The Next Chapter

Peter Kavanagh on learning to walk three times

Peter Kavanagh talks about his memoir, The Man Who Learned to Walk Three Times.
A photo of Peter Kavanagh after his final surgery. (Submitted by Peter Kavanagh)
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Peter Kavanagh was diagnosed with polio in 1953, at the height of the terrifying epidemic in Canada and just two years before Jonas Salk's vaccine was invented. The disease ravaged the muscles in his lower left leg and left him with constant, "soul-wrecking pain" for most of his life.

Kavanagh's book, The Man Who Learned to Walk Three Timesis a moving memoir about how polio forced him to learn to walk as a toddler, as a preteen, and as a 60-year-old man. 

ON HOW POLIO MADE HIM AN "INTERIOR" PERSON

"At the very basic level, what polio did was it paralyzed my left leg. It destroyed the muscles, nerves, tendons, what have you, in the bottom half of my leg and it made walking a remarkably awkward thing for the entirety of my life up until now. Polio meant I spent large periods of my life in a form of social isolation; that is, either away from my family in a hospital, away from my family in a room for a year lying flat on my back in a body cast. Polio made me remarkably interior person who was very comfortable, and very, very much at ease with solitude and contemplation and reflection."

ON WEARING RUNNING SHOES FOR THE FIRST TIME AS A KID

"These sneakers are like sheer delight. They are the epitome of freedom...of course, and what I really want to do is I really want to play with the kids who live in the neighbourhood. That didn't go all that well. The kids I normally played with in the neighbourhood, they decided to pelt me with rotten fruit. I still sort of mull over why they pelted me with rotten fruit. But it may have something to do with the fact that they pelted each other with a lot of rotten fruit and from time to time. I guess it was what boys did at the time, but all of that day still sort of reverberates in my memory as a crystal moment, which everything that is ease and freedom and out of restriction is embodied in those running shoes."

Peter Kavanagh walking by the place he contracted polio. (Submitted by Peter Kavanagh.)

ON LEARNING TO WALK AS A TODDLER, PRE-TEEN, AND 60-YEAR-OLD

"When you're a toddler, you have no idea how difficult learning to walk is. All you have as a toddler is an unending source of determination. When you learn to walk as a 12-year-old, you have nowhere near the determination that a toddler has, and unfortunately, you also understand much more than a toddler does, how hard walking really is. So that's really tough. When I was 12, I told myself, 'You can do this. You can learn how to do this.'  And I was lucky and I was right.

When you're 60 years old, you actually have a sense of perspective. You actually understand that some things in life are more important than other things. When you're 60 you understand, 'You know what? Spending a few hours a day, spending a lot of time a day…trying to learn how to walk is pretty much your job...So in a strange way, you actually, as a 60-year-old, develop the type of stubbornness that a toddler has."

ON WHAT HE LEARNED WHILE WRITING HIS BOOK

"There's always something deeper. There's always something more complicated, uglier, more pleasant, more beautiful, quieter, more painful, more hopeful beneath the surface of what we think is something very obvious."

Peter Kavanagh's comments have been edited and condensed.