My Preschool Years, With Birth Defects, Part 2

Like all children, there are certain fragments of memory deeply etched, despite how young I was when the events happened. The 6.7 magnitude Puget Sound earthquake on April 29, 1965, just a couple months before I turned 3-years-old is one such memory. I remember our house beginning to shake and my mom grabbing me from the living room floor and rushing with me in her arms to the door frame between the living room and kitchen.

I remember visiting the Woodland Park Zoo, which was about a mile from our home on Phinney Ridge in Seattle.

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Visiting the Woodland Park Zoo. I am most likely about 18 months old in this picture, right when I first started walking.

I remember the day I was running with a stick in my backyard when I was about 4, when suddenly, I stumbled, jamming the stick into my face as a fell. I remember all the blood, and my mom taking me to the doctor, and the doctor exclaiming how close I had come from poking out my eye. The stick had poked me less than an inch from my right eye.

I don’t remember when I first started walking, but I do know my first steps came later than average. This was not surprising, considering that my left ankle turned in at about a 40-degree angle. The doctors had told my parents I may not ever walk normally. I did start walking, though, at around 18 months or so. Once I started walking the world opened up for me, as it does for all infants. Sometime between 3 and 4 years of age I even remember my dad playing catch with me. I did not shy away from physical activities just because of my hands.

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Playing catch in the backyard with my dad.

My sister, Karen, was born a couple months before I turned 4. My parents were worried throughout the pregnancy that she might be born with some of the same kind of birth defects as me, despite assurances that there is no genetic cause of ABS. When she was born, she appeared outwardly normal. She did seem to have some kind of problem with her lower back, though, but the doctor who delivered her played it down, not wanting my parents to stress over the new baby. I think he felt bad that if my sister did have some sort of problem that it would be devastating to my parents.

Eventually, my parents did take my sister to the doctors at Seattle Children’s Hospital and it was discovered that she had a mild form of spina bifida. Spina bifida is a congenital defect where the spine and spinal cord does not form properly. The reason Karen’s condition was not immediately detected is that she had the mildest form, often called spina bifida occulta, where there is only a small gap in one or more bones in the spinal column. Normally the entire spinal cord is completely enclosed in the vertebrae of the spine. In Karen’s case she had a small gap in the lower part of her spine. Although surgically repaired it did result in long-term problems with bladder control. She often did not know when she had to urinate until her bladder became overfull. When she was younger the problem led to many accidents, and she periodically wet the bed long after she was potty trained.

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Feeding my doll with a bottle. Note the brace on my left leg, designed to straighten my ankle, which bent inward.

Having a baby sister around was wonderful. My parents had given me a doll before she was born, which I played with regularly, and now here was the real thing, a living, breathing baby sister. Older siblings often feel threatened when a new baby enters the family, but my mom tells me that I rarely showed any signs of jealousy over my sister. It may have been because at the age of almost 4 I was already well settled and didn’t see a baby sister as any threat to my security.

There are numerous pictures of the two of us together in which we both are smiling and laughing. My favorite one, though, shows me with her on my lap, holding my right hand in a fist and staring into the camera as if daring anyone to just try to do anything to my sister.

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Don’t you even think about hurting my sister! Me at 4 with my sister who is a few months old.

Starting at the age of 4 I also remember branching out into the neighborhood and making friends. The two friends I remember best were Joanie and Chris.

Joanie lived next door and my mom often let her come over to our place to play. Our backyards were adjacent, and she had a little Pekinese named Meiling. Meiling loved to chew on rocks, and she would chase any rocks we threw for her.

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My sister, Karen, with Meiling, Joanie’s dog. Karen is holding a rock that Meiling wants her to throw.

 

When we got a little older, Joanie and I would beg a few coins off our parents so we could go to the corner store about a block from my house. It was one of those old-time convenience markets and they had a whole rack of penny and nickel candies to choose from.

Chris lived a couple houses down and we spent many hours playing outside together too. When it was warm we would splash in my wading pool.

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My friend Chris, on the left, playing with me in my wading pool.

What I remember best was playing Batman and Robin with him. The original Batman TV series came out in 1966, when I was four and a half. The show was very campy, and when Batman or Robin punched someone, in addition to the sound effects, the producers of the show overlaid colorful words like “POW” and “BIFF,” in all uppercase letters. The costumes were cheesy and the plots thin, but to a 5-year-old boy it was totally cool.

My mom fashioned a “cape” for me from a large towel which I would tuck into the back collar of my shirt. When I ran, the cape would flutter behind me exactly like Batman on TV. I was cool, no doubt about it. Even better was to get on one of the swings in my swing-set and after swinging as high as I could, I would jump out of the swing in pursuit of some imaginary criminal, my cape snapping in the breeze. I was always Batman and Chris was Robin, since I was the larger of the two of us, and I had a strong, confident personality.

I never remember feeling self-conscious about my fingers or feet with either of these friends. I only remember having fun together as equals. We did all the kinds of things young kids typically do together: running, jumping, swinging, swimming, throwing things, climbing trees, and playing with the dog. Most of the time we engaged in free, imaginative outdoor play. As my sister began to walk better she was often included.

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Pretending to be a horse for my little sister.

On the other side of our house lived a retired couple, Mr. and Mrs. Fogh. They were like an extra set of grandparents to me. I would go to their house to visit, primarily because they had a dog, and I enjoyed dogs and cats a lot. I remember playing with their dog many times.

Mrs. Fogh would also get out a coloring book and crayons and let me color at her kitchen table. One vivid memory of my time at their house was when I sneaked some of the dog food out of their dog’s food dish and ate it. I got sick and vomited about an hour later, when I got home. I never tried eating dog food again, as you can imagine.

Mrs. Fogh also grew raspberries and rhubarb. I still remember eating fresh raspberries off her vines, with her permission, of course. I remember her cutting a piece of rhubarb sometimes when I visited, sprinkling it with sugar, and letting me have a few bites. She would often send me home with some rhubarb stalks and my mom would make delicious rhubarb sauce.

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My mom, my sister, Karen, and me at a beach on Puget Sound. And yes, like most little boys, I loved to throw rocks in the water.

The only notably negative experience from this time happened when I was in kindergarten. There was a public kindergarten about a half mile from my house. When I was 5 my parents enrolled me there. After my mom walked me to school a few times, I was able to walk there on my own. For the most part kindergarten was fun. I got to know a few more kids, enjoyed the learning activities, and tolerated rest time just like the rest of the kids.

There was one little girl at kindergarten, though, that would tease me. I don’t remember exactly what kinds of things she said, but it was something about how I was different. In response to her teasing, I was sometimes mean back to her, and for some reason the teacher saw my behavior at these times as a problem.

I still remember the disappointment in my parent’s faces when they read a note written by the teacher in my report card about how I was not a very cooperative little boy. My mom talked with the teacher, and with me, to try and understand what the problem was. In the end my mom simply told me that it was not really a problem with me. She said the other little girl should not have treated me the way she did, and I should just try to ignore it. It was my first introduction to the saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

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My dad, giving my sister and me the gift of reading. My dad was never much of a reader, but he did like looking at books and thought it was important for us to like them.

During these years I was still frequently visiting the doctors at Seattle Children’s Hospital, where they were poking and prodding me, and prescribed an ankle brace that often felt painful to wear. I also had a few surgeries on my fingers and toes, which also caused a lot of physical pain. Oddly, the pain and suffering from these things left little memory, whereas I still remember the teasing from the one little girl in kindergarten. I don’t remember the teasing to be particularly intense, or even all that relentless, but after such positive experiences with the friends I had made in my neighborhood, and the love I experienced from my family, the teasing pushed me ever so little off kilter. I did face much worse teasing in later years, but the shock of the first time it happened remains a bitter memory.

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Helping my dad with the lawnmower.

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