The Warrior Child

Leslie Penkunas//June 10, 2019

The Warrior Child

Leslie Penkunas//June 10, 2019

“Ow! Ow! Stop it! Daddy, help me!” I was not helping him. In fact, I had his arms pinned to his side as he writhed in my lap. Isaac is terrified of having his casts removed. His creativity in expressing this terror is not lacking. Occasionally, he claims that his legs are falling off. I had warned the medical assistant operating the saw of this in advance, and despite alarming accusations from Isaac along the lines of, “It’s killing me!” this was the smoothest the procedure had ever gone.

I was impressed with the woman cutting Isaac’s legs free. She let him slide a flexible ruler down the inside of his cast, adding a feeling of security. She would tease him with the saw, using a playful sing-song voice to warn, “I’m going to tickle you now,” just before making a cut, and actually had Isaac laughing out loud for a minute or two before the terror set in. I tried to read her name from the card bouncing about on a lanyard around her neck, thinking I’d tell the doctor how helpful she was, but I could only make out a few words on the back: “I will avoid patient harm by. . .”

Each cast was cut down both sides. Isaac was trembling in my arms as the assistant pried at his legs with a spreader, but the casts would not come off. The sound of the saw once again filled the room, and was once again overpowered by Isaac’s screams, “It hot! It hot!” bouncing off the walls, through the closed door, down the hallway, and into the ears of what I imagined to be half a dozen casted children, gripping their parents’ hands, waiting their turn at the saw mill.

Isaac’s shrieking reached a pitch that seemed at the limit of even his impressive range as he declared, “There blood! Daddy, there blood!” That was as new one. Sometimes Isaac’s claims are so over the top that I find myself stifling a chuckle. On the receiving end of his mass of alarmism, it is very hard to tell when he is experiencing a real problem.

The assistant finished a cut on the outside of Isaac’s left ankle, flipped his foot over to recheck the inside cuts, and froze. There in the fresh white fabric of the crack in the cast, a bright red spot was growing. Suddenly the sing-song voice became very serious, “Oh, there is blood.”

We cast Isaac’s legs as a treatment for cerebral palsy. Isaac cannot walk without special equipment. The casts stretch his legs over a period of two weeks, giving him greater flexibility and mobility once they come off. Isaac approaches the casts differently each time. We’ve had two-week periods where he hasn’t wanted to leave the couch, and two-week periods where he’s run and played until his ankles were rubbed raw on the inside of the plaster. Regardless of how the casting time has gone, one perennial truth remains: nothing slows this kid down for long. For most people wearing a cast is a once in a lifetime experience. Isaac has had six casts in the last year, and walked out the door from every scream-filled encounter with the saw ready to tackle the world head-on; but as I watched the blood seep out of that crack, I wondered what new challenge this life had thrown at him.

Isaac arrived home with a pile of gifts in his arms, and a deep cut in his left ankle. He would not walk again for weeks.  I tried to convince him to take a nap, but he thought he deserved to lay on the couch and watch a movie. As I had recently pinned his arms to his side while a saw was driven into his foot, the moral initiative was not on my side. He slept through the movie, woke up, insisted that I had never started it for him, and then slept through it again.

I worked the phones until a mobility device company generously offered Isaac the use of a pediatric wheelchair during his recovery. Then, but for the savage guilt setting up a long-term campsite in the depths of my soul, life returned to a normal, faster, wheeled pace. The first-floor loop between our kitchen, dining, and living rooms, already a popular track and field venue, was introduced to chariot racing. Our oldest, Jacob, began regular practice sessions, attempting to teach Isaac to pop wheelies. Caleb, our second, discovered the advantages of using his brother as a mobile shield in Nerf gun battles. For his part, Isaac learned that, debilitating injury or not, he cannot run over his little brother like a wayward squirrel in the street. Even the fiercest warrior can sit on time-out.

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