THE LAST RUNNING SUMMER
Today, he has the memories of his childhood self running. Running
with his two legs. Sometimes, he thinks those memories are dreams,
fantasy images of a very young boy. Sometimes the images are from the
perspective of himself running in his own body. Sometimes he is the
observer, dreams or memories of him running across the field with his
cousins on those long, golden summer and autumn days.
He remembers the days that seemed to go on forever, the sun-scorched,
coarse grass that was, in the later days of the season, slightly too
long for the games of tag, touch football, kickball or whatever they
chose on any given afternoon. The days grew long, overlapping into dusk
on that summer and fall stage of recollections.
The most vivid memories were of the games that played on even after
the sun slipped below the horizon, lit by a lone utility light atop a
pole not far from the house. It was the kind of light they tell you
about, warn you about in the middle of many country fields–the ones that
they say not to walk to in an emergency because they look closer than
they are–that one can parish in the distant journey to that beacon
whose welcome is illusion a siren especially in those snow-swept storms
that used to visit the Midwest more than once each winter.
That summer and fall in 1965, Donny and his cousins benefited from
the illusion that it was not time to come in for the supper the grownups
ate while the playing kids’ plates cooled like the crispness of the
first days of school that came after their fun. Their parents let them
play that summer–play past the small pangs of hunger forgotten amid the
fun–or duty. Past some bed times. Past any concept of “future” that
Donny’s four-year-old self could conjure.
They decided, between them, the grownups, that they would let the
kids play–instruct the kids to play way beyond the regular boundaries of
time, competition and exhaustion. Some of the older kids knew. The
younger ones would know it time: know why, this summer, they were
allowed to ignore the dinner bell, play past their hearts’ delight–play
with respect for nothing except the rules of whatever game they were
playing and a few bumps and bruises that often visit young bodies that
run faster than the wind and the shouts of their names that sail the
game into the next harbor of semi-organization.
And with respect for an attempt to let the little kids have as much fun as the bigger ones, especially Donny.
He remembers that summer, not knowing that his one shorter leg made
him different. The other kids saw him as not much different than any
other four-year-old who struggled to keep up with the faster, older
kids, and not so different because everything about him was as normal as
everything else the family and a few friends had always known about
The older cousins knew, partially from what their parents had shared
with them, but more from overhearing hushed tones that the grownups felt
forbidden to speak but felt the responsibility to share with each
other: because that is the adults’ burden; or because they needed to
talk through their fears; or because Donny’s problems were easier to
talk about than their own problems, relationships, or shortcomings. The
older cousins, taking their first sip of grownup responsibility carried
the burden of knowing why that summer, they played into the night, why
they were told to play as long as Donny wanted to play, long beyond a
four-year-old’s bed time. As they grew older, they too carried memories
of those days.
Donny remembers the illusion of running fast, an illusion created by
the gentle prairie winds that blew across the golden fields and his
still golden hair. He was not fast. He was four. He had one impossibly
short leg. He was the little cousin that the older kids made giggle
and chased with no more speed than what would keep him in the game.
He did giggle–a lot. He was happy. It was the last summer when he
had no inclination that there was anything wrong with his body and it
was how the other kids saw him, just as kids see so many other truths
with their naive intuition of integrity.
Soon, after the others were shuffled off to school, mostly out of
sight and away from the taste of adult responsibility. Almost like a
poorly-kept secret, Donny would be shuffled off to what the doctors
where sure was the right thing to do with The Impossibly Short Leg.
Sure that he would be better off without it. Sure that the prosthesis
which would be refitted many times over the course of his next decades,
one that would fill his other pants leg the same as his longer leg,
would be the best “cure” for Donny’s short leg and clubbed foot.
That fall, while his cousins and their friends played at recess, gym
class, ran home from school, chased the girls, where chased by the boys
who would otherwise imitate the football game they saw that weekend at
the high school field or on television. Meanwhile, the parents paced
daily as if by doing so, they would come to some peace about the
doctors’ decision or whether they explained what was about to happen to
the little boy or their guilt over having caused Donny’s affliction or
the curse that God had placed on their family: to have such an inflicted
child. Donny was having his shorter leg amputated, well above the
Donny does not remember waking up from his surgery, nor the three
others that were required before he could have a properly fitted
prosthesis. The encouragement given him by so many of the grownups
didn’t register, subconsciously shutting down from the trauma, but
giving the impression through his silence to the grownups that he was
happy and taking this all in stride, taking care of grownup feelings.
He did not dwell on this change. He avoided it as fiercely as he
avoided the changes that came as his body introduced him to adolescence
and avoided again when those changes brought on urges that he would not
entertain because what girl wanted to be with a boy with only one leg?
When Donny was born, the nuns who served as the nurses in that
Catholic hospital wondered to themselves and out loud, the same way as
the disciples asked Christ of the lame man, was it the sins of his
parents or the original sin of Donny that left him lame. They, nor the
doctors nor the parents waited for Christ to answer and, instead,
wielded the tools God had left in their hands.
Jesus would have said, Donny’s condition is neither the result of his
parents or his transgressions but exists in order that the glory and
power of God can be demonstrated. Or he would have said something like
that, if our Bibles depict him honestly. Then, he might have laid his
hands on Donny, restoring the leg and showing his glory. Or maybe not.
The nuns, the doctors and the other well-meaning mortal sages were
left with their own devices. Whether they harbored notions that Donny’s
parents’ sins brought them to this point, they made the best choice
that their limited wisdom could see. It was probably the right choice
but could not have been as glorious as Jesus’.
The cousins would not see Donny again until Christmas at aunt
Marilyn’s house–and this time, to them, Donny was “different.” This
time, they felt sorry for him. For the first time, they were fixed with
the notion that there were things Donny could not do. He was a new but
familiar stranger and all of them were a little afraid. The cousins
did not know how to play with him. They did not know how to talk with
The family’s silence was matched by Donny’s who, that Christmas,
spent most of his time in the big chair in the living room, next to the
tree, mostly watching, with two shoes that hung identically beneath the
cuffs of his brand new jeans. Appearing unexceptional in his muted
form, no one would ask of his condition, nor whose transgressions were
to blame, nor whose mortal glory might be stoked.