My Pain & Gain by Anthony Esolen

My Pain & Gain

Anthony Esolen on the Blessings of a Bum Leg

My two friends, colleagues at the school where I teach, leaned over me as I lay on the floor, my left leg propped up on the radiator. They placed their hands on the leg, while the priest said the prayers and gave me the chrism of the sick—what used to be called Extreme Unction, but which can be requested by any Catholic in the straits of sickness, as I was. For I had not walked in over three months.

What happened to me that spring and summer is still a mystery to me, as is, I suppose, the leg I bear about with me, to which I am attached with something like the bones and ligaments of grudging affection. It is almost always in some pain or discomfort, always swollen. Apparently there are too few valves in the veins of the leg, so that blood and lymph tend to pool up in the foot and calf, which turn purple almost as soon as I stand up. I have had, therefore, to wear a compression garment of 45 pounds of pressure per square inch every day since I was a teenager, just to keep the leg from terrible pain, and to ward off the severe lymph infections I fall prey to once every year or so.

Pain & Protection

But the leg has been more to me than a source of pain and disease. It has, I must admit, been a protection, too. Other young people may have fooled themselves into believing they would never die; not me. I bore about with me a constant reminder of mortality and weakness. For when you are minding your business, feeling fine, chatting with friends, and then suddenly feel a chill, and a soreness in the lymph nodes of the groin, and know, with deep disappointment, that in an hour your fever will top 103 degrees, you become acutely aware of the transience of life, the poignant passing away of all that is beautiful in this marvelous creation.

More than that, the leg was an utterly unmerited protection against sin. I hope I am not boasting here, but I was a tanned and broad-shouldered Italian kid, with glossy black hair and a square jaw. I could have—but usually didn’t. The leg was, and is, so preposterous, so much of an explanation needing to be made, that I shied away from girls, and especially from beaches and swimming pools—despite the fact that the only time the leg feels normal when I am standing is when it is immersed in the blessedly heavy pressure of four or five feet of water.

Once, in college, I went four years without a date. Too shy for it, too keenly aware of something wrong, yet also, strangely enough, aware of the twistedness and the shame of sin, even when the bodies enveloping one another are such as to grace the covers of magazines.

Debilitation & Diagnosis

So there I was, finally married, by the grace of God, and lying on the floor. Something strange had happened to me months before. As near as I can figure, it began at the wake of a student of mine, who had either fallen or leapt to his death from a tall beech tree on campus; the notes he left us in the days before were full of his hopes for the summer and yet were phrased with unsettling ambiguity. Hundreds of students came to the wake, and so I and a few members of our campus men’s group stood outside in the parking lot, in bitter cold, for three hours, waiting to be admitted into the funeral parlor. From that terrible day on, the leg began to hurt for no apparent reason.

This was not psychological pain. It turned bright red whenever it was dependent, and swelled up, and over the course of several weeks became excruciating. The only relief I got was when it was elevated, so I learned to crawl about the house, crablike, leg in the air, even to make my way upstairs in our old Victorian house. Using the bathroom was, shall we say, a gymnastic adventure. My arms grew strong from the unusual exercise, while the legs grew thin and weak, and the painful one worsened.

After an utterly pointless and painful operation to repair a fistula—that is, an unnatural connection between a vein and an artery in my left foot—the doctors in Rhode Island gave up on me. Their only recommendations were to manage the pain, which seemed impossible, or to amputate. So I made an appointment with a supplier of prosthetics and met a very nice and cheerful double-amputee, who got around with great aplomb and told me that I would learn how to do that, too. My greatest worry, after all, had been that I would lose my job as a professor and not be able to support my family.

Anthony Esolen is the author of over thirty books, including Real Music: A Guide to the Timeless Hymns of the Church (Tan, with a CD), Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture (Regnery), and The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord (Ignatius). He has also translated Dante’s Divine Comedy (Random House). He and his wife Debra publish a web magazine, Word and Song (, on poetry, hymnody, language, classic films, and music. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

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