The Bullet Catch
The body is an afterthought. We don’t stop to think of how the heart beats its steady rhythm; or watch our metatarsals fan out with every step. Unless it’s involved in pleasure or pain, we pay this moving mass of vessel, blood and bone no mind. The lungs inflate, muscles contract, and there is no reason to assume they won’t keep on doing so. Until one day, something changes: a corporeal blip. The body – its presence, its weight – is both an unignorable entity and routinely taken for granted. I started paying particular attention to mine in the months after turning thirteen. When a pain, persistent and new, began to slow me down. My body was sending panicked signals, but I could not figure out what they meant. The synovial fluid in my left hip began to evaporate like rain. The bones ground together, literally turning to dust. It happened quickly, an inverse magician’s trick: now you don’t see it, now you do. From basketball and sprinting to bone sore with a limp. Hospital stays became frequent, and I missed the first three months of school four years in a row.
Doctors tried everything to solve the mystery: firstly, by applying ‘slings and springs’ – a jauntily named type of traction that sounded to me like a clown duo. Then surgery. Biopsies. An aspiration: a name that suggests hopefulness, but yielded no results. My godmother Terry visited daily, bringing dinners and soft toys she’d won in claw-crane machines, while my bones continued to disintegrate.
The eventual diagnosis was monoarticular arthritis. Doctors mentioned an operation called an arthrodesis, which, even in the late 1980s, they were reluctant to perform. ‘Especially on girls,’ the surgeon told my parents amid much throat clearing, but I didn’t discover what he meant until years later. That I would have years of wishing my body could do things it couldn’t do, and explaining myself to others.
Numbers and Rituals
In the Bible, there is a story in Genesis of Jacob wrestling with a stranger, thought to be an angel. When the angel couldn’t defeat him, he touched Jacob’s hip, dislocating it, leaving him with a limp for life. Jacob was circumspect, viewing it as a reminder of his mortality, of the fact that the angel spared his life. That the spiritual self is more powerful than the physical body.
I was a pious child. Weekly Mass, regular trips to confession, and above all a fervent and deeply held belief in God, heaven and all the saints. This was reinforced by heavy indoctrination at school. In the local church, I bought books of religious poetry from a friend of my grandmother, who had a stall near the confession box. The poems were stanzas about nature; predictable rhymes steeped in Pantheism. The covers were always of fields, skies and flowers. Real majesty of the Lord stuff – but I coveted these books with their small folio and cheap binding.
In the late 1980s, Ireland’s Catholicism had not yet unravelled. Priests still inspired fear in their congregations, but it was long before it was discovered that some of them had been raping children. A very specific kind of mistreatment was meted out to women. Contraception had been illegal until 1979, and then available on prescription. Being difficult to obtain made crisis pregnancies common. Until the 1960s, a married woman might be permanently pregnant: eight, ten, twelve pregnancies were not unusual. I hear it as one word – ‘eighttentwelve’ – as though the numbers don’t matter. As though double-figure pregnancies were to be stoically endured, like flu or a headache. Friends of my mother went to England and brought back suitcases full of condoms to pass around like war rations.
When my older brother was born in 1970, my mother had to be ‘churched’ before she was allowed to return to Mass. The priest blessed all new mothers, cleansing them of impurity for having had a baby. In the eyes of holy men, even giving birth tainted women’s bodies. The church always cried ‘sin!’ to deny autonomy: from pre-marital sex and pregnancies hidden away in Magdalene laundries to basic contraception. It was not until 2018 that Ireland held a referendum on abortion, and passed a limited law for terminations in certain cases of up to twelve weeks.
The first hospital stay is three weeks long, followed by various types of physiotherapy: outpatient appointments and mandatory daily swimming. For three months in winter my mother drove me to a pool daily. We both got bored of the cold, and the same blueness; of me swimming lengths of front crawl and breaststroke over mosaic tiles. Days became weeks, and I propelled myself through lanes of lukewarm chlorine without incident. Until one night a group of rowdy teenage boys slammed into me, a foot knifing into my hip. The unexpected pain had the effect of a power cut. My body stopped, my brain tried to figure out what had happened. No flailing, just stillness. I stared into the chlorine blur and wondered if the joint was damaged, sinking until a lifeguard dove in and fished me out.
My grandmother used to work at another local pool, and convinced her old colleagues to let me swim there when it was closed. Alone, with the underwater lights, its tiled bowl felt eerie. All that blue, and quiet, the water shadows on the ceiling. I scared myself by imagining what lay beneath. Each week, I swam faster and got stronger. My body became an inverse: strong arms, while the weak left leg refused to move or build muscle. It withered, and is still thinner than the right. My lack of symmetry endures.
In 1988, Dublin is a thousand years old, and the city celebrates with parades and commemorative milk bottles. The focus-grouped slogan for the year is ‘Dublin’s Great in ’88’.
In 1988, I am thirteen, and Ray Houghton scores for Ireland against England in the European Football Championship. Headscarfed women like my grandmother light candles in churches in the hope we’ll beat the Soviet Union (we draw) and the Netherlands (we lose).
In 1988, my mother brings me to an old redbrick house near Dublin’s South Circular Road. The woman who lives there owns a small glass relic of Padre Pio, containing some of his bone. My hip and the bones of a Catholic saint are briefly united as she rubs it over my hip with a susurration of prayers. Although nothing happens in the weeks that follow, my faith stays strong. I develop a habit of dipping my fingers in the holy water font at Mass and flicking a few drops in the general direction of my pelvis.
In 1988, my school announces a trip to France. A previous year’s destination was Russia and my brother had gone, lugging an extra suitcase loaded with chewing gum and chocolate bars for trading. He returned with metal badges of Lenin and the Space Race, a carved wooden Kremlin and an Ushanka fur hat. The French trip includes Paris and a stop in Lourdes, and demand for places (because of Paris, not Lourdes) is so high that a raffle is held. I automatically qualify for a place: my crutches are the equivalent of a playoff clean sheet and my best friend is allowed to be my plus one. She’s Protestant, and her religion doesn’t hold the same kind of devotion for the Virgin Mary. Neither of us knows if Mary will intercede on my behalf. All eyes are on me, because they think I’m their chance of a miracle.
In 1988, a leap year, I spend all 366 days of the year on crutches.
The arthritis caused my leg to drag. I got used to the limp, to the noise of the crutches, but with it gained a new self-consciousness. I avoided catching sight of myself in shop windows. Crossing a dance floor or a hall or any room bustling with happy, oblivious people, I slunk along the walls, took the long way round. I entered rooms from the right to disguise my crooked walk. When someone asked what had happened, I always replied that I’d fallen, because this shorthand was easier and quicker and less embarrassing than getting into the story. And that’s the nub of it. What I felt more than anything in those years was overwhelming embarrassment. Ashamed of my bones and my scars and the clunking way I walked. I wanted to make myself smaller, to minimize the space I took up. I read that shrews and weasels can shrink their own bones to survive.
On an early visit to the surgeon, to check my spine for scoliosis, I was asked to wear a swimsuit. Mortified, I cried all through the exam, and the doctor, growing impatient, threw a towel over my lower body.
‘There, is that better?’
It wasn’t, of course. I was a self-conscious girl being humiliated for her shame. Few of us escape teenage self-consciousness, but the complicated roots of female bodily shame are sown early. I knew from pop culture that I should want to be looked at, but when regarded, I didn’t know how to feel. The doctor–patient relationship had its own imbalances. I have never forgotten the sense of powerlessness in the face of instruction: lie down, bend forward, walk for me. I have felt it when counting backwards from ten under the stark lights of an operating theatre. Or when skin is sliced cleanly through. You are in someone else’s hands. Steady, competent hands, hopefully – but the patient is never in charge. The kingdom of the sick is not a democracy. And every orthopaedic doctor who examined me during those years was male.
Lourdes, like Medjugorje or Knock, is an important place of pilgrimage for Catholics. In Ireland today, church parishes still organize trips to France, rounding up busloads of the faithful. In the 1980s, the cheapest option was bus and ferry, before budget airlines began offering €37 flights to Perpignan and Carcassonne. Pilgrims sat next to nouveau riche Irish off to ‘Perp’ for a weekend of fizz and shopping. Today, Lourdes has its own airport, squeezing into the title: Tarbes-Lourdes-Pyrénées.
When I made the trip in 1988, it was an epic, complicated journey. The ferry ducked and bobbed across a heaving English Channel. Everyone stayed in their cabins vomiting – because of the equilibrium and sheer will required to make it to the bathroom. Our coach rolled off through Rouen and on to the lush gardens of the Palace of Versailles. From there to Paris, with its cafes, the iconic tower. We took endless photos and binged on souvenirs, but I could only think of the grotto, and of what would happen. The drive south to Lourdes took all night and pain made sleeping difficult. We passed vineyards and I watched the stars, listening to the untroubled breaths of deep sleepers. I thought about the baths, and how if I believed it enough, I would be cured.
The Bible spins a narrative that women are literally created from bone, that we are fashioned from Adam’s rib. We talk of childbearing hips, and of the sturdy pelvis required for birth. Behind muscle and ligament lies the womb: a chalice, a reproductive holy grail that makes life possible. At the base of the spine, between the hips, is the sacrum. From the Latin ‘os sacrum’, which translates as ‘holy bone’. In Ancient Greek animal sacrifices, certain parts of the body were offered up to the gods. The sacrum was included, and was said to be indestructible. Our bodies are sacred, certainly, but they are often not ours alone. Our hospital body, all rivers of scars; the day-to-day form that we present to the world; the sacrosanct one we show to lovers – we create our own matryoshka bodies, and try to keep one that is just for us. But which one do we keep – the biggest or smallest?
The hills in Lourdes are vertiginous. They rise, fall and repeat like cartoon geography. Flanked by the Pyrenees, Lourdes is visited by six million tourists a year, and Paris is the only French city with more hotels. The castle, Château fort de Lourdes, can be seen from all around and was once attacked by Charlemagne. Reports of its topography were not wrong – the roads are narrow and the descent to the basilica is steep. Beside it, the Gave de Pau is the fastest flowing river I’ve ever seen. It loops around the Massabielle rock, where Bernadette saw her first vision of Mary, and here in the rock face is where the grotto stands. Crutches and splints hang from the walls, like oversized Christmas decorations. The concourse teems with people and this surprises me. I hadn’t expected it to be so popular.
Surrounded by mountains and valleys, Lourdes is remote and self-contained, which sounds strange for a place where faith is amplified. Metaphysical or impalpable, all the elements of religion are made real in these holy spaces. Believers carry their prayers inside themselves, speak them wordlessly in their heads, but here their faith – that elusive, blind thing – is tangible. There are physical signifiers everywhere, along with commodification. You can take home souvenirs in every form: Virgin Mary-shaped bottles of holy water, Bernadette mise en scène with her friends, cast in alabaster. Garlands of glass rosary beads. Relics in shades of sea and sky, heaped in buckets like mackerel. Blue is considered the colour of holiness, of nature, of truth and heaven, and the shops here are banks of azure and periwinkle. I avoid miraculous medals and crucifixes and buy a View-Master for my younger brother, with rotating rectangular shots of the basilica, Bernadette and the grotto.
‘Everywhere We Go (Everywhere We Go)’
The hills were the reason I had to bring a wheelchair. When my mother heard about the up-and-down nature of the streets she borrowed one from the Irish Wheelchair Association. On the day we were due to leave from the school, the coach eased into view and I cried in our car. The arguments had gone on for days: that I didn’t need a wheelchair. That once I got into it, everyone’s view of me would change.
There would be pity. Deep as a trough.
A crippled girl.
My parents made a strong case – comfort, safety and those hypotenuse hills. Outside the car window, there was excited chatter, with parents pressing extra francs into teenage hands. My father promised he wouldn’t load the chair into the baggage hold until everyone, including me, was on board. He waited, and discreetly heaved it on top of the suitcases. The bus shuddered with its weight. I just won’t use it, I told myself. Like the swimsuit at the doctor’s, the circular routes around dance floors, I felt the familiar burn of shame as we drove to Wexford and the ferry.
It was a spring day when we arrived, the air not yet warm. When I look at the photos now, I smile at my friends’ perms and pastel blouses with shoulder pads; my denim skirt and ankle socks. We don’t know what’s ahead of us or who we will become. Our shyness is palpable. The hotel bar sold café au lait in small, white cups for three francs, which we asked for in untried French, and sipped, feeling sophisticated. Paddy the bus driver told me I never look him in the eye when I speak as he lifted the wheelchair from the bus. I refused to get into it. Missing the first three months of term in a new school had left me in a hinterland. Fast friendships had already formed, and although I was trying to catch up, I was separate; an island away from my classmates. Now, eight or nine of them, boys and girls, stood silently regarding the chair, while I sank into my own stubbornness. I’ve thought of this moment many times since, and every time, I remember the panic as a completely physical thing. The internal stomach flip and external cheek flush. The utter hush, the wait for a reaction. The boys grabbed the chair and began to whizz up and down the road outside the hotel. They pulled wheelies, spun each other around, and it had a domino effect: everyone wanted a go. Our sense of others is frequently wrong. We second guess, and make assumptions. The chair became a comic prop, without making me the butt of the joke. There in the French sunlight, we laughed, and I loved them for their kindness. It mattered more than prayers.
The Weight of Water
When the Virgin Mary appeared to Bernadette in 1858, she revealed that there was a spring beneath Lourdes. The waters are said to have healing powers, and are funnelled into its famous baths. Housed inside a stone structure resembling a cave, they are tended by sturdy women, who have guided thousands of hopeful visitors into the water. We queued, and at my turn, I entered a dark room. A woman instructed me to remove my clothes, and wrapped a wet, white shroud around my body. She asked if I could walk without crutches, and I explained that short distances were manageable. The bath resembled a large stone trough, and, as with the grotto, had a uterine shape: the power of these spaces, whether they’re flesh or stone. A step down, and I was eased into the water. The cold – the extremeness, the sting of it – was a jolt. In that barely lit room, these women with their strong arms slowly dipped me backwards. I was immersed with all my prayers and hopes, and for a moment the chill of the water obliterated everything. I wanted it to seep into my bones and make me new. And after months of thinking about how it would feel, it was already over. My skin was instantly dry. Apart from the purple mottle left by the cold, nothing felt different.
After dark, rain fell hard, sluicing down the hills in streams. Every night, there was a torchlight prayer procession, with thousands of people carrying candles thin as stems. The wax encased in white paper with blue ink images of Mary. With the weather and the terrain, a teacher advised me to swap my crutches for the wheelchair, leaving my hands free to hold a candle. Flames fizzed in the rain and the crowd snaked around the basilica, murmuring prayers and rotating rosary beads in their hands. The mood was sombre but comforting. And in the middle of this crowd of believers, my faith wavered: for the first time since my arrival – mere hours since the holy baths – I didn’t think there was a miracle here for me any more.
On our final day, we arrive at the grotto concourse for morning Mass. Hundreds of pilgrims are gathered and the spectrum of illness is striking. There are carers with the gravely ill; adult children with infirm parents. A teacher pushes my wheelchair and we search for a spot to position ourselves. A steward approaches and begins to speak quickly in French, but I don’t understand. He grasps the handles of the chair, steering it towards the front of the crowd, where the immobile and very sick are lined up, not just in wheelchairs, but also in beds. There are people with oxygen tanks, crumpled bodies – men or women? – who can barely sit up. The steward positions me beside a man in a wheelchair who has a metal frame bolted to his head. He twitches occasionally but is otherwise motionless. There is drool on his face, and I want to say something to him but can’t. In front of me, another man who could be sixty or ninety lies in a hospital bed. His small frame is tucked tightly in, and the bones in his hand are like filigree. The skin is bruised, with swollen veins, which I recognize as a phlebotomist’s attempt to find a vein. Under the blankets, he is a husk, almost not there.
At thirteen, I have never known death but I can sense it here. It clouds the air. I don’t want to look at these people, and yet I do look. This is the breakdown of bones, the slowing of a heart, the confinement of our own bodies: a being that once sprung into the world, vibrant and visceral and pulsing with life. But my feeling of terror is trumped by something else, something stronger: I feel like an imposter, with trivial, chalk bones. A woman behind me starts to whimper, softly at first, but then louder until her cries drown out the liturgy. The Mass lasts a long time, and I focus on the rise and fall of responses. People weep, or lie still on their mattresses. In the shadow of the grotto, I know that I will go home, and that I will live with my imperfection; that my surgically altered bones will carry me through the years. And under the cloud-heavy French sky, I am grateful for that.
Two weeks later, I returned to the hospital for a pelvic X-ray. The doctor announced that my bones had deteriorated rapidly and I would need a major operation. Devastated, I tried to focus on gearing up for the complex surgery, rather than the prospect of more missed schooldays. The slow cycle of recovery. The boredom. Today, as an orthopaedic fix, an arthrodesis is only performed on horses – I imagine washed-up purebreds owned by sheikhs, dosed up on anti-inflammatories. It’s a last resort for pain relief, and involves fusing the ball-and-socket joint of the hip together using metal plates and screws. To heal fully, the bone solidifies over ten weeks, all of which are spent in a hip spica plaster cast. The cast covered two thirds of my body, from chest bone to toe-tips, and required two people to turn me over. It was a jaundiced white; the layers of mesh together weighed as much as an anchor. During ten weeks of bedpans and confinement, I learned (on the quiet) how to heave its sarcophagus heft out of bed whenever my parents were out. The bones slowly cleaved to each other, rendering movement minimal and the leg shorter. It held fast for twenty years, until two pregnancies sixteen months apart were like a bomb going off in my bones.
After ten weeks encased in my hip spica (I’m my own alabaster statue) a doctor attempts to remove it with a cast saw. Blade meets skin and I try not to imagine what’s happening beneath the plaster. The pain feels like a scald, of heat spreading. I explain this to the orthopaedic doctor – this man I’ve never met – and he does that thing I’m used to male doctors doing: he tells me I’m overreacting. A rotating blade is slicing into my flesh, but I need to calm down. The room fills up with screaming. Me, as ventriloquist throwing pain across the room.
When my mother starts to cry, he demands that she leave the room.
The blade cuts and cuts, with its own rhythm, and this man urges it on, like a horse in a race. Fifteen minutes later, I plead with him to stop and he finally gives up, visibly annoyed. In an operating theatre the next day, the plaster is cut away like a sculptor’s mould. Under the cast, there is old skin and new scars now: open, jagged lacerations, running down each leg like the broken line of a border. Around them, my limbs look tanned, but this is just weeks of dead skin layers. The leg swells that night and a nurse applies a compression bandage. Every time it’s removed, it pulls at the new scabs and the bleeding starts again. Twenty-something years on, I have still six ghost scars on my thighs and knees. Vertical lines, pink and fierce, telling a story.
Hips and Makers
During my second pregnancy, my hip finally deteriorated irreparably but a surgeon tried to explain the pain away as ‘just baby blues’. Eventually I convinced a doctor that the only solution to twenty-four-hour pain was a total hip replacement (THR). This was granted as if it was a privilege, rather than something essential. The familiar need to plead and convince, to prove myself worthy of medical intervention. My body is not a question mark, and pain is not a negotiation.
I received a THR in 2010, when my children were tiny. After, I could cross my legs and cycle a bike for the first time in over twenty years. It beeps at airport security checks. I have come to think of all the metal in my body as artificial stars, glistening beneath the skin, a constellation of old and new metal. A map, a tracing of connections, and a guide to looking at things from different angles. After years of medical procedures my scars are in double figures, but they too form a familiar landscape. Joints can be replaced, organs transplanted, blood transfused, but the story of our lives is still the story of one body. From ill health to heartbreak, we live inside the same skin, aware of its fragility, grappling with our mortality. Surgery leaves scars; physical markers of a lived experience encountering pain. I think of my children, hoping their lives are free from such moments. That atavism will spare them, and their bodies will fare better than mine.
Sometimes I imagine myself in Lourdes, walking the hills with my ceramic and titanium joint. Looking at all that stone and religiosity, the grand grotto that frightened me, viewed through the eyes of my lapsed faith and non-belief.
Although I do believe. Not in gods and grottos and relics. But in words and people and music. Our bodies propel us through life, with their own holiness.
Relic and bone.
Chalice and socket.
Grotto and womb.
In moments of distraction, there’s a Kristin Hersh song that often floats up from the floor of my mind. I’ve rolled the words back and forth like oars; sung my children to sleep with it.
We have hips and makers
We have a good time
They keep me dancing
Finally it’s all right
And it is all right. When there is a day that is pain free, or the sun shines, or my curious children ask about lines on my skin. I explain my good luck, grateful that things were not worse. I am an accumulation of all of those sleepless nights and hospital days; of waiting for appointments and wishing I didn’t have to keep them; of the raw keel of boredom and self-consciousness illness is. Without those experiences, I would not be a person who picks up those shards and attempts to reshape them on the page. If I had been spared the complicated bones, I would be someone else entirely. Another self, a different map.
‘Blue Hills and Chalk Bones’ is included in Sinéad Gleeson’s essay collection Constellations, which is available from Picador.
Photograph © V C