This week we begin saying goodbye to the bilateral jointed AFOs (leg braces) Erik received on the weekend of his second birthday. I remember going to the store immediately after we received them and buying three tiny boxes containing cheap tennis shoes, hoping they would fit over the plastic that encased his foot. I had to tear the guts out of his shoes and throw them away, as there was no room for them to share with his feet inside. I remember how the ripping sound of the cheerfully-adorned Velcro on the AFOs caused him to recoil and begin sobbing. Putting them on and taking them off was torture to us all for a brief period of time, but they soon became part of Erik's daily routine and attire. Even part of his body. I soon learned while holding him on my lap to avoid allowing one of my digits to stray into the vacant space in the open joint above his heel when his foot was flexed in the event he unflexed, causing the plastic parts to suddenly snap shut like a clamshell, stamping a white, bloodless dent in one of my fingers while I screamed and tried to free my trapped phalange. The braces generated unwanted questions from adults and children alike that I never really learned to be comfortable answering.
It was all worth it.
He underwent a complete personality change that weekend, seemingly overnight. He learned to sprint with them on up and down beaches and climb stairs. When Erik was in his braces, I used to call him my Imperial Stormtrooper, and my folks and I occasionally hummed the Stormtrooper theme from Star Wars as he stomped around, because looking at the back of his plastic-encased legs completely reminded me of those costumes.
In the end, what seemed so traumatic and called unwanted attention to my baby back then quickly became something I grew to appreciate, as they stabilized him to explore the world and allow him to concentrate on developing his personality. They became virtually invisible to all of us. Photos of him wearing them still seem shocking, as their presence is somehow revealed to us through them.
Wednesday I take Erik back yet again to the orthotist, a visibly nervous but incredibly kind man with a dazzling, wide smile and a shockingly shiny head, the top of which my nose almost touches as I hold Erik on my lap and he leans over us to cast Erik. Casting was nothing short of a disaster for Erik in the past. The screaming saw that the orthotist used to bite through the plaster was deafening and terrifying to Erik. The jeans I wore the first time still have the invisible but raised lacy, waffle-like stamp of one of the wet leg casts that kicked against me as we held him down. When I wear these pants, I find myself running my fingers over my thigh as if I am stroking the contours of a scar from an ancient, deep wound that only I know is present.
Erik graduates from his jointed AFOs this week to slimmed-down ones that no longer encase his calves. I will wrap up the old ones and put them in the sturdy blue box to rest in the company of his baby blue pacifier, crayon love notes from his cousins, and the tattered leather moccasins that once protected his fragile toes which became bloody from crawling before he finally took his first steps.
Who knows? Maybe they'll end up in the Smithsonian one day.