The Man Who Learned to Walk Three Times is the memoir of Canadian journalist Peter Kavanagh's journey with disability in his legs.

Road travelled to who I am

By  John Arkelian, Catholic Register Special
  • May 16, 2015

The Man Who Learned to Walk Three Times by Peter Kavanagh (Knopf Canada, hard cover, 257 pages, $29.95).

In a poem by the English poet Ted Hughes, a hawk contemplates its physical form: “It took the whole of creation to produce my foot, my each feather; now I hold creation in my foot.”

Is creation itself marred when our body becomes infirm or lame? For anyone afflicted, it must seem so. We regard ourselves as the union of mind, body and spirit. When each of those distinct aspects of our being is healthy and functioning properly it is easy to take them for granted — none more so than our bodies, the physical selves with which we interact with the world around us. So much of our ordinary physical activity is unconscious. Most of the time we breathe, we swallow and we walk with nary a conscious thought.  

But what if it were otherwise? When the mechanism of our bodies fails, it can change the complexion of our lives, shattering the self-confident ease with which we undertake minutiae of daily living. This crisis may, in the process, reshape our self-identity. If every step is a painful ordeal, if we struggle to traverse space, conscious all the while of how that struggle sets us apart from our fellows, then we may assimilate our disability into our deepest self-perception.  

So it is for Canadian journalist Peter Kavanagh, who documents his lifelong struggle with physical disability in The Man Who Learned to Walk Three Times.

Kavanagh was born in 1953, a year that saw the last major epidemic of polio in North America, before the vaccine that put an end to such outbreaks. The dreaded disease left Kavanagh with one leg shorter and much weaker than the other, severely impeding his ability to walk. What followed was a never-ending carousel of braces, clunky orthopedic shoes, walkers, crutches, canes, doctors, physiotherapy and surgeries. One early, highly experimental surgery temporarily rewired the circulatory system in his afflicted leg and foot in the hope it might help it catch up with the normal limb. Years later, the advent of a serious hip problem undid all the limb lengthening done in the earlier go-round.

From childhood, Kavanagh came to know hospital stays, and hospital routines, better than any child should. When he was only 12 he was obliged to spend a year in a full-body cast. Were those long periods of enforced isolation — from friends, from family, from a normal life — instrumental in making the boy into the man he became? Separated from others, he found solace in books, and in the life of the mind. Kavanagh sees a direct through-line from an oft-isolated childhood, given over to introspection and reading, to his chosen career as a journalist.

The surprising thing about this memoir is it does not become tedious. He touches upon how his malady touched his family (did the stress of it precipitate a sudden and drastic decline in his mother’s health?), and he mentions his family’s recurring moves across the country with his father’s employment and the dislocation of resettling time and again in a new place. But there is almost nothing here about the author’s professional life and not much about his role as a husband and father.  

The subject of religious faith hardly comes up, though he does muse about the logical conundrum posed by faith healing. If such healing does not happen, does that imply that the supplicant’s faith was not strong enough? Or merely that one needs to pray harder? He tries Buddhist meditation on for size at one point — anything to take his mind off the pain that became a lifelong companion.

Kavanagh’s life revolves around pain and his gait, or manner of walking. That is the subject of his book. It is plain-spoken, with meditations on whether learning to walk is an innate skill or a learned behaviour, and on whether the gait makes the man. So much of his self-image is tied up with his struggles to walk and his consciousness that his walking is often awkward, laboured and above all different from yours and mine. Simple sneakers represent an enticing dream for Kavanagh. All of this could easily have become a tedious, repetitive and one-note tale of maladies endured. But Kavanagh’s unmaudlin, matter-of-fact account keeps us interested in the battle of will he wages against his malady from beginning to end:  “After learning to walk many miles in my own shoes three times, I am now finally understanding who I am.”    

(Arkelian is a freelance writer)

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