Learning from the wipeout

The cop stood over me, takeout food in his hand, frozen. The Academy no doubt spent little time training the Best and Brightest about how to deal with a one-legged man sprawled across the entry of an Italian restaurant, crutches strewn wildly between the exterior and interior doors.

His eyes darted between me, my wife, and the floor, time slowing down as the three of us looked awkwardly at each other. Clearly, getting my damaged body off the ground would require something beyond our respective abilities to grasp: a car jack; a crane; a forklift? Good God, this was like quantum physics. After a few seconds that felt like 30, the cop took one giant step over my crutches and out the door. Three paces beyond the entrance and he might as well have been a mile away.

Though obvious in retrospect, no one had ever suggested to me that wet crutch tips and a tile floor could produce this result. Life lessons piled up around me, whether I wanted them or not.

I had become an amputee roughly a month earlier. I had dealt with phantom pain (God bless morphine) and phantom sensation (ditto that, Percoset, and curse the doctor who switched me from that lovely little pill to its feeble cousin, Tylenol with codeine, a transition akin to attending a concert where the Beatles play a transcendent 30 minute set followed by 3 hours of Milli Vanilli). I had triumphantly (I thought) handled everything thrown at me by the PT’s and OT’s at inpatient rehab. Most of all, I had survived. The only thing standing between me and a return to the familiar patterns of my old life was the prosthesis that would eventually supplant my crutches.

But trying to figure out exactly how the ground and my face had become so closely acquainted so quickly, now I had to deal with a new, unfamiliar feeling. In the space of those few seconds that the police officer towered over me, his face expressionless but his eyes jerking self-consciously around the small space sealing us off from the parking lot on one side, and the restaurant on the other, I was suddenly transformed into a cripple. Pitiable. And in that suspended moment while the officer balanced in the palm of his hand (I retrospectively imagine) penne with chicken and broccoli in pink cream sauce, the heat burning through the bottom of the rounded tin onto his hand, I foresaw a future decidedly different from the construct I had built, stone by stone, into a wall to protect me from this moment.

A future consisting of an unbroken line of people sadly walking by me, misplaced sympathy clouding their eyes as they gazed upon the poor, broken man. Some of these people might kneel down, smile as they touched my shoulder, letting me know how deeply they felt my pain, and then walk away feeling better about themselves even as they blindly reminded me of my freakish appearance. More, however, would freeze for half a second, I imagined, like Pasta Cop, and then dart off, their eyes consciously looking at anything other than the absence defining that man. This was not part of my Great Plan to Reclaim My Life.

I had blasted my way through the initial weeks of rehab without a hitch. I had somehow convinced myself that the molecules in the empty space below my truncated femur had composed themselves into the shape of a knee, shin, and foot that everyone else could see, even as I knotted my pants in that empty space to keep the cuffs from getting caught under my crutches. (A happenstance that’s the one-legged man’s equivalent of tripping over untied shoelaces.) As I stretched my memory back through the fog of painkillers and already-forgotten trauma, I realized that I had only seen myself in a full-length mirror once since my failed attempt to help a stranded motorist.

Moving from one piece of workout equipment to another while rehabbing a few weeks after my accident, I confronted the legless version of myself for the first time. Covered in sweat, I looked for all the world like a young athlete rehabbing from a torn ACL but for the fact that I had no ACL . . . or MCL . . . or tibia, fibula, ankle, foot, and a variety of other things that suddenly struck me as quite useful, even though I had paid little attention to them over the previous 26 years.

My wife, seeing me freeze in front of the mirror, and hearing me say – voice coming from somewhere outside my body – “Now that looks strange” – slid quickly behind me, her front to my back. She slid her blue-jeaned leg and running shoe into the void, filling the empty space as I stared at this new version of myself. And for me . . . at that particular moment in time . . . in that place . . . her simple act of fulfillment made me think of myself as a complete person again.

“Coooool,” I said to the reflection staring back at me, wearing a woman’s running shoe and denims on its left leg. And I crutched my way to the next piece of equipment, New Me safely pushed from the front of my consciousness.

The reader learns a few important things about the twisted mess of humanity that is Dave from this excerpt. First, as a newly-consecrated member of the limb-loss community, he cared – passionately and vehemently cared – about how others perceived him. (The fact that I refer to myself in the third person in the preceding sentence probably says something even more meaningful than the conclusions I’m trying, largely unsuccessfully, to elucidate. “Clearly,” – the pipe-smoking, bespectacled psychotherapist who-never-did-but-probably-should-have-analyzed me would say, pipe stabbing the air for emphasis while sitting cross legged in his chair, Fred-Rogers-type pale blue cardigan sweater riding up over his belt – “you see newly-amputated Dave as a separate person, an ‘other’, and the current version of you has disassociated yourself from that maimed construct.” [Portentous pause.] “Why do you think that is?”

(Fast-forward to present and look how healthy I now am, as revealed by the next sentences.) I cared passionately about how other perceived me. I needed to proclaim, announce, display to the world my normalcy, my membership in the race of regular people. And anything that threatened that reality sent bursts of panic through my mind. (Thank God, I’m cured!)

Intentionally-Jarring-Transition #1: A Story Within the Story Illustrating Bursts of Panic Through My Mind:

I cross the open expanse to my office for the first time since my accident. The wind that swept across the open fields of central Long Island in the 1800’s now explodes violently between modern office buildings so that my pants wrap bizarrely around the uncovered prosthesis beneath it. This is no ordinary wind.

This is The Wind that Exposes Frailties, so violent that on one occasion I have actually watched a woman pump her legs purposefully towards the buildings but somehow move backwards, a Nature-whipped moonwalk aborted only by her decision to clamp onto a light post and hang on with the desperation of the drowning sailor to broken driftwood fortuitously floating nearby. Her lifeboat materializes in the form of a large, trenchcoated man who grabs her arm and drags her, sherpa-like, towards safety.

The prosthesis swallows up my navy-green Dockers as I plod forward, leaning firmly into The Wind TEF. I know – know – that every person standing outside the Emerald City (my smug moniker for the green glass towers where, in 1997, I work) smoking their cigarettes are watching me, The Cripple, gimp his way into the building. They prop themselves up against the building, adhering their bodies to the glass walls to avoid getting swept up by The Wind TEF into the bluestone ocean I’m lurching across. I feel them watching me, the tension as acute as if they lined up on either side of me, a narrow gauntlet I have to traverse under their uncomfortably silent observation.

Intentionally-Jarring-Transition #2: Self-Observation Showing My Highly Functional Delusion:

Not seeing myself, not reflecting on how I looked, permitted me to delude myself into viewing my altered state as merely a minor injury that I needed to rehab, not a permanent disfigurement. The one time I did see myself stopped me in my tracks until my wife lent me her leg. (Figuratively.)

I am not suggesting that ignoring reality is the appropriate or best way to deal with limb loss. I am aware that I probably skipped all seven stages of the seven stages of grief. (My wife reminds me from time to time, probably only half joking, that she continues to wait for me to crash when the reality of my situation finally hits me.) I am, however, merely reporting about my transition from Old Me to New Me.

Not-So-Jarring-Final-Transition #3: A “Revelation” So Obvious it May not Qualify as Revelation:

Having a real support system around me – a wife who intuitively knew what was going through my head when I walked in front of that mirror, a physical therapist who taught me to focus on achieving definable goals, and a core group of family and friends who allowed me to see myself the same way the day after the accident as the day before, helped reinforce my delusion that New Me was no different than Old Me. And as I write that last sentence, a new (and obvious (read, clichéd?)) conclusion, somewhat different from the one I intended to (p)reach, sets off the imaginary lightbulb over my head that glows brightly about twice a year (my useful thoughts are depressingly few and far between): the real delusion was thinking in the first place that who I was had fundamentally changed as a result of my accident. (Bells sound off and sirens whoop: cliché confirmed! Stifle gag reflex. Roll eyes towards heavens and, after long pause to evaluate whether reading further will induce actual vomiting or yield even more annoying, cloying, trite conclusions, proceed forward with mental note that any other purported epiphany will terminate this whole exercise.)

True, I looked different after the car separated me from my leg. I couldn’t move with the dancer-like grace that had attracted countless women to me in high school in college. (And by countless women, I refer to my wife, who fortunately for me, changed hair styles and colors frequently enough in college that people who didn’t know me well thought I had a bevy of similarly proportioned females at my beck and call.)

And I now struggled to cross the 100 yards from the parking lot to my office building. (Though those who saw me play soccer in the months before my accident might have claimed no discernable before/after difference. Have you ever seen a bunch of guys 5-15 years past college age playing soccer, most of them lacking the discipline/time to train on their own during the week? The first five minutes of each half are magical – crisp passes, men running to open space, power and grace exemplified. The other 80 minutes of play, however, devolve into a parody of The Beautiful Game, characterized by gasping people sprinting 20 yards, and then sucking wind for the next 5 minutes while play proceeds in the opposite direction. It’s a brutally depressing vision of lost youth, minds telling bodies what should be happening, but the motors seizing up like overheating cars. Watching this, alien observers would conclude that human beings magically derive their energy from the ends of their shorts, which they (the humans) convulsively lock onto with both hands, magically absorbing fuel from the fabric wrung violently between their fingers, heads bowed, powering up before the batteries fully discharge again on the next failed burst down the field.)

But beneath the everyday constructs I used to define myself – athlete, husband, lawyer, son, brother, man aspiring to great things but unlikely to achieve them – there was some other concept running deeper than Old Me and New Me that I clung to like grim death. Despite the terror that sometimes wrapped itself around me at night, despite my aversion to full-length mirrors, and despite my now-pathological self-awareness/paranoia about how others viewed me, the conviction (delusion?) somewhere in my subconscious that I was still fundamentally the same person drove me inexorably forward.

So . . .

With my remaining leg, I pushed my body back against the wall to the right of where I had fallen. I pulled the crutches across the slick tile to me. Probing and finding dry floor and mating it solidly with the rubber sole of my shoe, I pushed my spine into the wall and jacked my body up off the floor. And I sat down at a table with my wife and ordered dinner.

One thought on “Learning from the wipeout

  1. Dave – another great blog entry. Your Intentionally-Jarring-Transition #1 really resonated with me. Although, I have not been caught in a WTEF, we’ve all had our version of it. In fact, a similar familiar feeling washed over me the first time I read The Glass Menagerie. Look forward to the next one.

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