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The Perfect Fit

First appeared in WILL Radio: Sidetrack in August

It’s funny the kinds of things you take for granted when you have two legs. Like wearing high heels. Plenty of women complain about wearing them, but you can be sure most have at least a couple pairs in their closet. My 15-year-old daughter, on the other hand, has yearned all her life for high heels and never once owned a pair. That’s because she has an artificial leg, which, it turns out, can really cramp a good shoe fetish…

You know how when your baby is born everyone always kind of jokes about counting all the fingers and toes? Well, it was no joke in our case. When our daughter was born, she had all her digits but she was missing most of her thighbone, so her left leg was half the length of her right, with a little foot hanging off the end.

I can hear you now: “Gasp!! What did you do?! How could you handle that?” You can’t ever know until you’re faced with something similar, but I always tell people that we just did what any parent would do. We stepped up to the plate, waggled our proverbial bat, and set out to figure out how to help our child in whatever way we could.

The really cool thing was, Claire didn’t think she was imperfect, and in fact we, like all new parents, knew she was totally perfect: bright eyed, strong muscles, thick dark hair, sunny smile, beautiful … just beautiful.

After researching our options, which involved both medical library research and talking to tons of parents in the same or a similar boat, we arranged for her to have surgery at Shriners Hospital in St. Louis. The surgery enabled her to wear a prosthetic leg with a “real” foot at the end, instead of a little lift with a hockey puck where the foot would be.

The first time we put Claire’s prosthetic leg on her, complete with a brand new, snow-white sneaker on the foot, she looked down and said “two shoes!” She was 15 months old.

I mark that as the beginning of Claire’s little shoe fixation. As time went on she went for more and more gaudy shoes. There were the sneakers painted in psychedelic colors, there were the golden glittery shoes and the red glittery shoes. But this is no more than any (or I should say most) girls would want.

The problem came as she got older. Claire is not blessed with dainty feet, neither her flesh and blood one nor her plastic and metal one. Even if she could squeeze her “good” foot into a pump or two (like Cinderella’s sisters), her other foot wouldn’t give, refusing to squeeze into a shoe that wasn’t the right fit.

So Claire channeled her shoe fetish into sneakers. Converse, to be precise. She owns two pairs, stole another pair from her little brother even though they are two sizes too big for her, and will wear them through snow and sleet, up hill and down dale, despite also owning some shoes that have better support. Speaking of lousy support, she also wears flip flops: black, from Old Navy.

Flip flops were, in fact, our first shoe breakthrough. Oh how Claire wished she could wear flip flops. When she learned from other (teenage girl) amputees about the existence of the “split-toe” foot, which has a gap between the big toe and the next one down so you can wear flip flops just like anybody else, she had me call her Brian, her prosthetist at Shriners, that very day. She is now on her third pair of flip-flops. She puts a lot of miles on those babies.

So up until now that has been the extent of Claire’s shoe wardrobe: Converse and flip flops. Not that she didn’t constantly try to try on other shoes, not that she didn’t gaze longingly any time we strolled by a shoe department. But it just wasn’t going to happen.

Recently, Brian changed all that. He presented her with a new kind of foot. This foot, in addition to the requisite split toe, was much narrower, more like a typical female foot. And — the piece de resistance — it had an adjustable ankle, so she could point the toes down a bit to accommodate wearing a heel.

Claire hugged Brian so hard she almost knocked him down. Then we went straight to the mall. There Claire tried on stilettos, she tried on dressy ballet slippers and she tried on what we called Minnie Mouse shoes. All the women gave her knowing glances as she stumbled around trying to get her sea legs (or would that be stiletto legs?). But it was a guy manning the Origins boutique nearby who really cheered us on. His real job was giving women advice on skin care and make up. With his own perfect skin, chiseled cheekbones, styled hair and polished clothes, he was an advertisement for the power of those Origins products. When he wasn’t helping his own customers, he was watching and smiling as Claire stumbled around on her two-inch heels. Catching our eye, he grinned began miming the correct walk for us. Hips swaying, arms akimbo with the backs of his wrists on his hip bones, he sashayed around his boutique, his face lit up like he was on Star Search. “Walk on your balls, walk on your balls,” he would exhort in a high-pitched voice, giddy with excitement.

Claire smiled gamely, smothering a snicker at his innuendos, and kept trying on shoes. She was kind of surprised at how much these shoes — that she’d coveted for so long —hurt. “These are not that comfortable,” she looked up at me a little shocked and wounded, like I’d been keeping secrets from her.

Still, “Origins guy” kept encouraging her, at least until he had to go on break. We stayed, trying on shoe after shoe. Eventually we found a pair that was sufficiently chic (for Claire) and stable (for me). After waiting for our pal to come back and admire our selection, Claire and I both left satisfied. At last, just like Cinderella, we found the perfect fit.

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