Plaster Cast ~ essay by Joy Wright

Just before my thirteenth birthday, my mother broke her leg in four places. Spiral fractures, osteoporosis. The healing did not go well. She was in a cast for thirteen months. For the first few months, she was in a cast up to her hip. When the breaks in the thigh bones healed, the cast was made smaller, over the knee. In the beginning, Medicaid paid for a home health-aid to come for a few hours two or three times a week, bathing my mom, cleaning, shopping and doing some cooking. A friend of my mom’s would also come cook once or twice a week, leaving only the evenings, weekends, and overnights to me and my younger sister. That help, however, became less and less, and once she was no longer in the hip cast, it was just us. My sister and I cared for her the best we could, grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning, and taking turns sleeping on the floor beside her bed. We entertained her by playing games, like Clue, in her bed, or playing music for her. My mom read that deep musical vibrations could heal a break, so I used to hold the stand-up bass that I played against her cast very carefully each night and play symphonies, or jazz. In the summer we would put her in a swimsuit and push her in a wheelchair the eight blocks to the city park so that she could sit by the pool with a wet towel draped around her shoulders to keep her cool, and my sister and I could swim with our friends.

That was when she wasn’t too drugged-out on painkillers, either the ones prescribed for her, or the ones bought for her on the street by a friend. She was always in pain, and almost always in crisis. Sometimes it’s hard to say what part of it was her drug-and-alcohol problem and her mental illness, and what part of it was the fact that she was a poor woman on Medicaid. Poor women on Medicaid don’t get the best help. From the first day that they put the just-over-the-knee cast on her, she complained that it hurt worse and that the leg was at the wrong angle. It did look funny. She went back to the doctor over and over again, she went to the hospital, but no one would listen to her.

One afternoon, she and I made a plan. I was going to fix it. I was the fixer; I took care of her and I solved the problems. I would solve this one. We decided I was taking the cast off.

We had one of those old, clawfoot bathtubs that my mom had long ago painted black with gold dust along the bottom and big gold claw feet. There were no working light fixtures in the bathroom, so we lit candles all around as the day was heading to nightfall. We filled the tub with warm water, and we put her in. We waited for the cast to soften in the water, thinking it would come off fairly easily, but it did not come off as easily as planned. We needed new plan. My little sister found a hammer and chisel in the basement of the house where we rented the second floor, and the cast removal began. I had to be very careful because, of course, there was a broken leg under there. I just tapped very slowly, tap…tap, tap…tap, peeling back bits of plaster cast one small layer at a time. My sister was my assistant, making instant coffee, bringing pain medication and snacks, tending to the candles, and running more hot water as it cooled.

As odd as it seems, it wasn’t a miserable experience. It was scary, yes, but not miserable. She had this idea that if that cast came off her leg, she could walk. I knew this wasn’t true. My thought was that maybe there was something really wrong with the cast, and if I could get it off her leg, I could stick her in an ambulance, send her to the hospital, and they would put on a better cast. She needed me, she trusted me, and I felt like I was doing the right thing. My sister agreed with me, assisting every step of the way without being asked.

This took hours. It was light when we began, getting darker and darker as we worked. Eventually, as the plaster became thinner, I got closer to her leg. I began to work on the cast with scissors, cutting a little at a time. I was afraid of nicking her leg at first. Quickly, however, I realized that her leg had become so tiny and shriveled, that there was plenty of room for me to cut. Eventually, I pulled the whole thing off. There she was in the bathtub, completely naked, sitting in plaster-filled water, and her cast was off. We cheered! Then she screamed. We didn’t have a phone, but our upstairs neighbors did. My sister ran for pain pills, and I ran upstairs to call the ambulance.

The faces of the two young paramedics who answered the call were tight and wide-eyed. My mother was still in the plaster-filled bath tub, naked, screaming, with only candles for lighting. The cast lay on the ground next to the hammer and chisel. His face reddening with each word, the big one asked me,

“What happened here?”

“I took her cast off.”

“WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT?” He was shouting now above my mother’s screaming, the heat palpable in his voice.

“Because she wanted me to.”


I remained calm, “I think the issue right now is that she needs to get to the hospital quickly.”

We all got to work, the paramedics hoisting her out of the tub and onto a stretcher, my sister and I throwing a tie-dye dress over her head. They took her down the dark stairs, her screaming and crying echoing back up to us, though we could no longer see her.

My sister and I cleaned the bathroom and blew out what was left of the candles. With nothing to do but wait, we made bologna sandwiches, scooped ice cream, and settled down in front of the TV.

It was several hours before my Mom came home, but she arrived in a Medicaid cab with a big smile on her face. She had on one of the fiberglass casts that were brand new at the time. It was small, below the knee, and a significantly lighter weight. The doctor said that her leg had been healing at the wrong angle, and that was why the pain was worse than it should have been. Now the cast was right.

So, yes, Mr. Paramedic, I do think it was a good idea.

Joy Wright is a social justice, anti-violence activist, poet, storyteller, and single queer mom to two beautiful teenagers, a dog, a cat and two guinea pigs. She works as a non-profit fundraiser by day and spends her weekends playing in an all-mom garage band called the Hot Mamas and driving around Chicagoland not-so-cleverly disguised as a soccer mom. You can see Joy telling stories or reading poetry around Chicago, including at Louder Than a Mom, Do Not Submit, and SHE Gallery events. Publications include Voice of Eve, sinister wisdom, ESME and a regular dating piece in Rebellious Magazine.

Show Joy some love via PayPal at joyre65(at)yahoo(dot)com.