Born three months early with cerebral palsy, the poet Molly McCully Brown was four years old when she had a nerve-clipping surgery that allowed her to walk (with plastic leg braces) and hop (when she managed to jump in physical therapy, her father bought a Dairy Queen ice-cream cake to celebrate). The surgery offered Brown a “nimbler” body that opened up new movements and adventures. When her family vacationed in Europe, she could ascend cathedral stairs and kneel to pray at altars. At home in Virginia, she roamed hay fields, and climbed an ancient oak tree: “I don’t remember the climbing, but I remember the sky.”
One afternoon, when Brown was eleven, she couldn’t lift her leg to the tree’s first branch. She sweated and wept. Even with a stepstool, she could no longer hoist herself up. Later, doctors determined that as Brown grew in early adolescence, her muscles (without the help of neural pathways that had been severed during the earlier surgery) couldn’t keep building necessary strength. Instead, they spasmed, straining joints and throwing Brown’s balance.
What sticks from this tree-climbing story is an image of defeat: “My father carried me, heavy and wailing way too hard for nearly eleven, back to the house.” It’s a moment of grief and bodily betrayal. In a way, it’s an origin story for Brown’s new collection of essays, which describes the frustrations of moving, working, loving, and worshipping in a body that continually fails you. At the same time, it’s an encapsulation of anger and grit, resistance and resilience. Brown is wailing; she won’t take this quietly.