the protein responsible for growing fingers in-utero is called Sonic Hedgehog
The party takes place at my friend and his partner’s apartment that overlooks Swanston St in the city. He has borrowed a fancy overhead projector from his work and set it up in the small living room. As guests arrived he had the old film Nosferatu playing on the projector screen with no sound. Grimes was playing through the speakers. My partner helped with loading our respective slide show contributions onto my friend’s laptop. We got drinks: white wine poured into red cups like the ones used during frat parties in American college films. The party rules: bring a usb stick of a collection of photos with any theme you wanted.
Three days before my friend’s ‘Slide Party’ themed birthday party, I decided I was ready to show a certain collection of photos from my youth. I asked my mother if she could please find photos from hospital stay circa 1996, take photos of each of them on her phone and text them to me, please. My mother comes through and sends me the photos on Sunday morning of the party day. There are nine photos in total.
The first photo my mother sends me is a school photo taken at the end of the year after my operations and back brace wearing is over. There I am in my green and white checked summer uniform dress that looks a bit big on my tiny frame. I have lots of long dark brown hair and bright blue eys that look a bit sad. My face is yet to loose the chubby cheeks that my parents still gush over when discussing me as a little kid. I stare at that photo and want to jump inside it and give her a big hug and whisper that it gets less lonely particularly when she discovers intersectional feminism.
As I look at each photo of me in my cramped tiny hospital room full of medical machines I feel my heart hurt and sing at the same time. I was my Dad who had to convince me that it was a good idea. At the time I didn’t want him or anyone commemorating this sequence of events in photography.
He knew something that I didn’t yet understand as a thirteen year old. That this was worth documenting and that when I grew up to be the amazing young woman he knew I would become. When that happened, I could look at these photos and they would remind me that I was and always will be a bad ass, and how far I had come. Most importantly to me it would help me write better about it. These photos made long forgotten aspects about that time come to me in a collection of flashes so bright and clear in shape and form, it was like being back in that room all over again.
The first time my parents showed me these freshly developed photos I was a year older. It took that long for them to convince me to even look at them. I hated the photos and I hated the girl in each and every one of them. She is so ugly. I remember thinking. What a sorry and pathetic looking girl. Why couldn’t you just be pretty and normal. I silently screamed at the images in my hands. I cried a lot and begged them to be put away. My father was perplexed. ‘’They are great.’’ He assured me. ‘’They show how great you are.’’
I didn’t want to be amazing for those reasons. I didn’t want spine surgery and halo traction to be the most ‘great’ thing about me. Of course that is not what my father meant at all. I was too young to get it and he was unable to use the wording I needed to hear at that point. But what does matter is that he and my mother tried. My parents didn’t doubt that I was strong and capable. I appreciate that now.
I look at the photos and remember a television in the top right hand corner of the room. A constant sound of the various athletic events taking place due to the Olympics. There is chatter about the swimming and other sporting events between the nurses and my mother. I simply lay on my back and watch the world happen around me and lots of stuff happen to me. As nurses and my mother chat, they check my blood pressure and various tubes. They ask if I am comfortable enough. I press my button for my morphine drip to deliver marvelous pain relief every 4 hours. I can still remember the smell of eucalyptus oil overpowering my nostrils as the nurse used two whole bottles of the stuff to help remove the six layers of bandages covering the ninety-nine stitches on my newly reconstructed back.
My friend’s slide party starts. One person shows a collection of photos of their ill-fated sneakers worn on a three-day hike. Each photo shows the shoes with different landscapes: green foliage, dry cracked earth. It is the stories and comments that accompany the slide show that make it great. Lesson? Do not wear sneakers on a three-day hike. These sneakers got wet on the first two hours of walking.
Another friend shows a collection of photos of their top 5 works of architecture seen on their travels around the world. On her 8th Christmas my friend Jas is given a camera and a cute book of photo prompts with illustrations of bears in the corner of each page. We all got to witness the collection of photos she took as an eight year old. Some of the photos are of relatives that she no longer has contact with. The photos are imbued with extra meaning when she tells us that this particular Christmas was the last time she and her family spent time with these particular relatives. The photos show that she was a talented photo taker even then. ‘’This was the Christmas we played scuba cricket.’’ Jasmine tells us.
The night showed the vast and amazing breadth of personal stories that each of us walk around with every day. It was the stories that showed true vulnerability and courage to share that I loved the most. But is was nice to witness stories that were light hearted. As the night progressed and people got tipsy audience participation stepped up a notch. I was up first in the second half of slide shows after a cheerful and chatty intermission.
There is a mix up with the intended order I want the photos to be shown. The first photo that is blown up on the projector for all to see is the school photo. Some one calls out that I look like a tiny doll. There s many exclamations of how adorable I am. It is nice to hear. It makes me feel warmer than 100 Facebook likes. I think, I have never had that many Facebook likes. Observe the cuteness and ready yourself for what is to come next. I say. This photo was taken in December, one month after I no longer had to wear a back brace and two weeks after I went back to school.
The next photo is a close up of my sleeping face with my head in halo traction. I have one hand peeking out from the white hospital blanket. One finger is resting against my cheek. I explain that the halo traction was held in place by screws that went into my skull. ‘’I still have the faint scars from the drill holes.’’ I explain lifting up my fringe to show everyone. ‘’Two in the for head and two in the back of my skull.’’ I say. ‘’I used to reach up and play with the for head screws to freak out visitors.’’ I say. ‘’It made one uncle nearly want to throw up and he had to leave the room and fight his nausea.’’
My friend Harry comments that the scars on my for head could also be from when the devil horns were removed. ‘’Of course.’’ I say. ‘’I had many operations and cannot be expected to remember them all.’’
The next photo I show is of me sitting up in bed, still in halo traction. I explain. ‘’A young woman is holding a physio-therapy device for helping kids clear out their lungs after surgery to stave off infections in the lungs and chest. I am leaning slightly and blowing into a straw that uses my breath to make small balls move up small chutes.’’
‘’That lady was very kind to me’’ I explain. I was in a lot of pain when blowing in that thing and was a bit grumpy. One of the first times she made me do this exercise I was still unable to sit up and I blew once into the contraption before promptly throwing up all over her.’’
I explain to everyone how in the first operation involved going through my chest in order to fuse my spine and stop it from curving and twisting any further. In order to do this they had to remove my lungs from my body for a few minutes while they did the spine fusing. Then they put my lungs back where they belonged. There was a beautiful young surgical registra who explained to my parents how beautiful my lungs looked as they puffed back into life. ‘’They looked like beautiful pink cauliflowers.’’ She told my parents.
In the next photo I am sitting up in bed with my halo traction on and smiling straight into the camera. There are more exclamations at my cuteness. I am wearing my thick lensed glasses, my long hair is in two pigtails that are poking out of either side of the traction. I tell of how this photo was taken on a Sunday afternoon. The nurses were bored and decided they would like to wash my hair for me. It had been a while and the nurses knew that clean hair can have massive positive affects on a young girl in hospital. They lay me down flat and pulled my head to the very edge of the bed. They got my long hair and washed it as slowly and gently as possible without getting any of the metal and pulleys of the halo traction wet. They even blow-dried my hair. I said. I wore my glasses at my parent’s insistence. This was the photo I always hated the most. I explain. Looking at it now with friends, I felt nothing but pride and affection for the little weirdo in the photo. ‘’I can still remember how much cleaner I felt after I had my hair washed.’’ I say before moving on to the next photo.
I am sitting up in a chair by my bed and reading a book. There is my dinner tray in front of me with some toast and a cup of juice with a drinking straw sticking out. My head is in halo traction but it is not stopping me from having a bit of a read. One of my skinny legs is up and my foot is resting on my other knee. I am glancing out of the corner of my eye at the camera.
‘’Ignoring food while reading.’’ my partner calls out. ‘’Nothing’s changed.’’ Someone asks what book I am reading. ‘’ The book is a collection of short stories published in 1995 called A Bit Of A Hitch.’’ I say. ‘’I cannot remember reading it. I can remember reading the Sweet Valley University books volume 1 and 2, though. And my goodness young Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield don’t experience any less drama in university. They finally have sexual relationships. But, I digress.’’
The next photo shows me without the halo traction screwed into my skull. I’m sitting in a chair wearing a much too large Sportsgirl t-shirt: one of my mother’s opp shop finds. It was the 90s and Sportsgirl t-shirts were Oh-so-on-trend: thus too expensive for my mum and dad to pay for a brand new one. I have my hands in my lap. There are white plastic hospital identification bracelets on my tiny wrists. There are no needles in my arms connected to morphine drips or various other iv drips. You can see the fresh round scars from the halo traction. I did not have a fringe then. My hair is pulled away and tied up in a low ponytail. I am staring at the camera with a quietly determined smile.
My final photo shows myself with the man responsible for my bionic spine. It is so awful but I cannot remember his name. He is in his 60s in the photograph, which means he may very well be dead by now. It’s impossible to know how many kids he helped get better and stronger spines. He would come do rounds with a large group of medical students every morning. I said. He would come alone every evening at about 9pm. Once my slide show is over there is applause and cheering. My partner is next.
He shows an album from a 2010 fancy dress party where he went as a witch resplendent in a velvet black and purple dress and a black witch’s hat. He makes a very attractive witch and the photos get appreciative whistles. He also shows another album that has never been shown anywhere before called Dogs Jess Met In Japan.
He shows 6 photos of me with different but equally adorable dogs, that I met in Japan. One of them was wearing tiny purple pants. My outfits are so much better in these photos. It is not a competition but if it was, I am pretty sure my person and I would have won best and cutest slide shows.
There is an episode in season seven of Buffy The Vampire Slayer called Conversations With Dead People. In it Buffy is hanging around the graveyard like she does and meets a newly turned vampire who happens to be a former classmate. This is not unusual. What is unusual is that this guy is a psychologist now. He and Buffy have quite the heart to heart in the moonlight as she tells him stuff that she has not even really told the people closest to her. About dying and being brought back by her friends, falling in love with people who are bad for her and quietly feeling superior due to the whole being chosen as the slayer and all that comes with that power. He psychoanalyzes her in the following way ‘’You have a superiority complex.’’ He says. ‘And you have an inferiority complex about that.’
I can relate. When returning to school after the surgery, wearing a back brace for three months and recovery time, it was a bit worse than before I left. I was never popular but I spent more and more time alone on my return to school. I found everyone in my class to be difficult to identify with or relate to. They certainly couldn’t relate to me. It feels similar now after more recent hospital stays, though my friendship groups are way better. I fluctuate between feeling infinitely stronger and more bad ass than those around me, while other times find myself panicking that perhaps when my body experienced yet another life or death situation and/or malfunction, the doctors should have written me off as a failed experiment Survival guilt? Something very much like that plagues me at times. Just like it plagued Buffy. Unlike her I haven’t saved the world a bunch of times. Like her, I’m just doing my best.