The Bullet Catch

 

The body is an afterthought. We don’t stop to think of how the heart is beating 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 we have no reason to assume it won’t keep on doing what it does. One day, something changes; a corporeal blip. For me, it happened in the months after turning thirteen: 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, which suggests hopefulness, but yielded no results. My godmother visited daily, bringing dinners and soft toys that she had won in claw-crane machines, while my acetabulum continued to disintegrate.

The eventual diagnosis was arthritis, and 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 later years.

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 10–12 weeks, which are spent in a hip spica plastercast. It covered two thirds of my body, from chest bone to toe-tips and it took two people to turn me over. The cast was a jaundiced white; the layers of mesh weighing 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 acted like a bomb going off in my bones.

 

Numbers and Rituals

 

I was a pious child. Weekly Mass, regular trips to confession and above all, a fervent and deeply held sense of belief, heavily indoctrinated into me at school. In the local church, I would buy books of religious poetry from a friend of my grandmother, who had a stall near the confession box. The poems were stanza 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 the 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, 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 was still – staggeringly – illegal, and crisis pregnancies were 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 endured, like a cold 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, pregnancies hidden in Magdalene Laundries to contraception. An Irishwoman in 2016 can still face fourteen years in jail for having an abortion.

 

Rope Lanes

 

Physiotherapy meant mandatory swims, so 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 my hip. Unexpected pain had the effect of a power cut. My body stopped, my brain wondered what had happened. No flailing, just stillness. I stared into the chlorine blur, wondering if the joint was damaged, sinking until a lifeguard dove in and fished me out.

My grandmother had once worked at a local pool, and she convinced her old colleagues to let me swim there when it was closed. Alone, with the underwater lights, the 25-metre pool felt eerie. All that blue, and quiet, the water shadows on the ceiling. I scared myself by wondering what lay beneath. Each week, I swam faster and got stronger. My body became an inverse: strong, taut arms, while the weak left leg refused to move, to build muscle. It withered, and is still thinner than the right. I’ve gotten used to my lack of symmetry.

 

(Hip)pocratic Hope

The arthrodesis caused my leg to drag. I got used to the limp, the noise of the crutches, but 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, taking the long way round. I entered rooms from the right to disguise my limp. 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 just the nub of it. What I felt more than anything was overwhelming embarrassment. Ashamed of my bones and my scars and the clunking way I walked. 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. I was a self-conscious girl being humiliated for her sense of 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 I was 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 instruction: lie down, bend forward, walk for me. I have felt it 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.

 

1988

 

In 1988, Dublin is 1000 years old, and the city celebrates with parades, commemorative milk bottles and coins. 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 Championships. Women in headscarves light candles in churches in the hope we’ll beat the Soviet Union (we draw) and Holland (we lose).

In 1988, I spend all 365 days of the year on crutches.

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. She rubs it over my hip with a susurration of prayers. My hip and the bones of a Catholic saint are briefly united and 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 onto my hip.

In 1988, my school announces a trip to France. A previous year’s destination was Russia and my brother went, 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 +1. She’s Protestant, and her religion doesn’t feel the same kind of devotion ‘for the Virgin Mary’. Neither of us know if Mary will intercede for me. All eyes are on me, because they all think I’m their chance of a miracle.

 

Equilibrium

 

Lourdes, like Medjugorje or Knock, is an important place of pilgrimage for Catholics. In Ireland today, church parishes still organise 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 would then sit 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 sheer equilibrium and will required to make it to the bathroom. Our coach rolled off through Rouen and on to the lush gardens of the Versailles palace. From there to Paris, with its cafes, the tower. We all take endless photos and binge on souvenirs, but I can only think of the Grotto, and what will 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.

 

Os Sacrum

 

The Bible spins a narrative that women are literally created from bone, 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 holy grail, the reproductive receptacle that makes life possible. At the base of the spine, between the hips, is the sacrum. From the Latin ‘os sacrum’, it translates as ‘holy bone’. Due to its strength it was used in the ritual sacrifice of animals, because it’s the last bone to burn. 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 at least one that is just for us. But which one do we keep – the smallest or biggest?

 

Lapis Lazuli

 

The hills in Lourdes are vertiginous. They rise, fall and repeat like cartoon geography. Flanked by the Pyrenees, six million tourists a year visit Lourdes, and the only French city with more hotels is Paris. The castle, or Chateau Fort de Lourdes, can be seen from all around and was once attacked by Charlemagne. Reports 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 it’s here in the rock face where the grotto stands. Crutches and splints hang from the walls, like over-sized Christmas decorations. The concourse teems with people, and this surprises me. I hadn’t expected it to be so popular.

With its mountains and valleys, Lourdes is self-contained, which sounds strange for a place where faith is amplified. All the elements of religion that are metaphysical or impalpable are made real in these holy spaces. We carry our prayers inside us, speak them wordlessly in our heads, but here they are made manifest. Faith – that elusive, blind thing – is tangible in this place. 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 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 are the reason I have to bring a wheelchair. When my mother heard about the up-down nature of the streets she borrowed one from the Irish Wheelchair Association. On the day we were due to leave from outside 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 cripple 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 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.

 

Wheelspin

 

It was spring when we arrived, the day 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 sells café-au-lait in small, white cups for 3 francs, which we ask for in untried French, and sip, feeling sophisticated. Paddy the bus driver says I never look him in the eye when I speak as he lifts the wheelchair from the bus. I refuse to get into it. Missing the first three months of term in a new school has left me in a hinterland. Fast friendships have already formed, and although I was trying to catch up, I was other, separate, an island away from my classmates. Now, eight or nine of them, boys and girls, stood silently regarding the chair, while I sunk 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 stony structure resembling a cave, they are tended by sturdy women, who have guided thousands of hopeful visitors into the water. We queued, and when my turn came, I walked into the dark room. A woman asked me to remove all my clothes, and wrapped a wet, white shroud around my body. She asked if I could walk without crutches, and I explained that I could manage short distances. The bath resembled a large stone trough, and, as with the grotto outside, it had a uterine shape. The power of these spaces, whether they’re of flesh or stone. The women guided me into the water and the cold – the extremeness, the sting of it – was a jolt. The room was barely lit and these women, with their strong, brown 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, but 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 geography, a teacher advised me to swap my crutches for the wheelchair, which would leave 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 – hours since the baths – I didn’t think there was a miracle here for me.

 

De Profundis

 

 

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 me towards the front of the crowd, where the immobile and very sick are lined up, not just in wheelchairs, but 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, a man who could be 60 or 90 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 recognise 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 viscous 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 choked 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. These surgically altered bones will carry me through the years. And I am grateful for that.

 

Via Dolorosa

 

Two weeks later, I return to the hospital for a pelvic X-ray. The doctor announces that my bones have deteriorated rapidly and I will need a major operation.

 

Rotation, Abduction

 

The arthrodesis happens, and after ten weeks encased in 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. When my mother starts to cry, he demands that she leave the room. Fifteen minutes later, I plead with him to stop and he finally gives up, annoyed. The next day the cast is cut away in an operating theatre under anaesthetic. Beneath the shell, my limbs look tanned, but this is just ten weeks of dead skin layers. There are multiple deep cuts. 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 six pale scars on my thighs and knees. Vertical lines, pink and fierce, telling a story.

 

Hips and Makers

 

During my second pregnancy, my hip deteriorated irreparably and another surgeon explained the pain as ‘just baby blues’. Eventually I was given a total hip replacement, after convincing a doctor that it was the only solution to 24-hour pain. Granted as if this were 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.

The new hip is five years old. I can cross my legs and cycle a bike for the first time since I was thirteen. It beeps at airport security checks, and my X-rays are a constellation of old and new metal. My scars are in double-figures but they are a familiar landscape. The stories we tell come from within; from our marrow, and the well of our hips.

Part of me wants to go back to Lourdes, to walk the hills with my ceramic and titanium joint. To view it through the eyes of my lapsed faith, my 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.

There’s a Kristin Hersh song, that in moments of distraction 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 alright

 It’s alright.’

 And it is alright.

Without these complicated bones I’d be someone else entirely. Another self, a different map.

 

Photograph © V C

Eel
Han Kang in Conversation