Friday, July 14, 2006

The Balance Beam

The crowd waited in eager anticipation for the last gymnastic performance of the evening - a balance beam routine. There was an unexplained delay for the performance, and the crowd was growing impatient. I was a rookie reporter on the first row, sitting near the entrance from whence the gymnast would emerge. Another reporter leaned over to me to give me a bit of background on the girl, since we had some time to spare as we waited.

It seemed this girl, who had been named Thanatos (strange name, I know), had developed severe scoliosis from a young age, and though her parents had tried a number of new-fangled methods and old-wives remedies for straightening her spine, they couldn't fix it themselves. When the girl became older she also tried various methods, but to no avail. A family friend had continually entreated the family to consider professional care - surgery followed by chiropractic therapy - but the family had resisted, saying that the cure did not have to be that drastic. They especially resisted since a doctor told them that the chiropractic therapy would have to be lifelong, despite the surgery. . . and the family was taken aback that they were offered the surgery for free, paid by an anonymous donor. The girl would have to continue to attend sessions and do exercises at home on a daily basis, but it would all be paid for - by someone they did not know. This unsolicited charity greatly offended the family, who insisted they didn't need that sort of help. "It's just a minor curvature of the spine," they kept insisting.

The problem was, the parents had always dreamed of their daughter becoming a great gymnast, in the tradition of her older siblings. Thanatos was enrolled in gymnastics from a young age, and while she seemed to have a lot of determination and natural ability, her scoliosis wouldn't allow her to perform well. Her hip rose higher on the right side, so she tended to lean leftward. Her parents and she had found that the best way to prevent this problem in the short-run was for her to counter this by focusing on leaning to the right. They had devised all sorts of ways to encourage this, including painting rightward pointing arrows on her feet and hands, to remind her during her gymnastic routines, as well as designing her outfits to be of an asymmetrical fashion, more solid and embellished on the right. Her hairstyles were usually braided ponytails that were oriented on the right side of her head. Vain attempts to be sure, but they seemed to help a little. She continually became frustrated as her scoliosis became worse and worse, not better as she and her parents had hoped. Their various efforts were not helping much; if anything her condition was worsening.

Finally, when Thanatos was about 12, she came to her parents and frustratingly asked them if they could try surgery and, if necessary, life-long therapy. The parents were vehemently opposed to the idea, as they still considered it to be an unnecessarily drastic measure. "Thanatos," they protested, "You did fine last week in your performance. You only waivered a few times, and as long as you're careful to lean to the right, you'll balance out your left-ward tendency eventually." But Thanatos continued to struggle.

Thanatos persisted in bringing up the possibility of surgery to her parents for the next several months, stating her case: it's absolutely free, paid for by someone else; it's a permanent solution; my scoliosis is not getting better, only worse; and on and on. Finally after several months of her pleading and her continual struggling with her scoliosis, her parents agreed to allow her to have the surgery. They went back to the doctor who had first suggested it and who had contact with the anonymous donor. The parents were still embarassed at the notion of a stranger paying for the surgery, but they admittedly were lacking the funds, so for the sake of their daughter they accepted the offering. As the doctor and the family were finalizing details for surgery, the doctor said, "Oh, one thing I forgot to mention. The donor requires two things in exchange for his donation."

The parents and especially Thanatos were by now eager to try the surgery, and Thanatos had complete faith in its success, so they replied that they were willing to accept any conditions laid out by the donor. The doctor told them that first, Thanatos had to change her name to Zoe (the donor hated the name Thanatos, the doctor explained), and second, she must agree to lifelong therapy to treat her condition. The donor was also a spine doctor, it seemed, and knew that the surgery would be in vain were it not followed by continual therapy. The parents were rather irritated by the two requests: Change their daughter's name? Commit to lifelong therapy? They had been told about therapy before, but they wanted the option to discontinue it if they wanted. The conditions seemed a bit drastic, but Thanatos pleaded, and at last her parents agreed.

Thanatos (or Zoe, rather) had the surgery performed and it was a great success. Her spine was aligned and she had a perfectly symmetrical bone structure. She quickly rose to the top of her gymnastic peers in the region, especially in the balance beam. Ironic that a girl who was once so unbalanced now excelled in an event that required balance. It was now several years since her surgery, and Zoe continued, with the constant discipline of therapy, to have a straight spine. Zoe had focused so much on her gymnastics career in the years since her surgery that she at last took a hiatus from competition, a break of a few months that was ending that very night.

My fellow reporter ended his story just as the gymnastics performance prepared to resume, I shifted in my seat and prepared for the routine to begin. A young woman (presumably Zoe) entered the arena and walked confidently towards the balance beam. The emcee announced her name right as she passed him: "Zoe Delaney will now take the beam." The young woman stopped and leaned over to him, whispering something to him. "Excuse me, ladies and gentleman. I have a correction to make. Please welcome Zoe Thanatos Delaney." Well, that seemed a bit odd. But then, the more I watched Zoe walk, the more I noticed a few other things about her appearance that seemed a bit odd.

She was leaning a bit to the right, I noticed. If she was having a relapse with her scoliosis, wouldn't she be leaning to the left, I wondered? Her ponytail was fastened just above her right ear, which I consider to be a silly style anyway, but on a woman in her late teens? Her hair was extremely long and thick, and her ponytail had to cause some strain. What an odd hairstyle! Were those arrows drawn in bold marker on her wrists? And they were on her ankles as well. Why did her outfit have sequins covering the right side alone? No shoulder strap on the left, either. "Is this normal?" I whispered to the reporter next to me. He shook his head, obviously perplexed as well.

Zoe (or Zoe Thanatos?) was perfectly composed as she approached the beam - calm, cool, and collected - seemingly confident in her ability to perform flawlessly, and oblivious to (or ignoring) her asymmetrical appearance. Usually gymnasts exhibit at least a bit of nervousness, but she betrayed no doubt as to her ability to execute her routine. As she raised her arms and arched her back, in preparation to mount, she swayed a bit, no doubt caused by her hairstyle. I would never be able to stand straight with such a mass of hair hanging down one side of my head!

I watched her routine with part amazement, part amusement. It really was comical the way she struggled to maintain her balance with such a long, thick braid cascading down her right side. And she even seemed to be purposely leaning to the right at times. She did manage to stay on the beam for the whole performance, though, despite some jerky motion and swaying. It was remarkable that she didn't fall, and though she performed every move in her routine, it was obvious that she spent more time keeping upright than she did gracefully executing her performance. The crowd was actually cruel and laughed at times, but mostly just sat there looking confused. What had happened to Zoe during her hiatus? I heard another reporter behind me mutter to his neighbor that Zoe had done so well in the past several years, that she had decided to forego regular therapy for her scoliosis. "I can handle it from here," she was reported to have said. "I'll keep an eye out for any recurrence, and deal with it as it comes."

We all applauded as Zoe finished her routine, and as she walked out of the arena, a reporter nearby asked Zoe how she felt about her performance. "Great!" she replied. "I had a bit of trouble a few times when I felt myself leaning too hard to the left, but other than that I kept my balance and executed my moves. And I stayed on the beam. That's what is important." She noticed herself leaning to the left? I pondered. What about the right? I mused, as I watched her walk away, her head cocked a bit to her right, bearing the weight of her braid. As she walked away, I couldn't help but wonder at her self-assessment. Naive me had always thought that gymnastics was about the beauty of the routine, not just stumbling through moves and remaining on the beam.

As I left the arena, I passed an elderly man standing by himself on the sidelines. I'll never be sure, but I thought I heard him murmuring to himself, Don't you understand, Zoe? You have been set free? You are a new creature. He turned to go, but not before stooping to pick up a sequin that had dropped from Zoe's outfit. He lit a match and let the sequin melt away. This time as he whispered to himself, I heard him quite distinctly: For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength. . .


Lydia said...

That was a neat story, Susan. Did you write it yourself? I could see the clear analogy between the "free surgery" the anonoymous donor had provided for her and God's free gift of salvation to us through his Son. It was good that you pointed out how God has "requirements" for us to walk in his spirit as we become a new creature in him.

I liked your selection of "Zoe" as the girl's new name after the surgery. I was curious as to the meaning of the name Thanatos. Is it Greek or Latin? I know Zoe means "life" in Greek but what does the other name mean?

Keep up your creative writing. And tell Hannah to write us some more poems. :)

Jessica said...

Wow...great allegory, Susan! I second the "did you write it yourself"? I liked the different names you choose too...I knew what "Zoe" meant, but had to Google "Thanantos" to find's Greek for "death", yes? Once excellent story, do you mind if I link to it from my blog?

Susan said...

To answer you both, yes, I did write the story. It started out being a completely different post - more of an intellectual treatise - but then I had this vision in my mind of a balance beam performance, and this is the result :). "Thanatos" is Greek for death, and "Zoe" is Greek for life - good thinking :). Certainly, you may link it from your blog, Jessica. I would be honored.

Ben Garrison said...

I liked your story, although I must admit I'm self-conscious about reading a completely pink webpage at work for 10 minutes at a time. =P

Susan said...

It's just a test to see how secure you are in your maleness. You passed ;).

Real men read pink webpages.

Sherrin said...

Good story, Susan. It held my attention right to the end. You are very creative.

Anonymous said...

Excellent story. I too, immediately caught the analogy. Keep it up!


the Papanator said...

That was a very well written story, Susen, very nice. As a Greek, I must ask a question though. Zoe/Thanatos's last name is Delaney, which is Gaelic. Is she half Irish?

Susan said...

I suppose it would sound more intellectual to say that yes, Zoe is half-Irish, since her surname is Gaelic. But honestly, I just through together random syllables to make a name :).