My Sister’s Legs

This is the first excerpt in a five – month series about growing up with a sister who wore leg braces, the challenges we faced, and the future that we embraced.

My Sister’s Legs

I once tried on my sister’s leg braces. The hard plastic that stops short of her knees rose to my shins. The Velcro straps around the ankle and tops to hold her weak limbs in felt cold, too sturdy, no give as the tops of my feet jutted out past the plastic sole because I wore big girl shoes and Leigh’s miniature peds barely filled the designer leather shoes Mom just bought at Foot Locker.

I remember standing up in Leigh’s legs about the time Mom came into Leigh’s room to see what storyline we were writing with our Barbies. When she saw me in Leigh’s closet, my legs wrapped in Leigh’s plastic, Mom was horrified.

“Take those off right now.” She shouted.

Mom yelled about cost and lack of orthopedic care in our rural Georgia town, which would cause problems if I accidentally snapped a hairline fracture in the brace.

Mostly, I think she was horrified by my curiosity—my desire to understand and wear Leigh’s mark.


Leigh stood on the sidelines every Friday night from the time she was seven years old. Her small, thin frame balancing inside the plastic that held her still. She looked tiny on the field—the one hundred yards of grass and yard lines looked as if it would swallow her as her yellow pigtails dangled from over her ears and hit her purple shoulders. Leigh always stood next to number 23, Shaw Merritt, (unless he was in the game), the white jersey with purple and gold numbers next to her, a giant. She barely topped the grape colored pants that were skintight over the pads that protected his legs.

Sometimes, she’d get tired and would find a place on the purple pine bench between the water coolers and athletic tape. Shaw would come and sit next to her, his body straight and toned and athletic. He’d put his arm around Leigh, her body worn out from pacing behind Dad as the game progressed. Feet throbbing and toes numb.

One summer, she rubbed the bottoms of her feet raw from the cement pool. Slices of paper-thin skin came off when she walked; crimson footprints followed her to the deck where she asked for a blue Popsicle. Mom realized what had happened before Leigh did—she never felt a thing. From that summer on, Leigh had to wear shoes in to pool to protect her feet. One more thing to set her a part.

When Leigh was born, the doctor told my parents she would be confined to a wheelchair. If she lived past her twelfth birthday it would be a miracle. The spina bifida left her back exposed at the bottom of her spine. She stayed in intensive care for six weeks so that the tender skin above her buttocks would heal from the seven hour surgery that carefully covered the exposed spine. She was born in May, the day before my parents’ seventh anniversary and came home a week after my mother turned thirty at the end of June. Mom spent the summer dressing my sister’s wounds and by the time school started, Leigh’s back was completely healed.

I was almost three when Leigh was born and I nicknamed her “Leigh-Leigh”, a name that stuck until she was a teenager and forbade any of us to call her that. When she was two, Mom decided that she and I would teach Leigh to walk. I would stand in front of her, coaxing Leigh toward me with a toy or funny face. Mom stood behind her, ready to catch Leigh if she fell. Once, Leigh fell and she looked at my mother saying, “Help Leigh-Leigh Mommy.” Mom turned away from Leigh, telling her, “You can do it by yourself.” Mom says that was the hardest thing she ever did—but she wanted Leigh to be independent, she wanted Leigh to learn to survive.

My father had taken a new job and was away at spring practice when we taught her to walk. He didn’t believe Mom when she told him Leigh was walking. When he came home for the weekend, Dad stood at the front door and Leigh walked, by herself, across the room. She held her hands out to him, saying, “Leigh-Leigh walking good, Daddy.” Over the years, the braces she wore on her legs helped maintain her balance, helped keep her walking stable. Leg braces became a way of defining her.

But on the football field, Leigh was no longer the little girl with leg braces.

She was the Coach’s Daughter.

- lk herndon

5 Responses to “My Sister’s Legs”

  1. Annie Beth says:

    The account of trying on Leigh’s braces makes me laugh to myself. All of my children have tried to squeeze their feet into Anna’s AFOs. Some feet have been too big, some too little… and all of them have been the wrong shape. But, living where we do and having the insurance that we do, I don’t usually worry about them getting damaged. The health care we have is a blessing that I wish everyone had.

  2. Garnie says:

    …it’s not the braces (AFOs), it’s the forearm crutches that the kids like to try out. Once I overheard one of my grandson’s arguing, ‘I need to use the crutches, my arm is bad too!’

  3. Bobbi says:

    A child’s natural curiosity is something we always welcome as parents of a 7 year old with spina bifida. If they can play and touch and try using (with certain rules of course), we find that it takes the “scary” or “weirdness” out of it. My little nephews can’t get enough of the crutches, which we keep when outgrown just for that purpose!

    Can’t wait to read more.

  4. Shannon says:

    My reaction has been the same too-gasping when the siblings or friends have tried on my 2 boys’ braces. I never thought of the curiousity, just always thought about the cost if they would break. But…those arm canes and wheelchairs do get passed around from kid to kid and friend to friend quite often and I don’t seem to worry as much about those things. This will be very nice and helpful for me to “gain insight” into my daughters mind. She is 6 yrs old, and in the middle of two brothers with SB.

  5. Rose Mary says:

    This touched my heart and I just can hardly wait for the other 4 excerpts. My son with Spina Bifida has a twin sister. Often she will lovingly help with the straps of his AFOs or his TSLO…..he’ll come toddling out wearing her dress up wigs to make us laugh. Yep-we do the same thing w/water shoes for the scrapes. I’m hosting a workshop in Nov about how the entire family is impacted when a member has a disability. I will definately reference this.

Leave a Reply