A hospital bed is pushed up against the wall of a bedroom in the ranch-style bungalow. There is a dresser and a small desk in the room. On one wall, the wall against which the bed is pushed, is a window.
What do you see?
“All I see is the tree…It’s just green and when it’s not green it’s bare.”
Peter Kavanagh is recalling a time four decades past. Stricken with paralytic poliomyelitis during the epidemic of 1953, he has lived a physical life of what he calls “really bad odds,” a story the former CBC producer has brought to life in his memoir, The Man Who Learned to Walk Three Times.
Some of his earliest memories are inchoate — the clunk of a leg brace, the sensation of pain “like eerie whines,” stark images of figures in masks.
The remembrances of 40 years ago are clearer. The Kavanaghs then lived in Fredericton, and adolescent Peter had learned that undiagnosed amid the polio and its attendant surgeries and wishful curatives to try to fix his shorter and frailer left leg was a congenital dislocated hip. “By the time I was 12 there was no ball left and there was no socket left for the ball to fit into,” he writes. A radical surgical decision was taken — to shift the left femur up against the boy’s pelvis, fusing the two together with a silver plate.
To be followed by a year in a body cast.
So there he was alone in a room with a window and a tree beyond. “Out in the rest of the house people had meals, people went to school and they went to church,” he says of the quotidian comings and goings of his parents and four siblings. “I’ve never felt as lonely in my life as during that year.”
We have met up in the offices of Kavanagh’s publisher, the author bearing a whiskery resemblance to the writer Robertson Davies, albeit without Davies’ mane of hair. Kavanagh presents as a storyteller and gifted radio producer (he spent years behind the scenes on such shows as Morningside and Ideas). Ask him to read from his own book and he does so with the cadent skill of a radio pro: “My recent dreams of moving, being unable to move, of standing and falling…my aversion to mirrors and plate glass windows; my formerly constant speculating about how people perceived my limp — this entire maze and mess of interior dialogue is the cause and consequence of a lifelong and unusual attention to walking. And a lifelong attention to walking is not normal.”
The material is a quiet exploration of a man snared by circumstance. August 1953. Polio season. The fear sped through towns like Deep River, Ont., where Kavanagh was born and from which he would be wrenched away at the age of 2 months. He spent that infant year at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children, his parents visiting when they could.
There was tendon surgery at 14 months, an attempt to repair or possibly supplement the tendons in his left leg so that he could raise and lower the foot. It didn’t work. There was highly experimental surgery when he was 9, then living in Calgary. That five-hour operation “rewired” the arteries and veins in his left leg, trying to force increased blood flow and therefore encourage the length of the stunted leg to catch up to the healthy one. There was the subsequent seven-hour surgery in Montreal to essentially undo the prior experiment. The left leg was ultimately weaker than the right, but at least the two were about the same length — until the hip fusion reintroduced a three-inch discrepancy.
The years of wearing a leg brace to bed, tearing at the sheets, the years of envying the freedom conveyed by a young boy speeding past in sneakers, the years of aloneness that ultimately produced a contemplative thinker “prone to the interior.”
“I’ve always known, as long as I’ve known anything, that I was different and that I drew — to use your phrase — the short straw,” Kavanagh says. “You also realize there’s nothing you can do about having drawn the short straw, you’ve just drawn it.”
There has to be some humour somewhere. Return to the year in Fredericton, neck to toe in a cast. The cast was terribly smelly. His mother would frequently sweep into the room spraying a detestable mist of Lysol about the room. Kavanagh was itchy in that cast. His arms were free and he deployed a stretched-out coat hanger for relief.
“I believe the human mind finds places to itch that are by definition inaccessible,” he says. “So what the mind does just to amuse itself, it sort of sits there and thinks … what’s the total stretching length of the coat hanger? How far has he been able to scratch up until now? Good. One inch past that — let’s itch.”
Three years ago Kavanagh underwent yet another surgery, this one to relieve the “near constant agony that was my daily experience … the silver plate fixing my femur to my pelvis was carving striations into my pelvis.” The femur appeared to be dislocating. A new hip socket and ball were built out of titanium and, during the course of all that, the surgeon additionally screwed some artificial bone into the left femur, lengthening the leg. Which meant that at the age of 59, Kavanagh received the near-incomprehensible news that his legs were the same length.
He learned to walk for a third time.
In the contemplation that emerges in The Man Who Learned to Walk Three Times, Kavanagh sees his youthful self as the outsider on the periphery of a cohesive family unit. He probes, lightly, what his illness meant for his siblings, for the mother who died at 60. “To be fair to them, their lives were oddly affected by my presence, something that I regret but something that I had no control over.”
The relationship with his father was strained. “My father liked to think there was a direct connection between my illness and my mother’s deterioration,” he says as our interview time winds down. “I remember one time talking with Robertson Davies … He said he could only start writing what he considered his real fiction when his father died. What I sometimes think about is, I don’t know if I could have written this book if my father were still alive.”
He mentions with frequency and care the support of his wife, Debi Goodwin, and how his daughter, Jane, wants to take him shopping for new shoes for the book launch. Two summers ago, he and Debi rented an apartment in Rome, an ancient walkup in the Jewish ghetto. Two flights of stairs, 15 steps each. Every step was a consideration as to how to position himself and not fall. “This is what people do,” he wrote. “Struggle with difficulty and move on.”
Twice in our discussion I ask Kavanagh to read a passage from his memoir.
This is the second: “How I walk today, the canes and walking sticks I have owned, the braces I have worn and wear, the shoes I can’t buy, the shoes I can, how I think about my walking, how other people think of my walking — all have been ravelled together and constitute the heart of me.”
The Man Who Learned to Walk Three Times is published April 14 by Knopf Canada.