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My Sister’s Legs- Part 2

I never understood why she loved our father so much.  Both her undying loyalty to him and his team and unconditional love was foreign to me in many ways.   Sure, I loved my Dad.  Yes, I was proud of his accomplishments.  But being the Coach’s Daughter was not how I wanted to define myself.  And I wanted my sister to have her own identity, too.  It took many years for me to realize that her identity as the Coach’s Daughter was a shield from her other identity—handicapped.  And her loyalty to Dad had nothing to do with the plays he called on Friday night.

Walking for Leigh was physically exhaustive.  Her little legs had trouble keeping up with how fast she wanted to go.  Her hips had to work extra hard to exert the momentum needed to get her from place to place.  To make sure that her small feet and legs were getting enough circulation, Mom put Dad in charge of Leigh’s exercises.  For years, we would eat dinner as a family and as Mom and I cleaned the kitchen, Leigh would walk over to Dad’s recliner.  He would pick her up and put her in his lap.  Her braces would be carefully placed beside the blue chair and he would rub her legs and feet.  For hours, Dad would sit there, with Leigh in his lap and he would move the limp legs, rubbing gently and applying pressure to the specific spots that the doctor’s deemed “troubled.”  He knew about pressure points and the physiology of the body.  He studied it.  Dad was able to care for Leigh because of his understanding of how the body—specifically the legs—worked, or were supposed to work.  His tenderness brought them close.  This was their time.  I don’t ever remember being jealous—maybe I was, it would seem natural; I only remember understanding that Leigh needed this attention and that was okay.  In those moments, in his lap, she felt loved and safe.  Because she was.

When we were in Elementary School, Mom would dress us in matching cheerleading outfits.  Pleated skirts and fitted tops—smaller versions of the cheerleaders that pumped the crowds up for Dad’s team.  Leigh would be the first one ready to go—hours before kickoff—and would repeatedly ask Mom, “Is it time, yet?” in an effort to get to the stadium sooner rather than later.  Once we got to the stadium, Leigh would kiss Mom goodbye and walk past the police officer manning the fence to the field.  She didn’t need credentials—she was the Coach’s Daughter.  Leigh walked, slower than most seven year olds and with a hint of a limp, down the sidelines.  Most times, she’d stand beside Dad in the beginning.  Her adoration for him and his for her evident by the sly way she’d slip her hand into his to let him know she was there.  Usually, he’d look down for a moment, squeezing her hand in his, just to let her know he was there, too.

Eventually, Leigh would find a place between the pads of the players.  Her small, frail body standing firm behind the hash marks as she intently watched the game.  When things weren’t going so well for Dad’s team, she’d put her hands on her hips; Mom and I would watch from our reserved seats in the stadium, as she’d shake her finger at the player next to her, telling him what her assessment of the game was and what he needed to do to make it better.  Leigh had a natural understanding of the game, an understanding that came from watching hours of game film with our father.  Leigh never seemed out of place on the sideline.  There were times when the games were close or controversial that Mom would make Leigh sit in the stands.  I think Mom just needed for us to be close to her—she needed the support more than she thought Leigh would get hurt.  Those games, the sidelines always seemed to be missing that little blonde Coach’s Daughter filling up water cups and high-fiving the players as they came off the field.

I never noticed her leg braces when she was on the field.

I wonder if she did.

By the time Leigh was eight, she stopped wearing the cheerleading outfits.  She asked Dad for a coach’s shirt and every Friday night, she’d don her petite collared polo and khaki pants.  Perhaps at even such a young age, Leigh recognized that she was different from the other little girls.  In an effort to create an identity other than her disability, Leigh disguised her spina bifida with football.

She wanted to be just like her Dad.  On career day, the other little girls in her class did presentations at school about being nurses or teachers or lawyers.  When it was Leigh’s turn to present, she stood at the front of the third grade class, khaki shorts stopping short of the plastic brace that held her legs and told the class, “When I grow up, I want to be just like my Dad.  I want to be a Football Coach.” For Christmas that year, Leigh asked Santa for a new doll, but she told him, “I really want a whistle.”  At the bottom of her stocking, Leigh found a shiny silver whistle that hung on a purple string to match her coach’s hat that Dad had Mom wrap up and put under the tree.

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