-Lumbo-Sacral-Orthosis (TLSO), or Boston Brace, to stop the curvature of your spine while you’re still growing.

The brace is custom made to suit your crooked spine’s needs. It is essentially molded plastic. You are sent to a closet of a room in the doctor’s office and put on white, body-hugging pieces of cloth that look like tube dresses. Two men come in five minutes later; one of them is very attractive. They begin to rub what smells and feels like plaster-of-Paris from your thighs all the way up over your breasts. You feel very awkward when they’re rubbing the stuff on your butt. You make yourself not giggle. You wonder if they like what they’re feeling, especially the cute one, but you quickly banish these thoughts, because this is a medical procedure, and you could grow up hunchbacked if it doesn’t work, and you’re a 13-year-old Christian girl, for Christ’s sake. Still, you really hate that the cute one has to see three days’ worth of stubble under your arms. You focus on a spot on the ceiling, ignoring the full-length mirror in front of you.

On the way out, the nurse at the front desk asks you what color you want your brace to be.

“You can choose colors?” you ask.

“Of course. It’s to make wearing the brace more fun!”

When it arrives, it is blue and hard with small holes punched in the front, two erect bars going up the back with two Velcro pulley ties harnessing you in. There’s even extra space for your growing hips. You put the white cloth body tubes on, then the brace, then your clothing. Your mother takes you on a shopping spree. You buy large tops instead of smalls. You have a new Pink Panther shirt that you’re especially fond of.

Your parents tell you that the brace is like a corset, though there’s nothing to pull in. Your dad often calls you a “98-pound weakling,” and you like this, because it means you’re nearing the triple digits; you may finally get breasts.

You wear your “corset,” you sleep in your corset, and you try to breathe in your corset. Breathing is one of the hardest things. You have to lift your chest up to inhale and keep it up to exhale. This is probably why years later, you have a hard time projecting your voice when you’re acting on stage, sans brace.

Your dad thinks it’s especially funny at night, when you have your orthodontic headgear, braces and back brace all on, gleaming in their full bettering glory, to say, “Anna? Brace yourself!”

[facet joint — “link the vertebrae together and give them the flexibility to move against each other”]
There are few pictures of you in your brace. You look normal in the ones you do have, unless the photograph was taken from behind. There you can see the two outlines of the plastic bars. With it on, it looks like it’s necessary. It must hold you up, or surely your organs will fall out of place, bulging your skin out, moving around like jellyfish in a water bed. The brace looks like its purpose is to be your backbone. Only this backbone’s plastic bars push out and up whenever you bend over, making you look like you have some kind of deformed exoskeleton.

You can’t sleep with it on. It feels like you’re surrounded by cement casing, trapped in your own specially molded coffin.

[spinal cord and nerve roots — “a column of millions of nerve fibers”]
You only wear the brace like you were supposed to for about six months. Then you only wear it at night. You dodge your parents’ questions: “Where’s your brace?” You tell them, “I only took it off for a minute.”

Then, miraculously, three years later, your spine specialist in the hometown you moved back to tells you that the curve of your back is down near the 15-degree mark. You’re cured, and you never have to wear the brace again.

How the hell you got out of this one, you’ll never know. You’ve been shoving the brace under your bed for years.

You ask your parents if you can burn the brace. You’re all talk. Instead, it stays lodged in the back of your closet, until you or your parents finally drag it out with the trash.

Your boyfriend, who seems to love whatever deformities you think you still have, reads the first half of this story. His eyes follow the curve of your now-normal spine. He asks you if you still have it.

“No,” you say, because that’s the truth. “I don’t know what happened to it.”

Anna Giles is an actor and writer with a bachelor’s in theatre from Georgia Southern University. She does not live in New York and doesn’t have any cats.

Editor’s Note: This essay was a semifinalist in the 2009 New Southerner Literary Contest.


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