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Strawberry Fields Forever: Finding Love With Limb Differences

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“Does this mean there’s no apartment?” I stood in the Strawberry Fields meadow and stared at John. He had called me during work to come meet a realtor at the corner of 72nd and Central Park West. We had talked of moving in together and John promised me he had found the ideal apartment. “Two bedrooms, two baths, steps from the park, in our range!” Could it be true? I was suspicious. I had learned there is no “perfect” apartment in New York. Something is always missing (size, no doorman location, light, etc.).

Not that I was a vision of perfection, anyway. Unlike anyone in my family before me, I was born with a condition called “ectrodactyly.” To my parents’ utter shock, I had only one finger on each hand, shortened forearms and one toe on each foot. These were the days before sonograms could prepare excited parents for the unexpected. I emerged during a winter blizzard in a peaceful state, appearing to stare calmly at everyone as they stared back in confusion. Whether I would be able to write, walk or function “normally” was, at best, up in the air.

Despite my condition, I grew up as a naturally optimistic, glass-half-full person. To my friends and family, I was that happy, outgoing friend who just happened to have a blatant physical difference. In that sense, I strove to assimilate. Whether it was playing trombone in band, being a cheerleader for our wrestling team, playing tennis with my father every week at a local park or basketball with my brothers and neighborhood kids, I longed to be like everyone else, even if I looked far from it.

My strategy had worked wonders until I became old enough to date. It became my biggest fear. Would there be a guy who would commit to me for the long-term? It was hard to fathom. In fact, most of the boys I encountered placed me in the friend-zone the minute they noticed my disfigurement. Somehow, not every boy was shallow and superficial and I had my first boyfriend in high school. I was smitten, yet our relationship was something he viewed as temporary.

The first week I entered college at the University of Wisconsin-Madison I met a sophomore on Langdon Street who seemed to like me. I was instantly attracted to him and giggled like the school girl I was, all the while keeping my hands stuffed into my pockets. After a few long and flirtatious phone calls, he asked me out to the movies. I found myself excited at the prospect of his calling, yet dreading the moment when I would have to reveal my small, imperfect limbs.

That Saturday night, when he came to pick me up for the walk down Main Street toward the theater, he tried to grab my hand. In response, I dug each hand deeper in my pockets, wanting to preserve, just a bit longer, the image in his mind of my normalcy. “Sorry, I’m freezing!” I explained. It was early September. That night, after he dropped me off, I ran up to my dorm room in the Towers and wept from shame until my pillow was soaked.

Whether you are dating me or simply a friend or family member, to walk down the street with me is to share in my daily experience of endless stares and curious, often inappropriate, commentary from strangers. It could be a tough ask, especially for a man seeking the perfect mate. Yet here I was, after less than a year of dating John, going to meet a realtor. We had met in the fall of 1997, at his parents’ synagogue on Yom Kippur. Although it was a set up by mutual friends (an unusual venue, but they knew we both could be guilted into showing up at the same place), I was still surprised by his immediate interest and earnest, growing affection.

At that time in my life, I was desperate for unconditional love but unable to treat myself with the same regard. Despite much professional accomplishment as an anti-money laundering attorney on Wall Street, I had spent far too much effort hiding my hands in public and feeling ashamed of my physical difference. It is no wonder when I look back at photos from my youth, that in every album, my hands are mainly hidden.

After our initial meetings at the synagogue and breaking the fast, John began to call me and for the next few weeks we’d have lengthy and engaging conversations. He is also a lawyer and we had much in common; he was the best combination of brilliant, good-natured and funny. But every time we’d hang up, John would close with, “OK, talk to you soon…” without asking me to meet again. I wasn’t shocked of course.  It was easy to presume that just like so many other men in my life, John had put me in the friend-zone. Even so, I noticed my feelings were growing. I decided I had nothing to lose. After our next call I put the question to him directly and he proposed a date for that very weekend. Did he really want to? Did I guilt him into it? It didn’t matter. I wanted to see where it would go.

We went to a performance at Lincoln Center and then out for a bite. The evening started with my hands shoved into my pockets whenever possible. I don’t know if I was looking for magic, but what I found at the restaurant was simply a level of comfort I hadn’t felt with another man. Before I realized it, I found myself speaking freely, using my utensils unself-consciously, and forgetting to worry what he might be thinking. When we parted, I climbed into a cab and looked back out the window. I caught John staring back. I knew he wasn’t staring at my imperfection. He was looking directly in my eyes in a way I’d never seen anyone look at me. I swooned, just
a bit.

John’s reflection

Meg and I were introduced just before services began. I remember being struck by her raven hair, dark eyes and wide smile. She was one of the prettiest women I had ever seen. Then I noticed her forearms were shortened and she had a single finger where a palm and five fingers would have been. She wasn’t the first person I had seen with limb differences, but still I was confused. I knew I found her attractive and appealing, especially her outgoing nature. But I didn’t know if I wanted to put aside her physical differences and try to get to know her. Why should I? Wouldn’t this relationship be more difficult than I needed? It’s not like I wasn’t meeting women pretty easily in New York.  

I sat through services that night trying to focus on the Yom Kippur theme of repentance, but my mind kept drifting to Meg. Later I told a friend that I was supposed to be repenting that night for my sins, but then I met Meg and started dreaming up new ones. When she effectively challenged me to ask her out I was impressed by her self-confidence even though I didn’t like being forced to face my own preconceptions and shallowness. I realized then that her combination of strength, personality and beauty, as well as our common backgrounds, made her someone I really wanted to know and spend time with. 

I wondered also how she functioned on her own. I thought, what does someone do with the routine problems of everyday life when they aren’t as mechanically capable as, say, I am? But then, on one of our early dates, Meg treated me to a home-cooked meal.  She was a talented and creative cook. I soon understood that she had figured out how to do everything she needed to do. Her solutions were always uniquely suited to her two-fingered abilities, but they got the job done. It wasn’t long before I stopped noticing how she did things and just accepted her. 

It had been nine months since our first date. I emerged from the subway and headed for the corner of 72nd Street and the Park. A red rose was sticking awkwardly out of John’s briefcase, but I didn’t think much of it. The realtor hadn’t arrived and John suggested we check out the neighborhood. While I began to head west to find the nearest grocery store, John grabbed my small hand and suggested we head into Central Park. Standing in a small clearing in Strawberry Fields, I learned there was no apartment.

Instead, the person who would become the love of my life took a knee and held out a rose and a ring for my single finger. In that romantic moment, little did either of us know that my condition was genetic and in years to come two of our three children would share it. But we would go through it all together. The unconditional love from John forced my own reckoning with my imperfections and ultimately prepared me for everything to come.

Upon learning the “perfect apartment” wasn’t real, I had to laugh at my hopeful gullibility. I accepted John’s proposal nevertheless. After all, landing the perfect man for me was a much better deal.

Meg Zucker is a lawyer in New York and founder of Don’t Hide It Flaunt It, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization that works to advance understanding, tolerance and mutual respect for people’s differences.

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Thinkstock photo by Exploited Fairy.

Originally published: August 22, 2017
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