The day my foot dropped and I realised how exaggerated my walking had become was the day I became selective about where I would go. That day I chose not to go to the celebration of a friend’s newborn son, even though I knew how much that celebration meant to her. I couldn’t face the questions and the staring. In fact, I didn’t go anywhere that day. The next day was Sunday. I would normally go to church first thing and I love meeting with my church family. But I couldn’t go. Again, I just did not want to see the staring, the questioning looks on everyone’s faces. My dropped foot was not something I could hide. So I chose not to go and be part of a gathering where people knew who I was. It was just easier that way.
But I did choose to go where no one knew who I was. My housemate took me to the local Woolworths to get some basic groceries. The trolley kept me on my feet, but I still had the same exaggerated movement. People stared. And they just kept looking. But I could keep my head up, and I just kept on trying to walk, and to shop. Somehow it was easier to bear because they were strangers. No one was going to ask the questions verbally, it was still written on their faces, but somehow it was easier because I did not know who they were. The shame though was still underneath my self-composed appearance.
But I still needed to go to work. Thankfully, the Monday was a public holiday so I didn’t need to leave the house. But the next day, I not only had to go to work and face my colleagues, but I was supervising exams as well. I had emailed ahead to ask the Academic Dean and the Principal for help in the first five minutes setting up the exams so that I could minimise walking in front of students. My housemates drove me into work. The look on the receptionist’s face was one of pity and concern. No questions were asked. I managed to get into my office without anyone else seeing me. I felt safe once in my office; I could just sit. But that moment of safety didn’t last long. I struggled to walk down to the lecture rooms, I arrived early to set up without any student present, but I didn’t manage it. I tripped over my own right foot and hot tea went everywhere. Students were milling around. Everyone’s heads suddenly turned and questioning looks were on their faces. I tried to get into the lecture room as fast as I physically was able. A trusted colleague was there and I thought I was safe with him. But he then spoke the words that I feared would be verbalised aloud. The words that I knew were in everyone’s mind, but as long as they stayed unspoken, I knew I could just keep going; even though what I felt was shame. The words that my co-worker said, with a smile on his face, and laughing, was ‘You do look ridiculous walking like that. Its almost comical.’ My insides crumbled, it took every ounce of emotional energy that I possessed not to burst into tears and yell at him. Students were outside. Instead, in a very controlled voice, I told him that I couldn’t help it and its easy to make fun when it’s not you. He realised immediately how hurtful his words were. He apologised. But it was too late. The words were spoken; they were out there now. And I knew that what I feared people were thinking was actually true. My inability to walk normally was now a joke. It took every ounce of courage to keep my head up, to ignore the looks, and to keep moving forward through every supervised exam, through every meeting, through every moment.