On a crisp spring day in 1997, I walked onto the track in a warmup suit. With the change in weather, people had come out in force to work off the extra weight a winter indoors had lathered onto their midsections. Every 20 to 30 meters, men and women walked and jogged on the orange rubber lanes that separated the football field from the rest of the world. Kids played in the long jump pit and leapt on and off the padding in the pole vault landing area.
I pulled off my running pants to warm up, exposing the black metal and carbon graphite below my prosthetic socket. This was not a decision I came to lightly. In fact, my thoughts about a cosmetic covering for my prosthesis were only slightly less complicated and intricate than splitting the atom.
Phase 1: Silo Creation
First, I split my life into three silos. Silo #1 (Professional Silo) housed my Monday to Friday existence: putting on a suit, going to work, coming home, going out to dinner, etc. Silo #2 (Jock Silo) was the repository for my athletic life: working out, running, and lifting weights. To further complicate things, I had a third silo that came into play when wearing shorts but not engaging in athletics (the troublesome “Summer Silo”).
Since my self-perception at that time in my life rested on an isolated moment or two of athletic glory in high school, I defined myself primarily as a “Silo 2 Guy.” The fact that I came to this conclusion five years after graduating from college only proved that the staggering amounts of money my parents spent to send me to an institution of higher learning had, sadly, been wasted.
With my personality now split into three distinct categories, I then entered into a detailed analysis of how a cosmetic cover would work (or not) in each scenario.
Phase 2: Professional Silo Analysis
In this silo, I wore pants, usually sitting behind a desk. My primary activity consisted of walking to and from my car four times a day: parking lot to office in the morning; office to parking lot for lunch; parking lot back to office after lunch; and office to parking lot for the return commute home. That meant that out of the roughly 16 hours a day I wore my prosthesis, I usually spent a total of no more than 18 minutes walking any distance. Faced with this clear record of relative inactivity, I did what any intelligent man would do: ignore the evidence.
I organized my life only around those 18 minutes. What would people think when they saw me walking? (After all, when a guy in a suit walks out of an office building, doesn’t everyone watch every step he takes? Especially when the suit comes from that now-defunct retailer, Today’s Man?) Masking any sign of my prosthesis, my weakness, became my primary goal in the Professional Silo. So a foam cover was essential.
Just to be clear: I had decided that wearing a cosmetic cover under my pants (?!?) was critical in the professional silo. Because the Entire World cared about what I looked like, but only from the left knee down. Good God, in retrospect, it’s amazing I could tolerate myself for more than 10 minutes without sticking my head in the oven.
Phase 3: Jock Silo Analysis
The Jock Silo presented an interesting quandary, as it coupled the mating falcons of ego and vanity in that plummeting death spiral from the heavens towards the earth below. On the one hand, going out in shorts without a cover would undoubtedly draw some level of public attention to me. This violated every principle on which my Professional Silo policy rested.
But on the other hand, if I ran in my prosthesis with a cover on, the lurching, compromised gait would invite scrutiny, as there would be no apparent explanation for an otherwise normal looking 26 year-old spastically and slowly convulsing around a track. Faced with this anomaly, people would, I assumed, try and figure out what was wrong with me, and having no quick and easy visual explanation, conclude that I was simply part of that class of humanity that lacks coordination.
And that was simply too much for me to bear. Better to arrive at the track with a full entourage, fireworks, and Michael Buffer announcing my entry – “Over here in the disabled corner, with a career record of 0-1 – his only loss coming at the hands of the still-undisputed champion of human-auto warfare, the Honda Civic – from Long Island, New York, David “the Limbless Lawyer” McGiiiiiiiiiiiiiillllllllllllllll!” – than be thought an unathletic oaf. That settled it – in the Jock Silo I would expose my prosthesis for the world’s consideration and wonderment.
The inconsistency between Phase 2 and Phase 3 did not trouble me in the least, proving that Delusion and I are fast friends.
Phase 4: Seasonal Silo Analysis
So what the hell was I now supposed to do during the summer?
Wearing pants in 95 degree heat was out. For some reason that psychologists have yet to uncover, I spent most of my youth trying that out, wearing blue jeans and turtlenecks in 90+ degree heat through July and August. I have a dim recollection that I thought that shorts and tee shirts were, for some reason, uncool looking. Guided by my unerring fashion sense, I therefore wore long sleeve shirts and Levis through the summer, content that I had safely avoided appearing odd to the world at large. (In retrospect, perhaps this was a kind of Owen Meany-like example of a person’s oddities as a child preparing them for a life-defining moment in their adulthood.) Whatever the cause of my childhood mental problems, I wasn’t going to sweat through the hottest months of the year just to avoid showing my left leg.
But wearing a cosmetic cover with shorts was a lousy option also. While the shape of the cover was ok, the stocking that covered the foam was noticeable and somewhat less than masculine. And the off-the-shelf “skin” I had gotten with my first prosthesis looked like something a snake exposed to toxic sludge had sloughed off a year earlier.
Trapped between these equally undesirable options, I defaulted back to my comfort zone, the Jock Silo, deciding to forgo the cover when wearing shorts. I rationalized the decision on the ground that I would rather have people stare at a metal leg then at a flesh-colored/shaped one that still clearly wasn’t “right.”
With the Four-Phase Silo Self-Identification and Categorization test now complete, let’s go back to the track.
After an hour or so of training I walked onto the football field that rested on the inside perimeter of the rubberized moat, cooling down and getting ready to leave. A young boy, probably 4 years old, walked up to me, pulled towards the prosthesis as if it were a tractor beam. He stopped about 10 feet away. I looked at him and smiled. I was getting used to these encounters. Usually they involved lots of staring, some pointing and whispers, and in the case of kids, questions that were easily answered and that seemingly satisfied their quest for understanding.
Then there was this lad. He pointed at my prosthesis and shouted, “that’s asgusting!” and ran away.
I was stunned. And angry. I considered chasing the little neanderthal down and stuffing his face into the grass to teach him that you couldn’t race around insulting strangers . . . while using poor grammar to boot. Unfortunately, however, that was out of the realm of possibility, as he moved with the relative speed of a cheetah to my sloth.
Confronting his parents, wherever they were, struck me as a poor backup plan, as I quickly concluded that if they had begotten such an intolerant little twit, perhaps they might share an equal but more eloquent distaste for me. (“Jimmy, you shouldn’t say ‘asgusting.’ It’s proper English to call The Freak a ‘hideously deformed, twisted shadow of humanity.’ We’re raising you to insult people with flair and panache. Your stilted efforts are an embarrassment to our family’s good name!”)
The two words that leapt out of the kid’s mouth ate away at me not only for the rest of that day, but through the coming weeks and months. “What kind of creature would say that?” I repeatedly asked myself. I thought of all the clever ripostes I’d shoot back with the next time that I ran into my three foot tall tormentor, determined to browbeat him into understanding the wrath of the one legged man.
A few weeks later, at a fast-food chain, another child walked up to me, transfixed by the prosthesis. (I was in Phase 4 mode.) His father, horrified, but transfixed in his seat, watched. The kid looked at me and said, “I feel bad.” while pointing at my leg. I said, “Don’t feel bad – it looks different than yours but it works pretty well.” He considered this for a moment, nodded, and walked back to his father who mouthed the words, “Thank you!” to me from his seat. He no doubt had visions of the crazy amputee snapping in McDonalds, screaming at his son, thereby requiring years of therapy to undo the child’s pervasive terror of all people using crutches, wheelchairs, canes, prosthetics, or any other type of assistive device.
But unlike that exclamation of Grammatically Impaired Twit, this child’s fixation and statement didn’t bother me in the least. And I’ve wondered since then, why was that the case?
I now think the answer has much more to do with me than the children. G.I. Twit’s statement resonated because at some subconscious level I feared he was right. It was, in one way of thinking, “asgusting” to have a body part replaced with a poor facsimile of the original. When I saw myself reflected in his mind, I saw something monstrous, and I reacted by wanting to exact revenge on him, rather than acknowledging this reality.
Alternatively, the silent “Thank you!” from Fast Food Boy’s father was the confirmation that I was still a normal person, even with a prosthesis attached to my left leg. Seeing myself through his eyes, I was a part of – not apart from – “regular” people.
I’m indebted to G.I. Twit and F.F. Boy/F.F. Dad for teaching me something about myself. I’m a slow learner, but I think I now get it.