We have received a great number of blessings as a result of our daughter being born with a limb difference. The biggest and most significant, of course, being the sheer joy our daughter brings to us every single day. I do worry sometimes, if I’m this proud of her simply for picking up a sippy cup, or eating a yoghurt, what on earth will I be like when she starts making more significant achievements? But oh what a wonderful worry to have!
Another huge, and unexpected positive, has been in joining the limb different community. It’s truly awesome; open, welcoming, accepting and uplifting! I’ve made friends near home, and friends half way across the country and even some friends on the other side of the world.
A third thing that came out of our limb difference experience has been in getting to know a little more about my great-granddad. John died two years before I was born and I never got to meet him. I should have asked more questions growing up, but at least I’m asking them now. It wasn’t until we told our family the news about Hero’s difference that I found out that my great-granddad had also been missing a hand.
I’ve no doubt that having been raised by a man who was also missing a hand, yet never let it get in his way, really helped my own granny to worry less about Hero. Being part of the limb different community is amazing and gives Hero friends and peers her own age with similar conditions to her’s. But imagine finding out that one of her ancestors lived life the same way she does. He held his cups the same way she does. I wonder what advice he would have given Hero?
In his absence, I decided to try and build up a little bit of a picture about the man who came before us (I can only imagine what kind of face he would have pulled if his ‘stump’ had been referred to as a lucky fin!). I’ve spent time chatting with my granny and my dad about him and have created a memory book that I hope Hero will look back on with a sense of affinity and belonging one day.
The making of a lucky fin
John Knight was born in 1902 with ten fingers and ten toes. At the age of 17 he applied to join the army and made it through all the medical checks. To pass the time between his medical assessment and his joining date, John worked as a labourer on a local farm.
He was bailing hay one day when things didn’t quite go to plan. He fell and instead of grabbing hold of a ladder rung to stop his descent, he accidentally seized the blade of his bailing knife instead. My favourite part of this horrific story, which still makes me cringe, is that in true style John didn’t wait around for help. He got on his bike, with his left hand hanging off, and cycled the few miles to the hospital himself!
The evolution of prosthetics
One of the most exciting things about having a child with a limb difference is in watching the phenomenal leaps and bounds being made in the field of prosthetics. From the 3D printing champions making hands on a budget, to the high end six figure bionic limbs that are gaining ground in the media. I look forward to the day I get to be a little be envious of Hero because of the awesome gadgets she has!
Back in the first half of the twentieth century things obviously weren’t quite as advanced, but that didn’t make new adaptations any less exciting for Great-Grandad. Usually he used a hook on the end of his arm but one year he was given an upgrade to a prosthetic hand where the fingers opened and closed to grip when you pulled a chord attached to the mechanism. According to Granny he was super proud of his new adaptation and maybe even a little cocky.
There was a memorable time when she got on the bus with him and his new arm. He put put the ticket money into the palm of his new hand and when the conductor came around to collect the fares John took great joy in popping the hand open using the chord. My granny said she thought the conductor nearly died of shock! That’s exactly the kind of humour that I hope Hero will channel. I hope she’s proud and takes joy from her difference, even if it’s maybe at someone else’s expense from time to time!
Three hands, two wheels and a hook
Most of the stories my granny had to tell me about Great-Grandad John were hilarious. They demonstrated his sense of humour and fun as well as his complete lack of self-pity despite experiencing a life changing accident at such a young age.
One of my favourite stories involved a tandem bike that my granny and gramps used to own. One day John and his son in-law, Barry, were cycling on the tandem. Barry was going a little too fast for John’s liking. Unfortunately, without a hand gripping onto the handle bars was impossible and John’s hook kept sliding along the handlebars and pinching Barry’s backside. Far from making him slow down, Barry shouted to John to watch what he was doing with that hook and to just keep bloody peddling!
Hanging on by a hook
Some of the stories I heard are easy to laugh at now, with the benefit of hindsight, but were probably pretty terrifying at the time (pinching your son-in-law on the backside while speeding downhill on a tandem bike is probably one of those from John’s point of view!). This next story, which also involves John’s hook, is one of those.
Since he was no longer able to join the army after losing his left hand, John carried on his work as a labourer – nothing as trifling as a missing hand was going to stop him! One of these jobs was in the quarry of a cement works. On one memorable day John was standing on the back of a lorry, levelling the sand out ready to be delivered to the cement mixers.
The driver of the lorry was a bit over enthusiastic that day and set off driving, without realising that my great-granddad was on the back. Unsteady on the mound of sand, John fell but his hook caught on the railing of the lorry and he was dragged across the quarry, unable to let go. The other workers around the site ran along side and started waving and shouting at the driver to stop. Not realising the emergency he waved happily back at them and went on his merry way, taking John with him!
Luckily for everyone, the driver had to stop at a checkpoint before leaving the quarry and John was unhooked from the railings before he could he dragged further down the road. The story was really entertaining when Granny told it to me, but somehow it seems a little more alarming now I’m writing it myself! I’m sure it was one of those things that you could look back on and laugh about, but could have had an awfully different result. When you take into consideration his initial accident, coupled with this event in the cement yard and many others I’m sure, he certainly seemed to be a man of nine lives and lived every one of them to full.
It’s ability not disability that matters
One of the key things that came out from hearing all these wonderful stories about Hero’s great-great-granddad was how, day to day, his family and friends didn’t think anything of his limb difference. It just didn’t seem to be a big deal, because he didn’t make a big deal of it himself. As Granny put, in his later years he would simply put on his hook and head off for a busy day at the allotment with his trusty terrier sitting a ‘top the wheelbarrow.
One lady who John worked for in his retirement wrote to my granny after he’d passed away in 1984. She was incredibly forthcoming in her praise for his personality, determination and manners after she had gotten to know him well while he worked on landscaping her considerable garden.
“Needless to say, I was a bit uncertain when he only had a hook instead of a left hand but I was so taken with his wish to be useful and his clear determination not to be “retired”, that I decided to chance it. Of course, I found out in no time that I hadn’t taken a fumble, I had made a bet on an absolute cert.”
Throughout his life he was husband, father, labourer, almost soldier, darts player and gardener, among a myriad of other things. He’s been described as a bit of a monkey and a rascal, using his stump to create humour and to make people laugh. Such a stunningly happy man, who was often laughing and chuckling. These labels aren’t always associated with the stereotypically negative idea of a disabled person. There’s a reason that I don’t describe Hero as having a disability and that’s because she obviously and palpably doesn’t. She might have to go about things a bit differently, she might even struggle with some things, but she’ll do them.
My granny could think of one thing, and one thing only, that her dad struggled to do with one hand and that was taking heavy and hot dishes out of the oven (before the proliferation of oven mitts!). That doesn’t seem like a hugely limiting challenge to me, and with perseverance he found a way around that too.
I know that her great-great-granddad wasn’t born different, as Hero has been, but his attitude against having only one hand, in a decidedly two handed world, is something that I deeply hope has carried down through the generations. If she’s having moments of doubting her ability, I’ll be sharing the stories of John with her and letting her know that she’s not the first to be different like this and that through family memories, hilarious stories and through the communities of which we are blessed to be a part, she certainly isn’t alone.