There I was, dreading the Department of Motor Vehicles shuffle for all the usual reasons, when I encountered a really nasty surprise. Filling out a questionnaire at the crowded D Street DMV, I came across the long list of medical queries--you know, that section you usually breeze over without so much as a stroke of your No. 2 pencil.
I had always left that section blank, but this time, in a spirit of openness, I checked a box acknowledging that I have cerebral palsy.
CP is a non-degenerative birth injury that affects the central nervous system. Its symptoms range from subtle to severe, and mine are blissfully mild.
Eventually I reached the end of the last long line and handed over my paperwork, relieved to have the ordeal behind me. The clerk scanned my documents, raised her eyebrows, cocked her head back and gave me the once over.
"You ain't allowed to have a regular license," she said flatly.
"Huh?" I stammered.
"You got to show proof to drive," she declared.
I tried to joke about bringing a note from my mother, but the clerk was not amused. I would have to find a doctor to attest that my condition was not an impediment to driving.
My heart pounded and my cheeks seared with heat. I doubted she meant to upset me--she was simply doing her job--but in doing so, singling me out in front of others, she had touched my most sensitive nerve, dredging up insecurities I thought I had resolved eons ago.
My parents had raised me to believe "nothing is wrong," and I've gone through life defiantly ignoring any limitations placed on me by CP. I have held regular driver's licenses since age 16 by leaving the medical questionnaires blank--a slight skirting of the rules I had rationalized away because the mild form of the condition afflicting me had no conceivable impact on my driving ability.
Sure, I had that long string of speeding tickets during my twenties, but the problem was testosterone, not CP. Now, at 34, I rarely drive as though in Rome.
It's true that some of the 500,000 CP victims across the country are left with debilitating physical and mental handicaps. They are confined to wheelchairs, often unable to care for themselves or speak. Most others wind up with much milder symptoms--walking, talking and living regular lives even if they have disjointed, semi-curled limbs. A handful of CP victims, including yours truly, are blessed with even tamer limitations.
In short, I simply walk with a limp. I can't curl my left toes. Below my slightly crooked hips, my left leg is smaller, weaker and less flexible than my right one, and has extremely poor balance. Sometimes there's a spasm; my left leg will shudder if I've been exercising hard and long, or if it's extremely cold.
But those are all minor annoyances. I can run, jump, kick and dance. I haven't done cartwheels in a while, but I could easily do them if I ever win the lottery. My left foot may not have much motion, but I've learned to manipulate it well enough to change gears on a motorcycle. As recently as April, I took the controls of a Black Hawk helicopter flying over the Potomac River. Driving a car? Shoot, that's a cinch.
Still, I've always been ultra-sensitive about my walk, a syncopated limp often mistaken for a strut. Almost every day, I catch someone--alleged adults--gawking, sometimes even laughing and pointing it out to a companion. Usually, that kind of attention strengthens my soul. But on a bad day, it eats at my insides, turning me sour, some might say bullish.
When I was 12, as a starting defensive lineman on a youth football team, I endured constant ridicule from my teammates and coaches even though I showed up for practice every day and fought off the double teams. On the day of our first game, the head coach blocked my way as I was about to climb aboard the bus. He had waited until then to inform me that I needed medical clearance to play for his team. The other players hooted and hollered "Peg-Leg Greg!" as I sprinted home in my uniform in tears. My dad rushed me to the nearest clinic, told me to wait in the car, and soon emerged with a permission slip.
"Do you recognize the signature of the doctor?" he asked as he drove me to the game. It was my dad's--and he really was a doctor--of philosophy, from Harvard.
It was this erudite man who went against my mom's wishes and gave me boxing gloves and some pointers when I was 8 years old. He and I decided it was better to deal with the endless succession of schoolyard bullies who delighted in torturing a kid with a visible vulnerability. When it came to my CP, I didn't have a chip on my shoulder; I had a boulder.
So I became a motivated boxing student. From then on, when our military family moved to a new place, the first kid who bullied me because of my gimpy left leg usually received a stern warning, then a sock in the nose.
Little did the DMV clerk know what chords she was striking as she shoved my paperwork back under the Plexiglas, peering over my shoulder and calling out: "Next!"
Thankfully, I've long outgrown my chest-thumping foolishness. But on that day at the District DMV, when that clerk smacked me with a stinging verbal blow, I desperately wanted to swing back. Instead, I bolted to the in-house DMV doctor's office, thinking he'd quickly rectify the snafu. Wrong.
In front of other "patients," the doc asked me to "prove [my] left leg works."
I considered proving it by leaping into a spinning snap-kick--not that I ever took karate lessons. But I kept myself in check, sucked in a deep breath, exhaled and begrudgingly agreed to slip into a plastic cockpit contraption, where I proceeded to smoothly operate the gas, brake and clutch pedals--all the while handling the steering wheel, too, golly gee whiz. The doc signed me off without apology.
As I zoomed back down the ugly DMV hallway, lightly bobbing up and down with my stride of pride, a revenge fantasy screamed in my brain. I would be Jack Nicholson in that masterly turn in "A Few Good Men."
"The proof," I envisioned myself roaring at the DMV clerk, waving my new documents menacingly.
"You can't handle the proof!"