Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and Literature
My Cane and Me
By Amy Barta
A stuffed gymnasium housed the hundreds of graduates from the University of Michigan-Dearborn. On the sides of the seated students donning navy robes and colored ribbons determined by their field of study were family members and friends. The student speaker that day in April 2007 focused her inspirational speech on a fellow graduate, me. She described how I’d overcome enormous challenges to achieve a Bachelors Degree with high honors.
Rewind to a scene with the ‘fellow graduate’ about five years earlier:
“Amy, I think you should try walking with a cane,” advised my physical therapist.
“Walk a lap around the room and see how you do.”
Neurotoxicity on my brain stem resulting from nearly a decade of cancer treatments (two unrelated bone marrow transplants, chemotherapy, radiation, and a host of complications and medications) for Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia caused my steps to become imbalanced. An obvious need for walking assistance didn’t include hanging on to the end of my Mom’s shirt.
“No, I don’t need one of those things,” I responded.
I shuddered at the mere thought of using the device. Walking with a cane has a stigma attached to it, thus, I firmly rejected the idea.
I was sure the society I lived in shunned individuals who couldn’t take a single step without wobbling. I feared people would view me as useless and stupid. My extremely limited exposure caused me to think that canes were only for small and frail, stooped, older people. No way was I about to align myself near that category.
Eventually I agreed to try the cane. Each step was surprisingly easier with the despised metal stick by my side, although I hated to admit it.
Fast forward to my name being called at graduation:
The noise of a standing ovation boomed throughout the room as I walked across the stage to accept my diploma. My cane was in its usual spot on the left side of my body as I triumphantly thrust my left arm into the air. Unlike my initial response, I’ve grown to fully accept the cane that accompanied me as I took my final steps toward ending my college education.
I never would have guessed that I would like an ever-present metal stick by my side. I appreciate little features like the grey spongy gripper around the handle that prevents my left hand from developing calluses on three fingers. I realize that people’s behavior mirrors how I felt before I began using a cane: uneasiness, curiosity, but most of all, fear of the unknown. I feel I have a responsibility to answer questions concerning my method of movement by the few people who dare to ask.
Piercing eyes of gawkers often subside and relax upon observing my ease at my situation. Every day I comfortably travel with the shiny silver stick that sits on a rectangular metallic base.
In addition to helping me walk, over the years the cane has served various purposes. My cane often disappears whenever I visit the home of my sister, brother-in-law, and their growing family. The short thin cane doubles as a microphone for my preschool age nephews to belt out the latest Jonas Brothers’ songs. Watching them perform and sing into the pretend microphone makes me laugh as I’m usually invited to join an impromptu concert.
Another convenient function is the hat rack the cane makes when my bald head longs for fresh air. The lengthy arm of the cane can also hook and conveniently drag faraway objects into reach. My silent reliable rod reminds me life doesn’t need to move full speed ahead. Rather, life is more enjoyable with the calmness and peacefulness a slower pace brings. I am grateful to have learned the lesson as a young person that life is valuable when people live confidently by any (mobility) means necessary.
I heard a man, probably in his thirties, grumble in the dentist office to another man. Kids were treating him disrespectfully because of his cane. Hopefully people like him and people without canes can read this article and have a positive attitude towards canes. The useful device can double as a rockin’ makeshift microphone, portable hat rack, always available arm-extender, but above all else, cane.
Amy Barta is a 26-year-old survivor of Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia. Her battle against cancer from ages 13 through 21 included four relapses, two unrelated bone marrow transplants, chemotherapy, radiation, kidney dialysis, an investigational drug Arsenic, brain surgery and many complications. Amy graduated from the University of Michigan-Dearborn with a bachelor’s degree in Communications and minors in Psychology and Linguistics.
She competed against nearly 5,000 students worldwide as a high school senior to be chosen as a recipient of Guideposts magazine’s Young Writers Grace Award in June 2002. Amy won first place in the University of Michigan-Dearborn’s 2007 Creative Writing Contest with her short story called Legally Bald & Sentenced to Live. SpeciaLiving magazine featured one of her articles in their winter 2008 issue. She worked with the University of Michigan Mott Children’s Hospital to publish a book of poetry written during her cancer treatment. Amy is confident her writings can encourage, relate to, and offer hope and humor to people in the most important fight of their lives.