The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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Standing on a busy sidewalk in South Korea, I turned the map around in my hands, trying to orient myself. Traffic was bumper-to-bumper. Pedestrians and bicyclists vied for space on a street lined with noodle huts and digital billboards advertising cars, bourbon, cigarettes, and cruise holidays. A thick canopy of smells — car exhaust, rotting vegetables, melting tar — hung in the sweltering midafternoon air. As I stepped onto a narrow side street to escape the noise and crowds, my left leg buckled beneath me, and I fell down in a puddle of motor oil in front of a sidewalk stand.
Sitting on the hot pavement, I inspected the damage. My prosthesis had a loose screw. If it fell out, the hydraulic system in my left leg would come apart, scattering the pins and bolts that held it together onto a strange street whose name I couldn’t pronounce. Two schoolgirls walking arm in arm stared down at me. A bicyclist swerved just in time to miss me and swore over his shoulder as he sped away.
I had come to South Korea as a Fulbright scholar, and now I was failing my first survival test. Allowed only maps written in Korean, twenty-nine other scholars and I had to find our way back from various drop points to the university, where we were receiving a six-week course in Korean and lesson planning. In less than a month, I would be teaching English in a public school in South Korea — if I passed the course.
I had spent my junior year in Ireland, where I’d enjoyed the challenge of making my way in a strange new country. The Fulbright scholarship was another chance to prove myself. I’d chosen South Korea because some of the materials I’d read described it as “the Ireland of Asia.” Six months later I was on a plane bound for Seoul.
Mr. Adams, a member of the Fulbright-program staff, had told me that people with disabilities were institutionalized in Korea. “I’ve never seen one in public,” he’d said. “It could be difficult to find a host family that will accept you.” The thought that my leg might hold me back only motivated me more.
Determined to pass the survival test, I stood, my backside covered in oil, and found myself face to face with the vendor in front of whose stand I’d fallen. Wrinkles ran like water from the man’s forehead all the way down his neck. He wore a visor that read, Get It On! Behind him, his goods were piled high: lacy pink bras, Hershey bars, outdated Playboy magazines, Buddha statues. I was reluctant to ask the vendor for help, but I had no choice: I could not fix the leg alone.
I hobbled over to the stand, dragging my left leg. The vendor blew smoke into my face. I did not know the Korean word for “screwdriver.” I pointed to my leg and twisted my finger, trying to look exceptionally friendly. “Help?” I said.
The man gave a deep, smoker’s laugh. “Come,” he said, and he sat me on his stool behind the stand. He rummaged around and came up holding a tiny screwdriver. Perfect. I tightened the loose screw and stood up. The vendor’s hands hovered beside my shoulders, ready to catch me if I fell, but the leg was steady.
We bowed to one another, I said goodbye and thank you, and I walked away under the deep pink sky and glaring neon.
I soon gave up trying to read the map and hailed a taxi. We hadn’t been given any money for the exercise, but I’d stuffed a wad of won into my purse, just in case.
In 1974, three days after I was born, I was diagnosed with proximal focal femoral deficiency, a congenital bone-and-tissue disorder that made my left femur develop abnormally. My left leg would be amputated, and I would be fitted with an artificial limb. Until then, I would wear a metal brace that held my leg completely straight, to keep the bone from twisting like the roots of an old tree.
Dr. Robert Eilert performed my amputation at Denver Children’s Hospital in 1977. During the seven-hour surgery, my father, a Lutheran minister, refused to join my mother in the chapel; instead he walked around the hospital, poking his head into patients’ rooms and asking, “Everyone OK in here?” He told me he could not pray that day. “Moving,” he said, “was the only thing that made any sense.”
I passed the six-week training course and was assigned to teach at a girls’ school in a middle-class neighborhood in Seoul. I would teach five conversational-English classes a day. The girls, all between fifteen and seventeen years old, stood and bowed when I entered the classroom. When I spoke Korean, they giggled, their hands in front of their mouths. They wore pink-and-black uniforms and had identical bob haircuts with carefully clipped bangs. Each morning their hair was measured to be sure it complied with the school rule regarding length. Conformity was paramount, and any deviation from the norm could make a girl’s life unbearable. Girls whose shirt sleeves were too long were teased. Those who were slightly chubby were ostracized. I saw one girl with acne pelted with fruit.
The initial lessons I taught were in survival English: “What is your name? Where is the bathroom?” The girls in the front row waved their hands frantically when they knew the answer. From the girls in the back, I confiscated CD players, eyeliner, a pack of Brad Pitt playing cards. Mrs. Oo, the assistant principal, informed me that I could throw the items out or keep them for myself. “That’s how I got this,” she said, holding up a Sony Discman.
I longed to explain my disability to the girls. I felt their eyes on my leg as I moved around the room or walked down the hall. How could I explain, in my limited Korean, that I locked myself in a bathroom stall between classes and wiped the sweaty socket to keep my leg from sliding off my stump? I wasn’t ready to explain that strange, messy fact to anyone, even in my own language.
In 1981 I was the March of Dimes poster child for Albany County, Wyoming. Reporters from the Laramie Boomerang took pictures of me skipping rope. I showed off my sleek wooden leg as if it were the latest fashion accessory. The newspaper headline read: “Disabled Girl Is Active In Sports.”
There were posters of me on the walls of my elementary school, my six-year-old face beaming beneath the March of Dimes motto: “Help prevent birth defects.” I visited the governor in his mansion. I was recruited by the Disabled Ski Association. I spoke at rodeos and fairs about how normal my life was, how happy I was — all in an effort to raise money to prevent congenital birth defects like mine. My speeches began, “I have one leg, but I’m not disabled.” I explained my disability away with a great deal of youthful zeal and confidence.
I loved the attention. People told me, “You’re so brave. You’re such an inspiration.” I believed that as long as I compensated for the missing leg by being smart, cute, and inspiring, I would have a normal life. Beneath that was a fear that if I didn’t prove I was normal, I would not survive in the world; no one would love me.
The days of teaching were a healthy challenge, but the nights were miserable and long. Until I could be placed with a host family, I lived in a small, white-walled room at the end of a long corridor beneath the school gymnasium. Each afternoon, as the sky darkened, I grew anxious. There were no security guards at the school. The only sounds at night were the steady drip of the showers at the end of the hall and the rattle of leaves in the courtyard. I have always been afraid of the dark. Though I left my television and every available light on, I still had trouble sleeping and woke up terrified throughout the night.
At the end of my first week, I had a recurring dream I hadn’t had in more than a decade. In it, cats, dogs, and unicorns floated by in a pool of thick blood. The cats had hooves where their eyes should have been; the unicorns had dogs’ legs for horns; the dogs had no limbs at all. The animals cried for help, but if I reached out to them, they recoiled. I woke up in the middle of the night hardly able to breathe. I told myself there was nothing to be afraid of. My body told me otherwise. I stared into the single light bulb on the ceiling and fought my fears until I fell back to sleep.
After a month of this, I’d lost my appetite and my interest in teaching. Every evening I sat in my room and watched television.
Finally I called Mr. Adams at the Fulbright program. I didn’t tell him about my struggles, because I didn’t want to admit weakness, but I reminded him that placement with a host family was a stipulation of my fellowship, which mandated a “cultural immersion” experience.
“I’m working on it,” he said. “Trust me.”
In December 1978, one year after my left leg had been amputated, my knee was fused in order to ensure a proper fit in a prosthesis. I was four. On Christmas Day, a body cast was fitted over me from midchest down; my right foot and calf were the only parts of my lower body not covered with stiff plaster. My legs, held apart by metal pins, looked like a wishbone waiting to be pulled in two. After the cast had set, the first words out of my mouth were “Let me out of this brick house!” Then I threw a full milk carton at my doctor, pulled out my IV, and had to be sedated.
I spent that Christmas, the earliest in my memory, on my back at home, looking up through the branches of the Christmas tree at the twinkling ornaments. While I unwrapped presents, our little dog stood on my cast and pulled on the bows with her tiny yellow teeth.
Every day my mother gave me a sponge bath and directed a small fan down the opening at the top of the cast. The cool air felt delicious, but the baths did little to alleviate the mix of horrible smells — dried sweat, crusted blood, shit — that wafted up. I went to the bathroom through a small trapdoor between my stiff, separated legs. If I needed to go at night, I had to shout to wake my parents. Sometimes I just peed in the cast and endured the smell until it blended into the others.
The body cast had to stay on for six weeks. After two weeks, my dad duct-taped a pair of skateboards together so I could lie on them and push myself around with my hands. One day, trying to entertain me, my older brother Andy wheeled me outside and raced me down the long sidewalk, which had recently been cleared of snow. In the middle of my descent, I hit a patch of ice and catapulted into the snow-packed alley, landing on my back and twisting the metal pin deep into my leg. The pain made me vomit on the front of the cast.
I looked up into the snow-heavy tree branches. The wind blew, and ice crystals dropped on my face. I heard Andy screaming my name, tasted blood in my mouth, and felt it, fast and wet, filling the left side of the cast. The sun moved over the snowy branches, and then the whole sky exploded into a glowing, sparkling white.
One Sunday at the English-speaking Lutheran church in Seoul, I met Jenny, a young Canadian who was working at a hogwan, or “cramming school,” where some students went after regular class. Many foreigners worked at these schools because they paid high salaries to unqualified teachers.
Jenny invited me to join her for a night on the town in Itaewon, the section of Seoul adjacent to the U.S. Army base. “They have great sports bars here,” she said.
I hated sports bars, but I was lonely; I would have gone anywhere to escape my basement room.
The streets of Itaewon were lined with stalls selling cheap Nike shoes, Armani knockoffs, and Coach bags at half price. Off-duty U.S. soldiers traveled in packs of five or six, accompanied by Korean women in heavy makeup and impossibly short skirts. The night air was thick with aftershave, and the men eyed us openly. “I love a guy in uniform,” Jenny said, strolling up the hill.
At the Free Willy Bar, a neon whale moved up and down over the door. The interior was red-lit, cool, and smoky. We ordered mai tais at the bar, and two soldiers in green fatigue pants and tight black T-shirts approached us. Jenny started flirting with one of them, making eyes and flinging her blond hair. The other guy informed me that he was Mark from Louisiana. He had graduated from high school last year, and he hated Korea. “This place is fucking backward.” He did a tequila shot and ordered a beer. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m a teacher,” I said, and sipped my drink.
“Right.” He looked at my chest. “Most of the guys like the Korean girls,” he said, nodding in the direction of a corner table. Dressed in garter belts and skimpy underwear, three local girls who didn’t look a day older than my students draped themselves over drunk, red-faced men in fatigues. “But I like you.” Mark from Louisiana wrapped his thick fingers around my wrist.
“Excuse me,” I said, slipping out of his grip. I looked for Jenny, but she was wedged into a corner booth with her shirt up, necking with the other soldier. Mark put his hands around my waist and pulled me between his legs. “Hey,” I said, trying to unwind his arms, “I need to go.” I looked at my watch. “Yep. I’m meeting someone.”
He nuzzled my neck. “You don’t want to stay here with me, Amy?”
“Right.” He released me and took a long swig of beer. “Could I at least have your number?”
On a napkin, I wrote down the first seven digits that came to mind. Before I stepped out the door, I checked to see if he was watching me. He wasn’t.
Outside, the air smelled of the hot breath of inebriated men. A circle of bystanders had gathered nearby. Someone in the middle of the crowd broke a bottle to a chorus of cheers. “What’s going on?” I asked a woman near the edge of the circle.
“It’s a fight!” she screamed, and before I could object she grabbed my arm and cut a path for both of us to the center ring.
I stared in shock at the scene: Encircled by screaming men were a fat American soldier and a thin Korean man. The soldier danced lightly on his feet like a boxer. His green pants were rolled up to his knees, and the muscles of his calves flexed. He stabbed a fat fist in the air and yelled, “C’mon!” tilting his head from left to right to loosen up.
The Korean man moved only when the soldier moved; his eyes never left the soldier’s hands. A diagonal scar ran from his shoulder across his pale, hairless chest. He wore shorts, and his bare legs were black with dirt. One eye was swollen shut; he swiped at it every few seconds. His lean body was calm and steady, while the soldier’s shook with aggression and excitement.
The woman shouted something to me.
“What?” I screamed.
She put her mouth up to my ear. “It’s a betting fight. Want to bet?” She held out a wad of won wrapped with a rubber band.
Desperate to get away, I pushed my way back through the crowd and walked quickly down the steep hill, trying to hail a taxi. The screams of the spectators swelled. I imagined the soldier’s fists making contact with the Korean man’s face.
Suddenly someone grabbed my arm and pulled me into an alley. I tripped, and my assailant caught me under the arms and shoved me against a brick wall. It was Mark from Louisiana. He wedged his forearm beneath my neck. I could hear laughter and the sound of clinking glasses from a window above me.
“What, you gonna try and run?” he said.
I felt a strange relief. My fears had been confirmed. This was what I had always been afraid would come out of the dark: danger and bad people. Now here they both were. Mark spat in my face. His saliva was hot and smelled like beer.
“I tried your number, you little bitch. You fucking with me?”
I braced myself for a punch, but Mark was so drunk he could not even hold me tight. “You,” he sputtered, and his head fell on my shoulder. His heavy, upright body pinned me to the wall. When he began to snore, I inched out from beneath him; he crumpled slowly to the ground, out cold with dirt in his mouth. I looked up and down the alleyway: nobody around.
What I did next was against everything I believed about forgiveness and decency: I kicked Mark in the face. He stirred slightly. I kicked him again, harder this time, using my left foot, the one made of carbon and steel. I kicked him until I saw one of his teeth on the ground, a little blood-tipped jewel. Then I stumbled out of the alley and vomited in the street. But he deserved it, I reasoned. He deserved it. He did.
I ran after a taxi until it stopped. When I returned to my room, there was a message on the answering machine from Mr. Adams: I could move in with a host family the next day.
From 1979 to 1982, I had one operation a year on either my hip or my leg. The operations were always scheduled during Christmas break so that I would not miss school. On New Year’s Day I would come home with a new cast, and a new scar.
To strengthen my atrophied muscles, my mother helped me do exercises in the bathtub. “Kick, one-two-three, kick,” my mom said, as my splashing dampened her blouse. I drew a smiley face on the end of the stump with bath paints and called it “Super Stump.” Super Stump loved to fly around, particularly in my brother’s face. She got me in trouble a few times, but I was proud of her. I felt as if my leg made me special and interesting.
But how to explain it? When kids I’d just met asked, “What happened to your leg?” I told them that a dragon had bitten it off. I thought my tale was ingenious, and I embellished it with each retelling — until my mom told me to stop. She told me I was lying.
One Halloween I covered my prosthesis in ketchup for a friend’s haunted house. Kids lifted the lid of the casket and found me lying there, the leg red and gruesome beside me. They screamed and ran out.
I moved into Mr. and Mrs. Kim’s third-floor apartment on a steep side street about a ten-minute walk from the school. I was ecstatic to be out of the basement.
Mrs. Kim taught geography at my school. She was a lean woman — all angles and cheekbones — who wore black eyeliner and garish red blush. Her husband, a short, thick man, never smiled or appeared without a beer in hand. The Kims’ daughter, Sae Jin, a timid, round-faced seven-year-old, was not pleased about having to give her bedroom to a strange American.
I sat in my new room as Mrs. Kim snapped bright pink sheets in the air. When I tried to help her, she batted my hand away. She slipped out of the room and returned with some incense and a question: “ ‘Kim’ is American name?” She lit the incense, and a slow stream of smoke moved out the open window near my bed.
“Yes. A woman’s name.”
“Please,” she said, touching my elbow and pointing to herself, “call Kim. Daughter Joan.”
“Kim,” I said, bowing, “it is nice to meet you.”
She offered me the apartment key with both hands, a sign of respect. I accepted the key with both hands and smiled.
“I,” she said, and she gestured in a wide circle, “home for you.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Thank you very much.”
I expressed gratitude to my host family by eating multiple helpings of fried minnows, sticky rice scooped up with dry seaweed, and grilled meat wrapped in lettuce leaves with garlic and hot sauce. Each morning Kim prepared peanut-butter sandwiches for me and left them in tinfoil on the kitchen table.
Now that I was out of the basement, I got more sleep and had more energy for my students, but the nightmares continued. I’d wake and sit by my window, looking out over Seoul’s red rooftops. The cityscape calmed me. How could I feel alone surrounded by so much life?
Each night I tucked my prosthesis underneath my bed, and each morning, before anyone else was awake, I put it back on so that, when Joan came to get me for breakfast, I would be assembled.
In 1984, my father and I sat in the Denver office of Dr. Kleiber, a prosthetic specialist. It was about a hundred degrees in the loft-like space. Beams of sunlight shone on dust particles and made columns in the thick air. Everything — the brown floor tiles, the ceiling-to-floor windows, the smelly couches, the outdated magazines in the waiting area — was covered with a thin layer of sawdust from the special blade that spun in the back room, where Dr. Kleiber made adjustments to wooden legs.
Wooden limbs and rubber feet hung from the ceiling on frayed cotton straps. The legs were like body parts hung out on a laundry line, estranged and neglected, waiting to be claimed and inhabited by a person who would give them a reason to exist. My dad and I sat in silence, watching the limbs sway in the feeble breeze from the single ceiling fan and listening to the whine of the saw in the back room.
Each time Dr. Kleiber returned from the back with the newly adjusted leg, I put it on and tried to walk, holding the balancing rails on either side of his prosthetic “runway.” But each time the leg was either too long or too short. Sweat glistened on Dr. Kleiber’s bald head. My right knee was bruised and dirty from falls.
“We’ll get it,” Dr. Kleiber said, “but you must learn to balance.” I took a step and fell again. The socket felt loose and insecure around my stump. “I can’t do it,” I said. “It hurts.”
“You can’t fix it?” my dad asked the doctor.
“I can fix it,” Dr. Kleiber said.
“It’s hurting her,” Dad said. There was frustration and sadness in his voice.
“I can do it,” I said, stepping onto the runway.
“Don’t walk on it if it hurts,” Dad said to me.
“It’s fine. I can do it.”
“Try again,” Dr. Kleiber said.
I looked at my dad. He gave me a thumbs up. I let go of the bars.
One night at Kim’s I awoke to the sound of a lamp shattering. I heard screaming, then a hard, wet slap, like a person belly-flopping into a pool, then shuffling feet, followed by one loud shout. The front door slammed shut, rattling the walls slightly. I quickly put on my leg and sat at the edge of the bed. Kim opened the door, blood running from her face; it looked as if she had been cut with a piece of glass.
I helped her sit down, wadded up my bedsheet, and pressed it to her head to stop the bleeding. The cut was not too deep, but it was messy. My hands shook. “Hospital,” I said.
“No, no, no,” she said, her voice trailing off into a whisper. She looked at the floor, at all the blood there. Joan walked into the room, chewing on her doll’s hair.
“First time,” Kim said, pointing to her swelling eye. “First time.”
“Yes,” I said. “OK.”
With my limited Korean, I could not comfort her or ask her what had happened. I held the sheet against her face for a long time. She kept her eyes on the ground and her hands folded in her lap.
When I came home from school the next day, the blood had been scrubbed out of the carpet, and my room smelled like lemon disinfectant. That night I sat in my window, which overlooked the narrow alley. There was the faint smell of propane cooking gas in the night air.
I saw a thin figure moving along the brick wall. It was Kim. She held a clear plastic bag, and in it were my bloody pink sheet and some blood-soaked towels. She pulled a small shovel from the waistband of her skirt, dug a hole, and buried the bag.
A huge cross of red lights that had been erected over a neighborhood church swung in the breeze. It cast a red smudge of light, like a bloody fingerprint pressed into the polluted sky.
One day in the fourth grade, as the tether ball swung away from me on the playground, I saw a girl limping in an exaggerated way: she was bent over and trailing her hands along the ground like a monkey. She looked over her shoulder at me, and I realized then whom she meant to imitate.
At that age, I didn’t know to call it shame, but I felt a hot, spinning feeling move from my chest to my stomach. I watched the tether ball carefully with my eyes. I thought: Enemy.
As I was about to leave work one afternoon, Mrs. Oo opened the door of my classroom. “The principal sees you now,” she said.
Mr. Wong was a thin, graying man with square glasses. His only public appearances, apart from assembly speeches, were his occasional strolls down the hall. The girls formed straight lines against the walls to clear a path for him, their necks rigid.
In his light-filled office, Mr. Wong showed me pictures of his recent trip to Europe. In each photo he was one of a group of solemn-faced men in suits standing in perfect formation in front of the Eiffel Tower, the Vatican, an Irish castle. Now he leaned forward, his elbows resting on his knees.
“You like being teacher?”
“Yes, very much.”
“Girls intelligent here, no?”
“Yes, they are.”
“You must make smarter.” He leaned back and took a cigarette from the pack in his breast pocket. Mrs. Oo hurried to offer him a light.
“I’ll do my best,” I said.
“You must beat when bad.”
I had heard about corporal punishment at the school, but I had yet to witness anything. Mrs. Oo explained: “He means that you beat girls when have wrong answer. They learn how to be discipline here, not at home.” She handed me a long black wand. “All teachers have. He wants you to use, too. Like Korean teacher.” Mrs. Oo crossed her arms across her chest. Mr. Wong nodded and inhaled. The stick was smooth and heavy in my hands.
That night I put the stick underneath my bed. Never, I thought.
The next day I recited my students’ English test over the school’s PA system. I spoke slowly, leaving as much time as possible for the girls to write their answers. Mrs. Oo stood behind me. “Go,” she said impatiently. “They should know answer by now.”
Looking out the window, I watched a detention session: the girls ran up and down the field while a teacher shouted orders. Other girls did push-ups until they fell on their faces. A line of students stood along the fence with their book-filled bags hoisted, straight-armed, in the air. They wept and wailed, but they did it.
I paused before I recited the next question. Mrs. Oo could wait.
The first time it happened, I was explaining to a class the difference between rice and lice, pointing to the words on the board and exaggerating the correct pronunciation of each. Suddenly the chalk letters began to blur. I grew dizzy, as if someone had reached inside my skull and set my brain spinning. My heart lurched in my chest. I clutched the edge of the board for a few long moments. Then I turned around, smiled weakly, and dismissed the class before the bell. The girls watched me suspiciously as they filed out, glancing back to see if I might crumple into a heap. Within days, a rumor was circulating: American teacher is dying.
I had another dizzy spell the next day, and the next. I worried there was something wrong with my heart. The attacks increased to two per day, then five, ten, fifteen, sometimes one every ten minutes. I’d have them on the train crossing the Han River, and I’d rush from the car at the next stop in search of fresh air. In class, when the world started to spin, I sat down and kept smiling. If an attack woke me during the night, I wrote letters, read, burned incense. Nothing helped.
I made an appointment to see a doctor on a sprawling, palm-tree-lined army base in the middle of a destitute neighborhood. On the way there, I walked past beggars and skinny, hungry children, many of them missing limbs. Once I passed through the metal gates of the base, however, I could have been in suburban California: a three-story T.G.I.Friday’s, a man-made waterfall, and houses with well-tended flower beds and swing sets in their yards.
At the hospital, the doctor listened to my heart and my litany of complaints, then told me that I was having panic attacks. I was relieved to know it was only that and not something wrong with my heart.
“Tachycardia is unhealthy,” he said, writing out a prescription for Xanax. “Your heart is beating too fast too much of the time. You need to slow down, take a rest.”
I shook my head. “I’m fine,” I said. “I can deal with it.”
I changed my mind when I heard the metal gate at the base entrance slam shut behind me. I wanted to run back and tell that doctor the truth, but it was too late. I walked on, past the beggars and the blowing trash.
That night, floating in a Xanax-induced haze, I heard Korean sitcom dialogue from the television in the living room and the clink of dishes being washed in the kitchen. I kneaded the lumpy tissue on my stump, wondering what secrets were sealed beneath those smooth white scars. Were memories of my dismemberment lurking in my bones?
All my life I had wanted to believe that I was able-bodied. I lived within this belief and according to its dictates, as if it were a moral imperative and not an elaborate self-deception. I did not want to be abnormally less than other people, so I had to be abnormally better than to compensate. The only way to be ordinary was to be extraordinary.
Now, for the first time ever, I felt purely disabled: limited, ineffective, weak. I wanted to yell at my body: What do you want from me? Why are you betraying me now? It was the most debilitating moment of my life.
© Gary Matson
After Dr. Kleiber, I went through several prosthetists. All of them operated out of run-down buildings in neighborhoods rife with crime and crumbling warehouses. Dr. Vance saw clients behind a used-car lot that advertised, “Lemons: 2 Rent or 2 Own.” I was his only female patient; the majority were friendly Vietnam veterans who smoked in the waiting room and flirted with the receptionist. Thin sheets on shower rods partitioned off the examining area.
After Dr. Vance retired, I went to his son Frank, who worked in Commerce City, where factories belched smoke and the highways were clogged with diesel trucks. He was thin and pale and smelled like cigars and had thin moons of black beneath his fingernails. I never saw another patient in his waiting room.
Then, in 1993, when I was nineteen, I found Bill at Abilities Unlimited. The waiting room was clean and climate controlled. The magazines were stacked in neat piles on sleek glass tables. The walls were decorated with posters of amputees skiing, running, and climbing mountains. The patients waiting on the leather couches were older men, but also teenagers and even toddlers.
Bill gently pressed where my thigh and pelvis met, making sure the top of the prosthesis fell in the right spot. It made me feel honored: his careful attention to how everything fit together, the way he recognized how my body worked.
I told Bill what I wanted: a flex foot, a four-bar hydraulic knee, silicone sockets. He nodded and scribbled in a notebook. That year, I was finally fitted with a prosthetic limb that didn’t have a waist strap — a leg with which I could run, walk, and dance with ease. The new prosthesis made me bold and lovely. I put my wooden legs in the closet. I felt reborn.
At Kim’s family’s farm, we sat on the floor of the two-room house and ate with Kim’s mother, Oma, who held chopsticks in one hand and swiped at circling flies with the other. The kimchi was extraordinarily spicy, and Joan laughed as I drank glass after glass of water. We were there to celebrate Chusok, the holiday of harvest and giving thanks to one’s ancestors for health and prosperity.
Oma’s wrinkled arms shook as she touched Kim’s eye. She clucked her tongue, then stabbed a fig with a chopstick. Bits of food were visible inside her toothless mouth as she spoke. Kim stared at her hands, eating nothing.
Joan and I slept on rolled-out mats on the floor. After Joan fell asleep, I carefully peeled off the Velcro strap, pulled my stump out of the leg, and unrolled the sock. I slept with my arm around the artificial leg, the steel hydraulics cool against my wrist. To make my Xanax pills last, I snapped them in half and took them only at night.
On the morning of Chusok, the house swelled with people. Kim’s brother and his sons sat in the main room and smoked clove cigarettes and spit tobacco into silver bowls that Joan brought back to the kitchen and rinsed clean. I sat on floor cushions in the kitchen with the women. Their soft voices rose like thin ribbons in the air and mixed with the smoke and laughter floating up from the men’s side of the house.
That afternoon we visited the ancestral graves, in a clearing of bamboo trees atop a steep hill. Kim’s brother sang “Amazing Grace” in Korean. A small Christian cross adorned each grave. Oma lit incense, and the whole family launched into a chant. Between cycles of the chant, one of the family members threw a small cup of rice wine on the grave.
Oma took my arm and handed me a cup of wine, inviting me to take part in the ritual. I thought of the Korean fighting man’s smooth, sweat-soaked skin; Mark’s bloody tooth; Kim’s swollen face. A jet drew a thin line of exhaust across the horizon. I let loose in my brain a prayer so filled with the desire to feel whole, to escape this state of mind, to escape this place, that I half expected the air around me to crackle. Then I tossed the rice wine. Everybody clapped.
That afternoon we visited the temple. It was another steep hike, this time up paved roads packed with people. Kim bought me “sweat cloths” at every roadside stand. As we worked our way up the hill, I saw women stepping sideways down the steep path in their high-heeled sandals, clinging to the arms of men. Kim watched me limp along at a slow pace in my hiking boots. “Nice shoes,” she said, and she took my hand.
We passed temples decorated with bright colors and intricate woodwork. At the entrance to one of the smaller temples, an older woman knelt. Her feet were bare, and she wore a loose gray gown. She bent to the ground again and again; her forehead was bloody from contact with the concrete. A trail of incense smoke spiraled over her head. “She mourn daughter,” Kim said. “Die yesterday.” Each time the woman lifted her head, her lips moved, but no sound came out. “Prayers for soul,” Kim said, her hand squeezing and then releasing mine.
That night I had a panic attack so severe I had to go outside to vomit. The humid air smelled of goat shit and wet dirt. I ran the garden hose over my head. Back in the house, I let the last Xanax melt on my tongue.
When we returned to Seoul, I had three panic attacks the first night and threw up in the trash can underneath my desk. The next night I woke to find myself sitting in the open window of my room, my right leg dangling out. Had I tipped in the wrong direction, I might have fallen three floors to the concrete below. I didn’t even remember opening the window.
In the morning I called my parents and told them everything. They begged me to give up the scholarship and leave Korea. “You have nothing to prove,” my mother said.
On the verge of tears, I arrived unannounced at Mr. Adams’s office in central Seoul. I had never in my life quit anything. Never. In college I’d read every page assigned to me. As a skier, I pushed myself so hard I dropped at the end of a run.
“I’m leaving,” I told him. “I can’t stay here.”
“You’ll work it out,” he said, filing something in a drawer. “Nobody quits the Fulbright.”
“I’m resigning,” I said. “Today.” It had been almost four months since my arrival.
“Fine,” he said, slamming the drawer shut. “Quit.”
I am not a quitter, I thought. I wanted to retract my resignation, but I could not. I walked out of the building and past a small tearoom with a tree-lined courtyard. Leafy shadows moved like water over the stone pathways, over my feet, over a young couple holding hands. I walked across the street to a travel agency and booked my flight home.
On my last day at the school, a group of students handed me a box wrapped in hot pink and brilliant blue silk. I bowed to each of them. The girls who had giggled behind their hands were sobbing openly. One girl wailed. I said, “You were wonderful students.” I wished them happiness and good luck.
Inside the box were love letters written in broken English, pictures of fairies and queens with “I love you teacher” written beneath them, a sketched likeness of my face next to a picture of Brad Pitt.
Guilt-ridden, I sat in my bedroom that evening and looked again at the gifts. I felt the deep ache of failure.
After I returned home, a friend sent me some of the letters I had written to her while I was in Korea. There was no mention of the night in Itaewon, of the struggles at school, the nightmares, the spousal abuse, the crippling panic attacks; only detailed descriptions of students, food, sunsets. “I thought you were doing great there,” she said.
I’d never let on that I wasn’t having the time of my life. I could not bear to tell anyone how I was struggling. Who was I if not the overachiever who barreled through adversity with a laugh and a can-do spirit? Who was I if I could not withstand?
I’d always worked hard to achieve my goals, motivated by the fear that if I wasn’t hugely successful, I’d be worthless. I could never admit the truth about my body’s limitations. Who could love a person so deformed and scarred? A person with a body part that was not God-given but man-made? A person whose very existence is abnormal, an accident?
In South Korea I was stripped of my language and my familiar culture and faced with violence, seemingly at every turn. All my defenses fell, and I was reduced to a body, a disabled body, one that I discovered I knew very little about. It was like a foreign country whose geography and landscapes were alien to me, though I’d lived within its borders all my life. There too I encountered violence: in the memories of what had been done to my body; in the harsh demands I had made on it, the corporal punishments I’d inflicted on myself.
For a long time I have been afraid to tell this story, because I saw it as a story of failure, and where is the beauty in such a tale? But beauty cannot exist without imperfection. Grace can be experienced when we fail.
The day before I left Seoul, I took my laundry off the clothesline that stretched across the narrow sun porch. Small ants marched around the windows. A bird flew toward me, then away again, its black wings beating in the fading gold light.
Later that evening, I crept outside and slunk up the alleyway. With my hands, I dug a shallow hole near the place where Kim had buried the bag of bloody sheets. I took the discipline stick out from under my shirt, dropped it in the hole, and kicked dirt over it. The sky overhead was dark gray, the horizon a slash of deep pink in the distance.