HOW TO LIVE WITHOUT ARMS
as told to
GEORGE HILLYARD ROBERTSON
YOU'VE HAD a bad accident, son."
My father's strained faltering words rang around the bare white walls of a strange
". . . You’ve lost both your arms.”
Coming up from the well of unconsciousness where I had lain for nearly three days I vaguely remembered the train, the fall and the shouting. Then I thought-I will never be able to turn on a cold-water tap again.
It is the crazy irrelevant sort of thought that runs through your mind when you are handed an idea too stunning to comprehend. I did not think, as I would so often in the following days, weeks and months, “I will need help for almost everything I do for the rest of my life—eating, washing, shaving, brushing my teeth, combing my hair, dressing and undressing.” I did not even think
of never being able to hold a girl in my arms again: I thought “I will never turn on another cold-water tap.”
Then a curious thing happened. I imagined there had been some mistake. Suddenly, I could feel along the full length of both my arms to my finger tips. I tried to lift one arm to show my father he was wrong. That’s when the truth hit me with its full impact. That’s when I knew I would have to live the rest of my life without arms.
In thirteen years I’ve become accustomed to that idea—as accustomed to it as I can ever be. In that time I have learned that while a person without arms cannot live a normal existence he
can create for himself a useful straightforward pattern of life that offers its fair share of variety and happiness. I have discovered I can do many of the important things done by my unhandicapped friends. By using my mouth, my feet, and my head I can accomplish almost anything I set my mind to.
Today I live a confident well-regulated life. While I am physically dependent on others for many parts of my daily routine I am able, independently, to earn my own living, provide many of my own diversions, and to exist generally without feeling I am a burden to my friends and colleagues. Around my apartment I have devised ways of writing letters, telephoning, and reading. Downtown I shop for myself, go to movies or concerts alone, conduct most of my business without assistance. I can’t lace my own shoes, but I’ve learned
Herb Gott can't bold a script or sign one of the cheques he gets for performing on the radio. But he’s made a useful and interesting life for himself as Canada’s most “off-hand” actor
to enjoy skating. I can’t undress myself, but some of my happiest hours are spent swimming. Quite often I spend an evening playing bridge with friends. A couple of years ago I even had the thrill of driving a car along a lonely, rutted country road. Of course some things will always be impossible for me. One of these is the fulfillment of my boyhood ambition—to become a sailor. Ironically enough, it was this ambition that led to the accident that cost me my arms.
In the spring of 1939 I was twenty-one, fresh out of a Toronto high school and eager to find a job at sea. I heard about a steward’s job that was open on a ship leaving Montreal in three days’ time. In spite of the fact that I had no money I was determined to apply for the job in person. Rather than risk the uncertainty of hitchhiking I decided to hop a freight train.
Couldn’t Even Open a Door
Together with a young pal of mine I headed for the freight yards shortly before midnight, Thursday, May 12. Neither of us had ridden the rods before and we were frightened by the thought of jumping a moving train. All night long we walked along the tracks to Montreal and, the following morning, when an eastbound passenger train stopped to take on a passenger, we hopped on the coupling between a couple of forward baggage cars. We grinned and told one another we’d be in Montreal before sundown.
The accident took place just as the train was coming into Oshawa. I’m still not sure how it happened. Perhaps I lost my footing, perhaps I fell asleep. But they told me later I fell off the coupling down to the tracks. When they picked me up a few minutes later the train wheels had run over my arms and the damage was done.
I don’t remember anything that happened between then and the time, the following Sunday evening, when I awoke in the Oshawa General Hospital to heai my father pronouncing those awful words at my bedside. The initial shock, the pain, the anguish had been mercifully buried under a blanket of unconsciousness that covered me through my unlucky Friday the 13 and the two days
following. But, even with that reprieve, I was to suffer enough moments of torment to make the experience the worst kind of nightmare. My left arm had been amputated at the shoulder and I was left with a few inches of my right arm which I could move.
The month I spent recuperating in hospital was bleak, but it was not the worst time I spent, by any means. True, 1 resented being shaved at first. I remember the frustration of forgetting my affliction and trying to reach for a cigarette. There were many bad moments like that, but generally the hospital atmosphere was good for me because I knew everyone else there needed help. Somehow that made me feel less of an exception.
It was when I returned home that I felt the full weight of my predicament. I felt perfectly strong and healthy but I couldn’t do a thing for myself. I had the enthusiasm and energy of a twenty-one-year-old and I couldn’t even open a door.
I’m afraid I acted very badly. Because I couldn’t bear the thought of having to be fed I refused to join the family at mealtime. I spent most of the day sulking in my room and I bitterly resented any attempt to bring me out of my shell of gloom. In desperation I tried to do things for myself — with my mouth and my feet I tried dressing, washing, even lathering my face for a shave. Every at tempt ended in miserable failure.
During that time I spent a lot of time thinking of my life before I had lost my arms. Ironically enough, most of my time until then had bean spent taking care of my mother. Almost since I could remember she had been a hopeless arthritic cripple. From the time I was ten I had looked after her every need feeding her. dressing her, washing her —doing for her all the things other people must now do for me. But, I told myself, there was some reason to look after her. All the time she had lingered, she suffered intense and dreadful pain. When she died, a year before my accident, her death was a merciful release for everyone. But what excuse was there for me?
That year of freedom between my mother’s death and my fateful train ride helped to bring home even more
Continued on page 59
Continued from page 15
strongly the resentment of my new position. I had lived that year fully, coming of age with a complete awareness of my strength and vitality. Then to be thrown back to a situation of limited action seemed almost more than I could bear.
It was my stepmother who helped restore my confidence in myself and start me on the way to a new attitude. After my mother’s death, with the added responsibility of a handicapped son, my father had married again. His second wife, Effie, through true understanding and patience, taught me that life without arms was not only possible, but could be a constructive and happy existence.
Although I didn’t realize it then, she was constantly inventing devices to demonstrate my continuing usefulness as a person. One of her favorite tricks was to pretend she had run short of some necessary ingredient while she was in the midst of preparing a meal. As the only other person in the house I was the only one who could help her in her predicament. Whenever this happened she would sling a small shopping bag around my shoulder, put some change in it and send me off to the corner grocery to pick up the necessary parcel. She was never overly grateful for this service, but took it as a matter of coursean attitude that helped immeasurably in restoring my confidence.
Soon after that I began going out again. At first I would leave the house only after dark and, after a few quick turns around the block, I’d hurry back to the shelter of my room. Then I started attending a Sunday Bible class.
Here, renewing old friendships and making new friends, I began to feel less self-conscious about meeting people. A few months later, unknown to me, the members of this Bible class made a house-to-house collection in the neighborhood and presented me with the money to buy an artificial arm. The spontaneity and generosity of this act convinced me that life wasn’t going to be nearly as difficult as I had imagined.
For a while I held high hopes for the difference an artificial arm would make. I soon discovered, however, that without an elbow you exercise very little control over an artificial arm —particularly when you have no second arm with which to manipulate it. When the arm was first fitted I tried to use it writing, painting, opening doors. I even tied a bat to it and tried playing ping-pong. None of them worked and, a little regretfully, I went back to relying on my mouth and feet.
By this time I had managed to work out a number of things I could do with my mouth and feet. Around the house I learned how to open all the doors with my feet. By knocking the telephone receiver off the cradle onto a pillow, I found I could answer the phone efficiently. By taking a short stick in my mouth I was able to dial. I also taught myself to pick any normal-size book out of the bookcase with my teeth, and by turning the pages with my mouth I managed to get through it at a fair rate of speed.
It’s now almost second nature with me, but one of the hardest lessons I had to learn was asking other people for help. At first I was enormously sensitive about asking strangers for even the smallest favor. Because of my artificial arm. which rests in one pocket, it must sometimes appear to people that I’m asking for help because I’m too lazy to do things for myself.
The awareness of this stopped me cold for a long, long time.
My initial experiences in asking people to take a cigarette from my pocket and light it or money from my wallet to pay for something were fraught with embarrassment. I sometimes let half a dozen streetcars pass before I would gather enough courage to brave the stares of passengers while T had the conductor rummage through my pockets for the fare. I realize didn’t help matters any by my tentative self-conscious manner. Even today I occasionally run up against a situation where a stranger is ill at ease dealing with me. The most common difficulty arises when there is something I must sign. I say, quite straight forwardly, “I’m sorry, I can’t sign my name.” Invariably this prompts the response, “Oh. Well, just make an ‘X’ ”
A few months ago a bright young office clerk came up with the best response I’ve yet had in this situation, She asked me to sign a form with pencil tied to the counter. “I’m sorry,”
I said, “but I’m not going to put that dirty string in my mouth.” “I don’t blame you,” she said, and proceeded to sign the form for me.
Although it bothers me less now than it used to I am still sometimes irritated by people who are over-solicitous, people who think I can do absolutely nothing for myself. I realize they are, for the most part, well-intentioned, but their obvious discomfort at watching me perform some relatively simple task for myself, such as moving a chair up to a table, starts me worrying all over again about my ability to help myself.
About a year after my accident proved to myself fairly conclusively that I can get along even when I’m surrounded by strangers. In the spring of 1940 I received a letter from a sailor-cousin of mine I had never met. His ship was to be in Montreal harbor a few days and he wondered if I could come down and meet him. So the following Friday morning I set out by myself and succeeded in hitchhiking alone the three hundred and fifty miles there and back. I spent seventy-two hours without encountering a single person I had ever met before. After that experience I knew that, even under the most adverse circumstances,
I could get along.
Soon after I had adjusted myself to the immediate everyday difficulties of living without arms I had to face the larger problem of what I was going to do with my life. Fortunately, for the time being, I had a family I could depend on for help, but I knew the day was coming when I would have to make some sort of decision about my future. It was obvious that my pos-
sibilities were, to say the least, limited.
Here again, it was my stepmother,
Effie, who helped. One night, about four months after the accident, she persuaded me to attend a play reading at our nearby community centre. It sounded like something different to do so I went along to watch and listen.
During the course of the audition someone suggested I read a part. Before I knew what had happened I had a part in a play.
I was very pleased and flattered by my apparent success in that small amateur effort and I continued to act in the community-centre plays during the rest of the winter season. At the time it seemed an insane notion, but I began to think seriously of acting as a career. Radio acting appeared particularly practical because it didn’t require the use of arms, so, in the spring of 1940, I joined an amateur radio workshop on one of the Toronto stations. I picked up a year of valuable radio experience there, and, while my
new vocation ,wasn’t bringing in any money, it was giving me a new and important sense of confidence. For the first time it seemed possible to me that I would one day be able to support myself independently.
In 1941 I earned my first money as a professional actor, playing the part of a prisoner-of-war in a Red Cross broadcast. It was a big role, and when the broadcast came off without a hitch 1 knew more work would follow.
More Than a Thousand Shows
At first, producers were nervous and sceptical about me. They were ready to acknowledge my usefulness as an actor, but I could sense they were afraid, that, without the use of my arms, I might get into some sort of a jam, get hung up without a script, and the show would fall apart. But my fellow-actors were wonderful. They held scripts for me, marked my part, helped me in and out of difficult situations and contributed all the encouragement and support anyone could have asked. After a bumpy, tentative beginning, I was soon entrenched as a professional actor, working regularly and earning an adequate annual income.
At present I appear regularly on many CBC drama programs which originate in Torontothe Sunday night Stage series, Ford'Theatre, Cross Section, CRC Farm and School broadcasts are a few—and, although I calculate I’ve appeared on more than a thousand radio programs since I began, I have yet to be hung up on a show because of no arms.
With this achievement I had come a long way from those difficult and discouraging days when I was so sure there would never be anything in life for me. I had licked many of the toughest problems of physical and financial dependence. There still remained one very important question to be answered before I could enjoy complete confidence in myself. Could I, like anyone else, live the life of a married man?
One early encounter, soon after my accident, had frightened me away from becoming too attached to any one girl. There was a girl in our neighborhood I had known for years and liked very much. I saw a good deal of her after I lost my arms until one day her father asked me to stop seeing her. He told me he was afraid it might develop into something serious and, in my position, it wouldn’t be fair to expect marriage. That was the last time I even considered the idea, until I met Pat.
Pat Gihson was a dark-eyed intense girl whom I met at the communitycentre play group. She came to a play reading one night and sat quietly off from the others for almost the entire evening. Because I now understood so well what that feeling of shyness could mean I went over to talk with her, to try and help her feel more at ease with us. Later we took the same streetcar home and, on the way, stopped for coffee and a long talk.
Slowly, over a period of months, our friendship developed until one day we realized we were in love. Marriage still seemed an impractical affair for me, even though both of us wanted it more than anything else in the world.
The following year my father died suddenly and I was forced to make the decision. There were many things Effie et ldn’t do for me so Pat and I decide to take the chance, and we got marr. d.
For thrv ï years our marriage worked wonderfully well. It was the one thing I needed to complete my readjustment. During those years she taught me a sense of responsibility and integrity
that I had never known before, that I might never have learned without her.
In our fourth year we ran into trouble —trouble that had nothing to do with my armless situation-—and we decided the wisest thing was to call it quits. Since our divorce we have been, if anything, better friends than ever before, and I shall always be grateful for the help and confidence Pat gave me during those difficult years.
This year I married again. Iris, my wife, is a commercial artist who is continuing her daytime job. Still, she ' manages to find the time to look after the apartment and take care of the many things I need help with. We share our apartment with a radio actor, Les Rubie, who is able to fill in effectively doing little things for me while | Iris is away.
With all my progress toward uncom¡ plicated everyday living, I realize my life today is still far from what can be called “normal living.” I know that ; as long as 1 live I will have to plan every moment of every day so that ! when I need help I will be near someone j who can do the necessary things for me. No matter where I want to go ! I must arrange things so that there will be a friend handy to feed me at j mealtimes, someone who will put on a coat for me when it is raining, someone who can take me to the toilet.
The Things We Take for Granted
Around my own apartment things are comparatively simple. Iris shaves me and gets my breakfast before leaving for work; Les attends to the I bathroom and dressing chores sometime during the morning. After this, | I can manage fairly well by myself.
I can light my own cigarettes by picking up a match in my mouth striking it, and laying it down at an angle in an ash tray. I can even feed myself a prepared lunch by manipulating my artificial arm with my knee, j spooning up the food with a special spoon and fork which I can attach to ¡ the hand. In restaurants, however, I find it more convenient and quicker to let someone else feed me. Together with the telephone, my books and the radio, I find I can spend any solitary hours quite agreeably.
True, there are times when I chafe under some of the conditions my situation dictates. For example, it’s sometimes annoying to have to get up at an early hour so I can be shaved and dressed while there’s someone around to do it. In the winter I often have to leave the house hours before I want to, because there will be no one to put on my overcoat and rubbers if I wait until later. Sometimes, too, I long to go off for a day in the country all by myself, and I know this will never be practical.
But, when I stop to consider, none of these things are really important compared with what I’m still able to get out of life. I have learned to appreciate being able to do many things that others merely take for granted.
Just after the last war I heard about a young air force veteran in our neighj borhood who committed suicide because he’d lost both his arms in an airplane crash. I wish I had been able | to talk to him. I could have told him that living without arms needn’t be the | hopeless affair it seems at first. Your own ingenuity and strength, plus the help of generous and understanding people, can help you achieve almost any important thing you set out to do.
One of my friends smilingly refers to me as Canada’s most offhand actor. His hands are only two of the hundreds that help me live a happy useful life without arms. -*•