Essay: Walking Lessons

Trying to absorb two blows that befell his family, a writer struggles to comprehend the wonder of the apparently simple act of putting one foot in front of the other

Montreal Gazette

Sun Aug 13 2000

Page: C1

Section: Magazine

Byline: RAYMOND BEAUCHEMIN

The phone rang, but I didn’t want to get up from my nap. It was a Saturday in April. The sun was shining through the bedroom window, diffused by the dirt left from streaks of rain and melting snow. If I didn’t get the phone, my baby daughter, Georgia, would wake up. I walked out of the bedroom and picked up the phone.

It was Nancy, which annoyed me no end. To be woken from a nap by my sister. But the annoyance dissipated quickly with Nancy’s message: our sister, Monique, the youngest of
us three, had been in an accident, hurt her leg; she was in a hospital in Scotland.

Now, three years later, I wonder if I might have somehow cursed us because my first thought wasn’t that Monique would be OK; it was that Monique was dead. But I erased the thought as well as I could and the next – inexplicable because the information to that point was too vague – was of Monique in a wheelchair, in a black gown accepting a degree or award. I can live with Monique in a wheelchair, I thought. Please let her be in  a  wheelchair.

I hung up the phone and wailed. I went back to my bed and lay there wishing I’d been dreaming. I prayed and awaited further word. When it came, it was the first terrible thought that was confirmed. There would be no wheelchair for Monique.

She died the twelfth day of that cruelest month in 1997 of a heart attack in the emergency room of the Royal Dundee Infirmary, taken there after an accident in which her left leg was ripped off at the knee and thrown 50 metres by a speeding motorcycle. Her
boyfriend was the driver.

A week later, after the funeral, my wife and I were told our adopted daughter, who was 18 months old, had cerebral palsy. The reason she wasn’t walking yet, the reason she never
smiled as a baby, why she could barely hold up her head, now had a name. No longer was it a “developmental delay.” The doctors said Georgia would be at least 4 before she would walk.

***

Put one foot in front of the other
And soon, you’ll be walking ‘cross the floor;
Put one foot in front of the other
And soon, you’ll be walking out the door.
–  From Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special

Like breathing, we don’t even think about walking. At least, those of us who can. We stand up, put one foot in front of the other and head on out. But if we sat down and thought
about what actually goes into one stride, we’d go catatonic.

The layman’s bible on locomotion is Human Walking by Vernon Inman, Henry Ralston and Frank Todd. It’s a 20-year-old book, but a model of clarity on subjects like kinematics (pure motion), kinetics, energy expenditure and applications of lower-limb prosthetics, such as that worn by Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard, such as that my sister could have worn had she lived.

Walking connotes the cyclical movement of body parts by which humans, and other animals, move from one location to another. The basic walk requires continuing ground-reaction forces that support the body and periodic movement of each foot from one
position of support to the next in the direction of progression, the authors write. There are variations on this, of course, like changes in speed or alterations to adjust to changes in footwear. One doesn’t walk the same in cross-trainers and high heels, and women don’t walk as men walk. Vive la difference.

“The erect, moving body is supported by first one leg and then the other. As the moving body passes over the supporting leg, the other leg is swinging forward in preparation for
its next support phase.” We’ve all noticed that oscillation and propulsion. Sometime in high school, looking at a yearbook photograph of myself in the mile relay (55.5 seconds), I had an epiphany: the faster one walks, the less time a leg is in what Inman calls the support phase, until, at a run, there are brief moments when neither foot is grounded. When we say a sprinter “flies” down the track, we aren’t being 100-per-cent metaphorical: Bruny Surin and Donovan Bailey spend half their time in the air!

When a person limps, though, one foot does almost double-duty as the support and spends more time on the ground. This is where we get the phrase “favouring one leg.” The leg, or
foot, that is favoured is the ungrounded one, in the air, without friction. The foot in support mode begins its duty ahead of the body – where, Inman points out, it slows the body down – passes underneath the body to the rear, then speeds up again. One can see, even feel, this slowing down and speeding up with a limp, but limps aren’t always easy to come by. Try instead, to carry a mug of hot tea across the kitchen No. 1, without spilling it, and No. 2, without having the beverage surge backward and forward.

Can’t be done.

***

Monique reveled in her body. She loved to work out, to push herself physically. Her body, though she griped about it the way many girls and women do, was her first selling point.
She was just about 5 foot 7, had eyes and hair as rich and brown as loam. Her thighs were workout thighs, voluptuous and well-toned. She attracted her few boyfriends with that body, but then her smarts dispensed with them. The boyfriend who ran her over was what she considered her first serious love(r) even though she’d known him for only 58 days when she succumbed to the treads of his front tire.

I have so many images, from photographs mostly, of my sister from different points in her life. She had dimples in her knees as a chunky one-year-old. “You were so cute then.
What happened?” I teased her in her 20s.

Of course, she was no longer cute. Beautiful isn’t cute.

A yearbook shot from Monique’s junior year when she was on the track-and-field team: her back and buttocks over the high-jump bar, her knee at a point exactly above it, her
substantial calf anticipating clearing it. At university, where she studied chemistry, she was part of the rowing team. I see her, fourth back from the coxswain, Merrimack River near Hooksett, New Hampshire. It’s cold out this November day, but she’s flushed from the row, from the air, from the stroke. Damp from the sweat, from the river, from the drizzle.

Next, she’s sitting on a rock in the Scottish Highlands. It’s early April 1997. She’s been hiking. Her coat’s zipped up, her gloved hands on her lap. Her cheeks are flush. The
boyfriend, a big hiker, who was introducing her to his landscapes, took the photo. Damn, she looks happy, surrendered, like from good exercise.

Another Scotland image is one from my imagination. From the sketchy information we had from the police, I had enough to paint the scene: she is lying on the side of the road,
thistle where the bottom of her left leg should be. She’s looking up. The sky is freeze-pop blue with marshmallow clouds. When I went to the Scottish seaside village where she had been living to collect her things and take her body home to Massachusetts, I visited the accident site. The blood that hadn’t been washed away was browned, and it spotted the grass. Friends had left flowers nearby. The sky was gray. There were tall fir trees that, when I lay down, formed a canopy above me.

***

Did Lazarus have to relearn how to walk when he was ordered to rise from the dead?

***
I wonder sometimes what Monique would have thought about the technological advances and news of the past three years. There she was in Scotland. And there was Dolly, the soon-to-be-cloned sheep. We’d have been E-mailing each other by now. We’d have talked about devolution and the election of the Scottish parliament. She’d have read my interview in the Scotsman with Cape Breton singer Bruce Guthro, the new frontman for Runrig. She would have made cigar jokes and laughed about her namesake, the White House intern. Or maybe jokes about kneepads.

She might have searched for “walks” and “Britain” on the Net and found a used copy of A Walk Around the Snickelways of York, by Mark W. Jones, for 10 pounds. The guide describes the “snickets, ginnels, alleyways, courts, yards, footstreets and other ways for people on foot to explore York.” She might have found the About Walking Web site (walking.about.com») and learned how to treat a walking injury, i.e., something that
requires immediate first aid, like a strain, sprain or bruise.

1. Stop what you were doing that caused the injury.

2. Get off your feet, take the weight off the affected limb.

3. Raise the affected limb to a level above your heart.

4. Take ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil, etc.) to bring down inflammation.

5. See the doctor if you cn’t move the limb or if pain persists over a week.

***

Moving in silent esperation, Keeping an eye on the holy land, A hypothetical destination; Say, ho is this Walking Man?  – James Taylor, Walking Man

With all the information that’s out there on the Web regarding cerebral palsy, it might seem odd that Denise, my wife, and I have never sought it out as a resource. Why bother,
really? We’ve had such tremendous support from Georgia’s therapists. And, frankly, there’s no substituting the kind of therapy we’ve found: one-on-one.

My own one-on-one therapy is sometimes done in a museum. This is how I came to confront Walking Man at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts when the Giacometti show was there in 1998. I was so taken with the bronze sculpture that I made a return trip to
meditate before Walking Man 1 (1960), two years older than I am. For me, no symbol – a gun, a spaceship, a mushroom cloud, a computer – more aptly encompasses the 20th century than Alberto Giacometti’s Walking Man.

His shoulders are square with pride, the body and legs straight; the feet are thick and out of proportion with the rest of the body. His eyes are empty, his mouth missing. He
leans at the hips, pitching forward from the weight. Viewed from the side, Walking Man‘s eyes look straight up the road ahead. He has no peripheral vision, but his eyes do see. They have seen too much.

The day of my last visit, I watched a boy of 11 try to lean forward as Walking Man does. He
couldn’t do it without bending his knee. A man in a wheelchair stopped and looked, listening to the audiotape. He rolled on, looked away, then glanced back. He was asking, as I was asking : Who is this Walking Man?

Everyman.

I am a Boer. I am Hereros, Hottentot. I am Manchu.

I am Leon Trotsky, escaping my Siberian hell-hole, on my way to London, on my way to St.
Petersburg, now exiled from Moscow, now exiled from Russia, now walking in my Mexican villa.

My name is Ijac. I once managed a grocery in Szentes, on the Tisza River in Hungary. The distance between my store and my home was the 28 steps it took to walk down the stairs.
I had a wife, two boys and two girls. The boys are with me now. The women I don’t know about. A rifle butt separated us before we clambered aboard the train car that brought us here.

I am Levi, Primo Levi. I am walking home.

I am Tutsi. I am Hutu. I am Roma. I am Georgian, from Abkhazia. I am Chechen. I am Timorese, from the East. I am Afghan. I am Kurd.

I am a Sudanese girl, I am 12. I don’t understand how these things work, but a Christian, like me except that his skin is as white as a cow’s eyes, has paid for my release from my
Islamic captor. The one who put his thing in my thing. I have walked a hundred kilometres behind the Christian’s camel, me and 300 other children. My feet are blistered or I would run; indeed I would run if my soul were in it.

I am Julien Roland Beauchemin. That’s my daughter they’ve taken off the plane from Scotland in a pine box. She was brought home in a hearse and we had a funeral in the church where she was baptized. We had people at the house after. Egg-salad sandwiches. Beer. Wine. Juice for the kids. Come in. Watch your step. There are three stairs, cement I poured, to get up to the back porch.

I am Floyd Patterson. I am Sonny Liston. I am Cassius Clay. I am Muhammad Ali. I am a butterfly, I am a bee. I am the greatest.

I am Martin Luther King Jr., on my way up to the microphone. I’ve never spoken before so many people before. But it’s a warm day and it’s great to be in Washington.

I am Neil Armstrong, the man on the moon.

I need. I want. I care. I weep. I ache. I am. I said. I am. Neil Diamond. Hot August night, 1972, the Greek Theatre, Los Angeles, Calif.

I am Roger Banister. I am Rosie Ruiz, for even I had to run a little bit.

I am Terry Fox.

I am Jim Carrey, the man on the moon.

***
Leaving my uncle Gilbert’s house one afternoon with my grandfather, Armand. It’s the late summer and I must be about 10 or so. We’re walking the 50 metres back to my
grandparents’ home next door in St-Cyrille, a farm town outside Drummondville. We’re walking on the gravel by the side of the road. There’s a ditch on my right and Route 255 on my left with Armand in between me and the screaming stream of cars.

My mother must have been watching us from the large kitchen window.

She says: “You have your grandfather’s walk.”

That is so neat. I have my grandfather’s walk.

***

“Man is the only one that knows nothing, that can learn nothing without being taught. He can neither speak nor walk nor eat, and in short he can do nothing at the prompting of
nature only, but weep.”  – Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD)

Eureka! experiences don’t come along every day in science, regardless of what Nature magazine and the Journal of American Medical Association would have us believe. But one was reported in March. And it happened in the most basic manner: looking at an old
problem in a new way.

For years, scientists knew that man’s ancestors didn’t just jump down from the trees and begin walking upright immediately. There had to have been an intermediate stage. But
how to prove it? Two scientists put the question to the old hominid known to researchers as Australopithecus afarensis, the set of bones the rest of us call  “Lucy.”

Brian Richmond and David Strait of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., study primate physiology. At the Smithsonian Institution, the two stumbled upon papers
regarding modern African apes’ use of their knuckles to walk.

“I could not remember ever seeing anything about wrists in fossil hominids. I thought `Oh my God, I don’t think anyone’s looked at this’,” Richmond told Reuters news agency.
“Across the hall was a cast of the famous fossil Lucy. We ran across and looked at it and bingo, it was clear as night and day. It was a eureka moment.”

Lucy, it turns out, has a little extension, like chimps and gorillas, that makes her wrist bone stiff. Chimps and gorillas cannot flex their hands backward at their wrists as humans
can. Lucy had a strong enough forearm to carry heavy weight. But, though she walked upright, Lucy could not, unlike the humans that evolved from her, make tools or throw spears.

The stiff wrist suggested to Richmond and Strait that Lucy’s ancestors – and, therefore, our
ancestors – walked on their knuckles before they began walking upright. The focus on Lucy (until the analysis of her wrists) had been the hip and leg bones, which proved that Australopithecus afarensis, who lived in Africa between 4.1 million and 3 million years ago, walked upright.

“We have found evidence in the wrist joint that sheds new light on arguably the most fundamental adaptation in humans … which is why did humans start walking upright?”
Richmond said. “Walking upright is the hallmark of humanity. It is the feature that defines all of our ancestors to the exclusion of our ape relatives.”

Richmond said his finding in no way suggests that humans descended from apes. Experts say humans, chimps, gorillas and other apes descended from a common ancestor and evolved independently. What remains is a lot of debate as to why this chimpanzee-like
ancestor, or human-like ancestor, quit dragging his knuckles on the jungle floor and stretched out his spine.

Bipedal locomotion – the upright, two-legged walk of humans – has been seen as evolving about the same time as loss of hair and a change in the pigmentation of our ancestors.

***
Theories of bipedalism make up one chapter in Wanderlust: A History of Walking, by San Francisco writer Rebecca Solnit, published in June by Viking Penguin. Walking upright was the “Rubicon the evolving species crossed to become hominid,” she writes. It gave us what we have today: elegantly elongated bodies with gothic arches; straight rows of toes, straight legs; round buttocks, flat stomach; straight spine, low shoulders, erect head atop a long neck. Perfect for walking.

And perfect for thinking. Among our peripatetic ancestors was the philosopher-revolutionary Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who walked and thought. “There is something about walking which stimulates and enlivens my thoughts. When I stay in one place I
can hardly think at all; my body has to be on the move to set my mind going,” Rousseau wrote in Confessions. (Rousseau has a spiritual godson in screenwriter Aaron Sorkin: a lot of the action on Sorkin’s The West Wing takes place on the hoof.)

Solnit takes a catholic look at walking, examining locomotion; pilgrimages (and their political equivalents, the protest march); labyrinths and mazes; the poetry of Gary Snyder and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice; walking in the city, country and suburbs. Understanding literature, art and even garden sculptures is like reading a map. “Symbolic structures such as labyrinths call attention to the nature of all paths, all journeys,” she writes.

“This is what is behind the special relationship between tale and travel, and, perhaps, the reason why narrative writing is so closely bound up with walking. To write is to carve a
new path through the terrain of the imagination, or to point out new features on a familiar route. To read is to travel through that terrain with the author as guide – a guide one may not always agree with or trust, but who can at least be counted upon to take one somewhere.”

This essay, then, while on walking, is just as much a way of understanding me through the signposts in my history, my sister’s death, my daughter’s disability.

***

Denise and I brought Georgia to Montreal from the former Soviet republic of Georgia a week before Christmas 1995, when she was 2 months old. She wasn’t smiling then and that’s late, but nothing to worry about. By 4 months, we were calling her a “floppy”
baby. She just didn’t seem to hold herself the way other babies did. Her pediatrician confirmed this two months later.

Sit straight, trunk upright, shoulders back. Years from now Georgia will either love us or hate us for reminding her about posture. What child hasn’t been nagged about their
slouching? For Georgia, however, an upright trunk means an unconstricted diaphragm, a good lungful of air and the possibility of clear speech. Sitting straight means getting the food in her mouth and not her nose. Shoulders back and she can see where she’s walking.

Other than physiotherapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy, Georgia gets a weekly
dose of swimming lessons and riding lessons, which are both therapies in disguise. Water supports 90 per cent of one’s body weight, so in the pool Georgia can concentrate on moving rather than supporting herself. The riding attacks her disability from all sides. With her velvet riding helmet fit snugly over her ponytail and Day-Glo pink hearing aids (when she was 3 1/2, doctors discovered she has moderate hearing loss), Georgia sits tall in the saddle. Her hands command the reins. Vanessa, a white Arab, listens when Georgia, trunk upright and shoulders back, dictates: “Walk on.”

Later, in the stable, Georgia offers a carrot to her horse as a treat. Vanessa lowers her head and opens her mouth. Georgia pulls her hand away at the last second, still a bit afraid of those big, big teeth.

***

Foolery, sir, does walk about the orb like the sun; it shines everywhere.
– Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, Act III, Scene 1

I used to make cassette tapes for myself based on different themes, like running for instance. I’d sort through my albums, singles and CDs for any song that had “run” or “walk” in the title and record it onto a tape. I listened to these while stretching
before a jog. They start out slowly, walking, then get more uptempo as the tape
continues. Walking the Floor Over You, These Boots Are Made for Walking segues
to Born to Run, Let the River Run and Run to You.

Funny how so many religious songs have “walk” in the title: He’s Walking in My Shoes, If the Lord Wasn’t Walking by My Side, A Closer Walk With Thee.

***

The memorial for Monique in Scotland began with Gorecki’s Symphony of Sad Songs and ended with Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.

The Gospel reading was from Luke. “Now that very same day, two of them were on their way to a village called Emmaus, seven miles from Jerusalem, and they were walking together, talking about all that had happened. And it happened that as they were talking
together and discussing it, Jesus himself came up and walked by their side.”

The disciples recognize Jesus only later, when they share dinner on the road. Jesus breaks bread as he had done at the Last Supper.

So I remember Monique. When I hear On Eagle’s Wings, a song played at her funeral, or the first line of May Morning by Runrig: “I’m alive again on a May morning.”

***

On a morning in April, Joyce Fung is showing me her Moving Platform, a perturbation device designed by Fung and Eric Johnstone for the Jewish Rehabilitation Hospital research centre in Laval and of which she is quite proud. Perturbation is the exact word to
describe this platform: its objective is to disrupt balance while one is walking so that Fung, the centre’s scientific director and a professor at McGill University’s school of physical and occupational therapy, can study walking and its relationship to vision and balance.

The platform is a disc in the floor about twice the size of a manhole cover. Hydraulic-run with six movements, it can move up and down, pitch forward and back, or roll sideways;
it can simulate slippage along an X-axis or Y-axis, or the yaw. A computer controls the degree of pitch and speed of slippage.

“We take walking for granted,” Fung said. “But our central nervous system is constantly conducting internal calibrations and making instant changes. Without the proper muscle
strength, we can’t balance against gravity. In walking, each task has different constraints. In between Points A and B, there can be obstacles, an incline, or the floor could slip out from under you.”

Imagine being on a bus. Point A is the front of the bus where you’ve just handed over your ticket. Point B is the back. Then the driver takes off at bus-driver speed. You lurch
forward. Now imagine that happening and the bus tilts left by 20 degrees. Hard to keep your balance? That is the essence of Fung’s Moving Platform.

She and Johnstone have applied to McGill University to investigate how the platform – installed in 1997 and unique in the world – can be used for other purposes, for other
research centres obviously, but beyond kinematic purposes into more commercial
applications, such as training for skiing.

With a pair of virtual-reality goggles, said Fung, a mother perched precariously on her own invention as it heaved and yawed, the Moving Platform could become a heavily moguled ski course. With a pair of virtual-reality goggles, the platform could be a snowboard under the feet and outstretched arms of an indoor extreme-sport adventurer, or someone probing the canyons and mountains on a Martian landscape aboard a skateboard-like flying saucer. Welcome to the funhouse of the 21st century.

When we walk, we don’t use just our feet and legs and hips. Our vision and vestibular (inner-ear) systems are involved, too, drawn together by the central nervous system, Fung
said. But what happens, as in the case of stroke, if one of these systems goes funhouse wacky? “What happens when things don’t agree? What do you do if what you see is not what your feet and legs are telling you?”

***

My daughter Georgia’s cerebral palsy is a form of the neuromuscular disease that makes it hard for her, at times, to control her arms and legs and head. It took a long time for her to walk, but not as long as the specialists had predicted; she was 26 months when she did it on her own.

Georgia still engages in a quiet kind of negotiation every time she takes a step, between her will and what her muscles will allow. It’s as if each movement requires her telling the
central nervous system what to do, how far to reach, where to land a foot. Then, once will and muscles are of one mind, the negotiation is with the door, the wall, the chair, the eye-high corner of a writing desk. Then she becomes Walking Girl.

One morning, when she was still relatively new to walking, she came bolting out of her bedroom. I heard the door crash open against the wall and then saw her run clear down the hall – arms outstretched, bent at the elbows, hands waving wildly, not even her fingers touching the walls, clear down the hall, 11 metres, straight into our bedroom – and BONK! she crashed into my side of the bed. “DaddEE!” she shouted, a funhouse smile broad across her face.

There are such mornings.

6 Responses to Essay: Walking Lessons

  1. KTHAYER@HOTMAIL.COM says:

    Hi Ray, I found your website through Eileen Marie’s post on our reunion fb page. I love the trailer, can’t wait till the book comes out in Nov. How exciting for you! Congrats, I can only imagine all the blood, sweat and tears that have gone into your first book. You’re family must be so proud of you!

    Kelly (Senuta)Thayer

  2. Susan (lambert) Thibault says:

    Ray, I truly enjoyed reading the trailer. Looking forward to perusing your book in November. Congratulations and best wishes for continued success with your writing!

    Susan (Lambert) Thibault

  3. Glenn Brault says:

    Ray…this is AWESOME! Debi and I will be there to help you celebrate on Dec 10th. At first glance I was hoping we were taking a road trip to Canada.

  4. Matthew Gaudet says:

    Ray, This brought me back a bit. You and your family are so strong for having dealt with that horrible event. I wanted to say “time,” but it wasn’t just horrible then, I imagine. It is ongoing… Hope everyone is well.

  5. Jim Gaudet says:

    Ray~
    Your gift for communication and expression in written form seems to touch home for anyone who has shared a common thread of the experiences and emotions you write about.
    I am making plans to see if any of our brood can make it back to western Mass. for your book signing!

  6. Robin Dennis says:

    Hi Ray,
    What a wonderful piece. All the best…

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