Monday, December 3, 2012
#61: "Foot Notes" by K.L. Cook
~This essay originally appeared in Shenandoah (2002).
Feet are our primary proof of existence. We are first identified by them: the nurses take us from our parents, clean the blood and womb fluids from our bodies, stand us on an ink pad and then on our birth certificates. I asked a nurse why they did that when my second son, Tristan, was born. Why not a fingerprint? “The foot contains the more reliable markings at this age,” she said. “And we would hate to send you home with the wrong baby.”
We are a species of trackers. We follow our quarry and identify our enemies by the footprints they leave behind. We search for the fugitive, the absent parent, our ancestors by tracing their literal or metaphorical tracks. On a recent PBS program, an archeologist shined a flashlight on footprints in a newly discovered cave, where there were drawings and a stone fire pit. The footprints looked fresh in the dirt, as if they had been left there the day before. The archeological tests revealed that the prints were over four thousand years old.
Feet are our basic mode of transportation, our direct connection with the earth, evidence of gravity. The greatest track and field champions have always been those who win the sprints, those who can fly. We may admire the endurance of the milers and marathon runners, but it’s Jesse Owens, Bob Hays, Carl Lewis, Florence Griffith-Joyner, Michael Johnson, and Usain Bolt we truly love. They are the ones who remind us most of Hermes, the amiable fleet-footed messenger of the Greek gods. The brilliance of the Nike commercials was their exploitation of our innate desire to defy gravity, to be like birds or gods, invulnerable, able to walk on air.
Reflexologists tell us that every erogenous zone in our bodies has sensors in our feet. I’ve heard a reflexologist claim that he can, by simple pressure to my foot, make me cry, recall my birth, or have the most intense orgasm I’ll ever experience.
In literature, the foot is a symbol of destiny, vulnerability, insanity. Think of Oedipus, who we associate with incest, murder, and Freud. We often forget the way his mother and father, terrified by prophecies, left him to die on a mountain, his ankles pierced together, before he was rescued by the shepherd and raised in Corinth. His name literally means “swollen foot.” Or think of the great Achilles, dipped in the River Styx, his sea nymph mother, Thetis, holding him by the heel. How invulnerable he was, blessed by those waters, and how he ravaged the country around Troy, claiming twelve cities, before quarreling with Agamemnon, stubbornly removing himself from further service while his country fell to pieces, then heroically rejoining the battle and slaying the great Hector, only to be slain himself by Paris, whose Apollo-guided arrow found the weak spot, the soft sliver of heel where Thetis had held her son.
The foot as ironic, cruel fate. That is Achilles’ story.
And Captain Ahab’s too. We see him brooding as he hobbles around the deck of the Pequod, the stomp of his peg-leg like a thunderous heartbeat, a death knell for his sailors. We witness his wild-eyed search for the great whale that stole his leg. The loss of his leg has left him insane, monomaniacal, not whole. For the maddened, one-footed captain, the whale is not a whale, but a symbol, a mask, an instrument of God’s white malignancy, a deity of nature to be hunted. And not merely defeated, but annihilated, even if it results in self-destruction.
At Prescott College, there was a colleague of mine, Tom Whittaker, a Welshman who lost one of his feet in an accident. He was a world-class mountain climber and outdoorsman when it happened. I remember him telling me the story of that accident. We were soaking, late at night, in a hot tub, the Arizona sky starry blue above us. He said when he discovered his foot had been amputated, he was distraught. For him, there was no greater pleasure than climbing mountains. Living, for him, required his body, especially his feet. He recovered from his depression and went on to complete his Ph.D., and he later began a national outdoor adventure program for disabled persons and then taught in Prescott College’s acclaimed Adventure Education Program. I have seen him take his tin boot off in faculty meetings and pass it around, collecting money on behalf of the college—a good-natured mockery of the stereotypical disabled panhandler. A few years ago, he embarked on his third climbing expedition to the summit of Mt. Everest. I remember imagining him in his tent at night, thousands of feet up, drinking perhaps a shot of whiskey and putting a dry sock on his “stub,” as he called it, relaxing before the next day’s push to the top. In May 1998, Tom became the first disabled climber to ascend Mt. Everest, and he is now on a quest to ascend the highest mountains on each continent, the infamous Seven Peaks.
My own feet, by comparison, have little literary or heroic pretensions, nothing on the scale of Oedipus or Achilles, Ahab or Whittaker. As a teenager I suffered from a six-year battle with athlete’s foot. As an adult, I’ve had numerous toenail operations. My feet are the J. Alfred Prufrock of phalanges, the timid dogs of symbolic realism. But they are my feet, and the ailments I suffer are my afflictions, and carry with them an intimate autobiography of who I am and the way I respond to pain and grief.
In 1970, my father was in a plane crash in Costa Rica, and he and a fellow passenger crawled out of the jungle, following a shallow riverbed. It took them four days and was considered by the press and by my family a miracle. I was six at the time, and the thing I remember most when I saw him a week later was how swollen his feet were, scabbed over with bug bites, his ankles covered with purplish-red bursts of color, like some maniacal tattoo. It seemed as if his capillaries had exploded.
Fifteen years later, my wife and I visited him and my stepmother in Las Vegas. My grandfather had died eight months earlier in a car accident for which my father felt responsible. He looked older than his forty-three years, stressed-out, anxiously awaiting the closure of a business deal for which he had mortgaged my stepmother’s house and two cars. He had gained over thirty pounds, ate an entire bag of Doritos in a single sitting, chain smoked, and drank far too much vodka.
I remember sitting out by the pool with him one day. I noticed that the nails on his big toes were missing, and asked about them. “Ingrown toenail,” he told me. “After several, the doctor just took off the whole nails.” His feet seemed to be swollen and had that same capillary-burst look to them I remembered from the days after the jungle. I wondered about blood clots. Then I dove into the water, letting it go. It was his body. None of my business. I quit worrying, had a good time before my wife and I flew back home and returned to graduate school.
Months later, on an evening in early March, while eating dinner with friends, my father complained of severe heartburn. By the time my father and stepmother got to the hospital, the pain had subsided, so they never went inside. My father had no insurance and distrusted doctors, believed they were all overpriced alarmists. Later that night, my father woke again. He thought he was passing a gallstone, which had happened to him before. My stepmother insisted, against his wishes, that they return to the Emergency Room. On the hospital steps, he clutched his chest and fell flat on his face. Dead. The attending doctor and coroner said they’d never seen anything quite like it. They said his heart “exploded.”
A couple of months after the funeral, the outside corner of my big toe on my right foot began to turn slightly red, the skin tender and puffy with a hard, callused place near the top. Nothing, I felt, to be alarmed about. It clearly wasn’t athlete’s foot. I figured it would go away if I just didn’t irritate it.
But it didn’t go away. The infected area turned a darker shade of red and began to encompass a larger portion of the toe. I took aspirin to ease the throbbing. One day, I noticed yellow pus oozing from the side of the nail. I began wearing sandals, believing that fresh air and no pressure from my shoes would make it go away. But it got worse and worse until practically the whole toe was infected. My wife wanted me to see a doctor, but we were broke, and I had inherited my father’s distrust of doctors, so I stubbornly put it off. Then one day, unloading groceries, I dropped a can of corn on my foot, and the pain was so excruciating that I jumped, screaming, shaking my head furiously. I nearly punched a hole in our apartment wall before falling to the floor, dizzy. The immediate agony soon passed, but the throbbing continued and could not be assuaged with aspirin. That night I took allergy medication to help me sleep, and the next morning I went to the university clinic.
The doctor on call was from a Middle Eastern country and didn’t speak English very well. When I showed him my infected toe, still oozing pus and so swollen and red it looked like a cherry lodged on the end of my foot, he nodded his head, grunted, splashed iodine on it, got a pair of what looked like needle-nosed pliers and some gauze, and, without administering a local anesthetic, he cut a huge sliver of my nail running from the top of my toe to the cuticle, and twisted and turned and finally yanked it out. I gasped, my eyes watered, I ground my teeth, clenched my fists, woozy and nauseous from the pain and the sight of the blood and pus and the huge piece of toenail dangling from his pliers. Then I fainted.
When I came to, with the assistance of smelling salts administered by a kindly nurse, the doctor was no longer there. The nurse applied antibiotic cream, taped my toe with gauze, handed me a prescription for oral antibiotics, told me to keep my foot elevated for a couple of days and that I could remove the bandage at the end of the week.
“What about the pain?” I asked her.
“Extra-Strength Tylenol’ll do ya.” Then she sent me, limping barefoot, out the door.
By the second day, the throbbing had subsided, but blood had begun to cake the bandage. It took me an hour of careful, painful prying with tweezers and a water spritzer before I could get the gauze off. My toe looked so mutilated, bloody and misshapen, that it reminded me of distraught soldiers who shoot themselves in the foot for freedom. After washing, it looked better, and within a week the infection had disappeared. My toe looked normal again, except for the sliver missing from the side, and even it was growing back.
The trauma of the procedure had become a tolerable anecdote, which I shared with friends and family. My grandmother reminded me that a doctor had solved my father’s problem by completely removing his big toenails. I felt protective of my nails, and was thankful that only a sliver had been extracted.
Ingrown toenails are the most common of all foot ailments, more common than corns, bunions, athlete’s foot. The medical explanations were simple: tight-fitting shoes and improper toenail care. Which meant I needed to invest in straight-edged clippers rather than peeling the nails or using curved fingernail clippers, as I had done all my life. The problem usually doesn’t require medical attention unless, as in my case, what is known as a spicule of the nail digs, unchecked, into the side of the toe and causes an infection.
Everybody I talked to seemed to know a sure-fire remedy to keep the problem from occurring again. My mother advised me to file a strip down the middle so that the nail would be “tricked” into growing toward the center rather than to the sides and under the vulnerable skin. My grandmother said that whenever she had problems of this sort, she would take a knife and dig the ends out; using toothpicks, she would lodge pieces of cotton under the nails so the spicule could not grow in. Another person suggested I “baste” castor oil on the skin to repel the nail. Another suggested I put tannic acid on the skin of my toes closest to the nail to prevent the spicules from forming. The manager of my apartment building urged scalding foot baths with Epsom salts every day and three drops of Palmolive to “soften the nail.” My uncle suggested hydrogen peroxide to “lure” the infection out. I waited for someone to recommend leeches.
All went well until a few months later. The big toe on my other foot showed the same symptoms: red, puffy, tender to the touch. I was skittish about returning to the university clinic again, but it was cheap and the memory of the pain of the infection was worse than the memory of the treatment.
I told my wife, however, that if the same barbaric doctor was there, I would leave. He wasn’t, and in fact when I told the medical student working at the clinic about the previous treatment, she did not believe me. When I described the doctor, whose name I could not remember, she said she had never heard of him. I wondered if perhaps I had imagined him, a sadistic creation from my nightmares.
She explained to me, in perfect textbook cadence, the normal procedure for this kind of condition, which was to use oral antibiotics for a week if the infection was severe, then deaden the toe with a local anesthetic before removing the errant sliver of nail. Since my infection wasn’t bad yet, she scheduled me for a procedure. The medical student gave me the local at the base of my toe. The needle seemed twelve inches long, thin and flexible so that it could slip inside the skin from the base to the tip of the toe. At the sight of it, I panicked, becoming nauseous and dizzy. I closed my eyes and tried to concentrate on something pleasant while the needle wriggled under my skin. Within ten minutes, my toe felt numb. I chose not to look as she performed the needle-nosed-pliers procedure. She medicated and bandaged my toe, and within a couple of weeks I was fine.
But the problem would not go away. Over the next eight years, I had over fifteen toenail operations, always on my big toes, though the infection would set in on different sides of each toe. The regimen of treatment was not as time-consuming as I remembered it being for athlete’s foot. Usually it involved antibiotics, footbaths with Epsom salts, frequent follow-up trips to the podiatrist for foot whirlpools, and the changing of bandages and reapplication of antibiotic ointment.
But the inconvenience associated with the problem was far worse than the athlete’s foot. At least with The Fungus, I could pretty much function normally, as long as I had talcum powder and tube socks. The toenail operation, on the other hand, would demand that my toe stay heavily bandaged for two to three weeks, which in turn required inventive physical logistics on my part to accomplish the basic routines of life—showering, sleeping, making love. I wore sandals in the summer and cut out the toes of my shoes in the winter. So much scar tissue had developed on my toes, both at the base and in the infected areas, that before the operations it would take up to four shots of anesthetic and almost an hour for my toe to become numb.
Most of the procedures were so-called “permanent operations.” My podiatrist in Charleston, South Carolina introduced me to the first permanent procedure. It involved first removing the offending side of the nail. Then using long, cotton-tipped sticks, he would apply a chemical solution, which would prevent the nail from ever growing again. I had five of these procedures done on one side of my big right toenail alone, a fact that perplexed and astonished the doctor. He said I was a “podiatrical anomaly.” When I moved to Arizona, I started seeing a funny, talkative podiatrist who liked to tell me dirty jokes. Originally from New York, he had been one of the original inventors of the chemical procedure, but he had discovered over the last few years that it was not reliable. He had been experimenting with a microwave procedure, which he found resulted in quicker, more successful recovery for the patients and a better long-term solution as well. Using what looked like a flathead screwdriver hooked up to a little oven, he would “cauterize” the sides of the nail. To witness the procedure was not for the queasy. When he touched the nail with the instrument, it would turn into black jelly. Smoke would rise, and the stink was pungent, like the smell of cooked fat. But it was more successful. Thus far, I’ve only had to have four of these operations, total, one for each side of my big toes.
In general, my toes caused me such a hassle that I would beg my podiatrists to just cut the suckers off. I would remind them of Tom Dempsey, the half-footed kicker for the New Orleans Saints, who set a long-standing record for the longest field goal in NFL history. “Who needs big toes anyway?” I would ask. They relished this kind of comedy. (You have to have a good sense of humor to be a foot doctor.) My Arizona doctor made a point of rubbing his hands gleefully together whenever I came into his office, laughing like Dracula’s assistant. “Ready for some PAIN!” he’d snort. But, of course, he was always gentle, always patient, always sensitive. His shtick was designed to calm the nerves of his patients, to release the butterflies. I did repeatedly ask, in all seriousness, to have the whole nails removed, as had been done for my father. “No, no, no,” he said. “We don’t do that anymore. This isn’t the stone ages, for Christ’s sake.”
My experience with these civilized podiatrists made me sometimes nostalgic for that first phantom doctor who had no-nonsensically ripped the nail from my toe. He may have been sadistic, but he didn’t fool around. I was sure he would have performed a truly permanent procedure for me. I’d just have to get good and drunk before I went in to see him, have him splash on some iodine, and close my eyes as he used a hammer and chisel to pop that puppy off like a rusty roof nail.
Why did this problem persist so long, longer even than my athlete’s foot? The medical explanations were not reliable. I didn’t wear tight-fitting shoes. I used straight-edged clippers. I bathed daily. But still, I was a “podiatrical anomaly.” I’m sure that it had to do partly with the weather. My problem began when we moved to humid southern Illinois and grew worse in hotter and even more humid South Carolina. The problem has all but gone away now that I live in the arid mountains of central Arizona. Podiatrists don’t put much stock in this humidity theory, but I know my feet respond poorly to the tropical weather.
Also, I know that I inherited this problem from my father. What puzzles me, however, is why my first sign of this ailment occurred shortly after my father’s death. If my athlete’s foot was my adolescent body’s way of expressing stress—my athlete’s foot coincided with a six-year period when my mother married and divorced five different men—then were the ingrown toenails my adult body’s way of grieving? When I look back on the stressful events that have taken place over the past ten years, it seems that each time I was in either the pre- or post-operative stages of a toenail problem. I remember limping around while trying to complete my master’s thesis. During my first year of teaching freshman composition full-time, an overwhelming burnout job, I was plagued with operations. I was suffering when my uncle committed suicide, and when my visiting instructorship expired and I started what seemed a bleak national search for a teaching position. Shortly after my first son was born, during the early months of new parenthood, I remember going through a comical period when not only both my big toes were infected but also, inexplicably, my right earlobe developed a cyst that required the daily assistance of my wife to “irrigate” it. When we moved across the country, I remember loading and driving the huge van in the summer heat with no air conditioner, both my big toes the worst they have ever been—red, puffy, oozing pus, extremely sensitive to temperature and touch—with no medical relief in sight until we arrived in Arizona.
My last really serious ingrown toenail infection occurred soon after my youngest son, Tristan, was born. The two events are intimately and painfully linked in my memory. The birth had been relatively easy compared to my first son’s birth, and my wife and I felt blessed. After a few days, however, we noticed that Tristan slept a lot, wasn’t nursing effectively, and had a case of jaundice. When we consulted the doctor that following week, she said that Tristan had developed a habit in the uterus of sucking on his tongue, so that when he tried to nurse, his tongue would block the passageway, but the sensation comforted him and he went to sleep. Not many fluids were going in, and he was getting dehydrated. The doctor told us not to worry, to supplement the nursing with formula, and my wife sought help from members of the local La Leche League.
We did as we were instructed. My wife pumped breast milk and continued her efforts to nurse. But we struggled each day to get our son to take in enough nourishment. We kept a precise log of feeding times and ounces of the milk he drank, trying to calculate how much he spit up. He seemed to be getting better. But we were exhausted, severely sleep-deprived. I was working long hours and would come home to find my wife dozing in a chair, with the plastic mechanical pump hooked to both her breasts, pumping insidiously, like a train engine, the thin milk dripping into four-ounce plastic bottles. We were like zombies, sluggishly, dutifully feeding the baby every two hours, day and night. We watched Dick Van Dyke, Little House on the Prairie, and I Love Lucy re-runs to keep us awake.
When we took him in for his next check-up, we felt we had made heroic progress and that he was doing much better. But he had lost weight since the last check-up, almost two pounds since birth, and our doctor was frankly disappointed with his progress and with us. She felt we had not been diligent enough. He was starving, she said. “Failure to thrive” was the ominous, finger-pointing diagnosis she wrote on his chart. She made it clear that if we couldn’t nourish him properly, she would have to hospitalize him. She gave us a week’s probation time, during which we were to force as much milk down him as possible.
Things seemed even worse when we received his birth picture from the hospital. At birth, he looked fat and healthy. He was now red-faced, wrinkled, his eyes too large for his face, like a premature baby. My wife burst into tears at the sight of the picture. We doubled our efforts. My wife pumped milk off and on all day. We supplemented the breast milk with high-calorie formula. And we scrupulously monitored his intake, holding down his tongue when he would lapse into his old habit, keeping him still to control the spit-up. We felt like failures if the total by midnight had dipped an ounce or two below the target amount. But he did seem to be doing better.
During this time, my right toe again became infected. I tried to deal with it myself, taking a pair of clippers and a razor blade in the middle of the night and excising the spicule that caused the problem. It seemed to work. The immediate pain was gone. And I could turn my attention back to the more pressing demands of my life.
The news at the next doctor’s appointment was optimistic. He had gained a few ounces during the week, below what the doctor had hoped for, but still a good sign. She told us to keep up the regimen, and to come again in two weeks. We felt we were on the upswing now, out of danger. We kept to our schedule, which seemed easier, more routine, though we were still sleep-deprived and irritable and far too obsessed with tabulating ounces. We had trouble concentrating. Frequently, I zoned out or would go on a simple errand or to work but forget halfway there where I was. I sometimes forgot we lived in Arizona, and would leave with a mental image of another town in my head and be confused for a mile or two.
Meanwhile my toe got worse. The spicule grew back, and my haphazard clip job had only exacerbated the angle of the growth. The toe began to swell, redden, and throb, and in my exhausted state, I seemed to stub it on everything—doors, cabinets, bookshelves, bricks, thorny plants—as if my toe was a magnet for every object capable of inflicting harm. Though our financial situation was tighter than ever with the hospital bills and extra doctor visits, I arranged to have the nail microwaved and bandaged.
A few days after my toe appointment, my wife took Tristan in for his check-up. After teaching class, I found her parked outside in the van with the kids, crying as she described the doctor’s appointment. Though Tristan had gained a few ounces, the doctor was still very concerned. He seemed too far behind his growth curve, and additional tests revealed that he was not responding “normally.” The doctor said she didn’t want to alarm my wife, but she had an obligation, given the current climate of malpractice suits, to inform us of potential problems. She said that a number of things might be wrong: brain damage, cerebral palsy, maybe even blindness. One of the more frightening sounding possibilities was what she called “a bleed in the brain.” She arranged an appointment for us to meet with a noted local pediatrician, and depending on his diagnosis, we would probably need to take our son as soon as possible to the children’s hospital in Phoenix for intensive testing.
“I don’t want to frighten you,” the doctor told my wife, “but sometimes babies don’t make it.”
The next day, a Friday, I awoke from a fitful night of sleep. I had an early-morning appointment with the podiatrist, who would, I knew, change my bandage and tell me the toe was coming along just fine. Later that afternoon was the appointment with the pediatrician. I had a terrible headache, and on my way out the door, I dropped my briefcase on my cauterized toe. Falling onto the couch, I stuffed a pillow over my mouth so I wouldn’t wake anyone. After several minutes of agony, I limped out the door.
It was hot for early November, an Indian summer day. The Tylenol wasn’t working. My toe felt huge and tender. My head seemed ready to crack open. Everything that morning angered me—my foot, the ineffectiveness of the Tylenol, all the incompetent and sadistic podiatrists and obstetricians and pediatricians who paid for their sports cars and cellular phones and malpractice insurance and condos in Aspen with the misery and frailties of people like me and my family.
I honked at the crazy stupid motorists. Get in your own lane, you idiot! Where’s your goddamn blinker, asshole! By the time I reached the parking lot of the doctor’s office, I was fully enraged. I sat in the car, talking aloud to myself, cursing. In a final, livid gesture of frustration, I began beating my fists on the hot dashboard.
Afterward, exhausted, I just put my head on the steering wheel. I could see my foot on the floorboard. Blood had soaked through the bandage, from the briefcase accident, and made a large brown oval spot. The sight of my bandaged, blood-stained toe struck me as ridiculous at that moment. I pictured myself as someone looking on might see me, a foolish idiot having a seizure in a podiatrist’s parking lot. I began to laugh. Before long it was a real giggle fit, out of control, and then, without warning, the laughter turned to tears.
I had tried to stay calm, rational and optimistic during the entire medical ordeal with Tristan. My wife had been much more vulnerable, and it seemed important to keep her spirits up, to downplay the doctor’s warnings, to write them off as self-protective, medical establishment hedging. But at this point—exhausted, angry, my toe and head throbbing with dull, nagging pain—it struck me for the first time that things might not work out, that there might not be anything the doctors or my wife or I could do for him. I allowed myself to believe something I wasn’t sure I could endure: that my son might die and that it would be, on some inarticulate but palpable level, my fault.
I thought of my father’s death, how easy that was by comparison. Although he died unexpectedly and relatively young, it hadn’t seemed that awful. It was almost easy to imagine the death of my parents, even my own death. Those events seemed inevitable, natural even. But not this. We bring children into the world expecting them to outlive us. For Tristan to die seemed like a cruel joke. And more than that, it seemed that my wife and I had failed in some inexcusable, unforgivable way.
I sat in the car a long time, crying indulgently, imagining the worst, seeing the future unfold clearly in mind, his absence a hole that would keep growing wider and wider in our lives. At some point I must have stopped imagining, stopped thinking altogether. I just sat there for probably a half-hour, in a trance, totally drained, before somebody across the street honked and brought me back. I wiped my face and went into the doctor’s office, late, where he joked and bathed and gently bandaged my foot and told me, as I had predicted, that it would get better, not to worry.
That afternoon we saw the pediatrician, an older, experienced physician who told us that the other doctor’s prognosis was not justified. He was, in fact, frankly surprised, after hearing our doctor’s description of Tristan, that we brought in a baby who was alert. Tristan was behind in his growth curve, yes, but that was because of his early eating disorder. He was gaining weight, however, ounce by ounce, and all of his energies were going toward that rather than other developmental benchmarks. We should not worry about brain damage or cerebral palsy or bleeds in the brain or blindness or death. “If you keep doing what you’re doing, if you love him, he will be fine,” he said. And I remember thinking, hope tinged with skepticism, Is it really that easy? If we love him, he will be fine? It seemed both absurd and profound.
I remember that, after hearing the good news from the pediatrician, I took my older son outside while my wife continued talking to the doctor. It had turned cool suddenly, and the difference from the heat the day before made it seem like a long time had passed. The sky was overcast, and Carson ran around on the parking lot, jumping on stones, kicking rocks and yelling joyfully, as I hobbled after him with my newly re-bandaged toe poking through the hole cut in my shoe. The sun was bright, but the wind blew across my face, harshly it seemed, and I thought again of the doctor’s pacifying words—If you keep doing what you’re doing, if you love him, he will be fine. Yes, it was simple, and maybe it was that easy. I felt as if a stone had been moved from my chest.
But then Carson darted to the edge of the parking lot, too close to a rocky ledge that dropped down dramatically. I called out to him and began jogging awkwardly and with some pain towards him, urging him back, calling him away from danger he didn’t even perceive.
I took his hand, let him know I wasn’t angry with him. We stood there, my toe throbbing again, and I looked over the embankment to another parking lot fifty or so feet below. It seemed a long ways down. Then my son and I walked back to the doctor’s office, where my wife was coming out the door. The sight of her through the clear glass, holding Tristan, moved me inexplicably to tears. They looked so fragile at that moment, happy though they were. I realized then that the danger would never be gone, that worry was part of our job. We could never escape it. But that, finally, seemed okay to me. In fact, it seemed natural and right and worthy of forgiveness.
My wife walked toward us, Tristan bundled in her arms. Her eyes were misty. She smiled and said, “Let’s get out of here.”
“You got it,” I said and took her hand.
I have not had any foot problems since that time, a good time that has seen Tristan grow healthy with no serious residual effects from those first few dangerous months. That Friday morning in the car, in the podiatrist’s parking lot—when I’d lost control and what faith I possess, undoubtedly one of the lowest moments of my life—seems so long ago. Now, healthy myself, I feel gratitude that my own ailments, my own afflictions, have been minor. Too many toe operations. But my heart hasn’t exploded. My son is okay. Yet, even now, I sense that the next serious crisis in my life will be inevitably linked to my toes turning red, swelling, throbbing with a dull ache. And I can’t help but feel a little vulnerable, as Achilles may have felt in the dark at night in his tent, knowing how something so simple as the foot can be linked so closely to suffering, to grief, even to mortality.
THE STORY BEHIND THE ESSAY
My favorite essays are those that are wide-ranging in scope and tell several stories, organized around a theme, idea, or dominant image. This essay began as a meditation on my foot problems over the years—athlete’s foot as an adolescent and then ingrown toenails in my twenties and thirties. The larger issue I wanted to probe was how our bodies express our anxieties and grief in often idiosyncratic ways. I came to believe that my need for fifteen or so toenail operations was, on some deep level, my response to a series of tragedies and near-tragedies during this era of my life—and an indication of my vulnerability as a son, as a brother, and especially as a young husband and father. I wanted to write about that and counterpoint it with the mythic literature of feet, which includes the vulnerable origins of Achilles and Oedipus.
The two major mini-narratives that bookend the essay—my father’s death and the health issues that threatened my youngest son soon after his birth—were particularly resonant for me and reveal my larger obsession with the obligations and pain we feel for those we love, especially the generations right before and right after us. My most recent collection of stories, Love Songs for the Quarantined, examines that theme more fully. This essay could have been included in that collection; it is also about how we feel, at times, painfully quarantined by our bodies and our love.
ABOUT K. L. COOK
K. L. Cook is the author of three award-winning books of fiction: novel, The Girl from Charnelle (2006); and two short story cycles, Love Songs for the Quarantined (2011) and Last Call (2004). His stories and essays have been published in various anthologies, including The Best American Mystery Stories 2012 and Best of the West 2011, as well as in many literary journals and magazines such as Glimmer Train, One Story, Threepenny Review, Writer’s Chronicle, and Poets & Writers. He lives in Prescott, Arizona, and teaches at Prescott College and in Spalding University’s brief-residency MFA in Writing Program. For more information: www.klcook.com.