My current prosthetic knee has a removable battery with LED indicators to let me know how much longer I can expect to walk before I run out of power. These 5 green lights never cease to amuse my 5-year-old daughter. She comes home from school, lifts up my pant leg, and says, “How many lights?” She then pushes the button and proudly announces “Five!” or “four!” Or less, excitedly, with a hint of concern in her voice, “Three.” Or, with the tired, exasperated voice of a parent whose child refuses to learn from their mistakes, “Two.” or “One.”
While my prosthetic knee contains both noise and vibration-based warning systems when battery power gets too low, DEAD – the Daughter Energy Assessment Drill – is something that I may refer to Research & Development for further evaluation. It’s less reliable than the more traditional warnings, but much cuter. And it also allows me to ask my daughter to pick up whatever’s inevitably on the floor by my feet – usually something pink that belongs to her – as she gets onto both knees to perform her check. It’s the proverbial “two-fer.”
As an amputee parent, My life is littered with stories like these. My kids have grown up knowing no other reality than that of a dad who puts his leg on every morning in much the same way they put on their pants. And they, in turn, have shaped my life as an individual with limb loss in fundamental ways.
For example, when I was a childless new amputee, my first socket featured my family’s colorful Scottish tartan. Excellent concept. Much less excellent when you actually saw it. Then, as a big soccer fan and former player, I went with the U.S. soccer team’s jersey, a rather hideous synthetic weave designed to look like denim with white stars. But then my wife and I became parents. Boy number one was born in 1998, followed by number two in 2001.
So subsequent sockets featured Spiderman, Batman, The Fantastic Four, Superman, and Ben 10 (my younger son loved this animated series about a kid who can morph into various forms of alien life). The most recent iteration is the Iron Man socket, which I got to unveil to my younger son and his compatriots, the comic-book image generating “oohs” and “aahs” typically reserved for the release of a new video game.
My boys are the primary beneficiaries of this trend towards socket-as-entertainment. My daughter is less fortunate. While she can (and often does) ask me for anything that pops into her head – and I, being the typical father, generally give her whatever it is she’s asking for – this is one area where I won’t relent. I will leave it to some other, better amputee father to wear a Hello Kitty or Barbie socket. I have my limits.
But unlike my boys, who have shown comparatively little interest in the mechanics of socket suspension, my daughter spent about 8 months learning the ins and outs of how my prosthesis stays on my body. At age four, she understood not only that the screw-in valve was a small but important part of the prosthesis, but also how to screw it into the socket herself. As I got dressed, she would wait patiently on the floor for the right moment and would then jump up excitedly, saying, “My turn!” The first few months were a drag, as she couldn’t thread the valve into the housing. So it actually was a two-person job: she would misthread; I would thread it correctly; she would turn it just far enough so that it wouldn’t fall out; I would screw it in the rest of the way. But she gradually figured it out, and even progressed to the point where she could screw it in so that it didn’t require any further tightening. I’m not quite sure how this skill will help her later in life, but I’m hoping there’s a section on the SAT that’s applicable.
On another front, I subjected all of my kids to potential risks that, in retrospect, should have triggered a call to Social Services. Question: how does an amputee carry his toddlers when not wearing a prosthesis? Answer: by holding them with two hands and hopping. This was perhaps not the wisest parenting decision I ever made. Fortunately for them, however, I retired from that sport with a perfect record: zero falls and zero drops. (Or if there were any, we struck our heads too hard on the fall to remember anything.) I have, however, had the cops drop in to check on me before.
My oldest son, at the age of 3, managed to dial 911 without me knowing. I’m assuming it wasn’t much of a conversation – just a connection, 10-20 seconds of nothing, and then a hang up. I took him upstairs for a bath, removed my prosthesis (and dress pants), and started to soap him up. At which point I noticed that my dog was barking frantically. The “L” shape of my house allowed me to look into my kitchen from the second floor bathroom window. That’s when I noticed flashlights moving through the darkened downstairs. In my underwear, I hopped to the top of the staircase, and shouted, “Hello?” (Yes, I am the guy who, in the horror movie, when confronted with every telltale sign that a murderer lurks nearby, broadcasts his whereabouts, effectively putting a “Kill Me Here & Now” sandwich board sign on his body.)
Two of Nassau County’s finest materialized below me, inquiring as to whether everything was all right. And I can only imagine the stories back at the precinct when they described the one legged guy, in his underwear, balancing at the top of the stairs. You’ll notice that I didn’t hop with my son to the top of the stairs.
That would have been unsafe.
No, I instead left my 3 year-old unsupervised in the bathtub while I disposed of the police.
Then there’s my middle son. He’s a bit of a hoarder. If they had a kids’ version of that increasingly-popular TV show, he’d qualify. When you go into his bedroom and start sifting through the debris, it’s like an archeology dig. Each new layer reveals another era in his development.
His desire to keep everything extends to others’ stuff as well. So when I graduated from one socket to another, he asked for the Fantastic Four as a keepsake. I complied. And then he, ever the clown, began running around the house with the socket on his head to entertain us all. He thought this the acme of comedic achievement until I reminded him exactly which parts of my body the socket regularly – and intimately – touches. If your kids resist taking baths or showers, put an old AK socket on their heads. Effective and efficient.
Limb loss has changed how I evaluate what my kids do. Effort counts much more than actual outcomes now, because having everything end up perfect isn’t what you learn from. It’s how (or whether) you choose to fight through the challenges that matter.
But the flip side of that is that I’ve got a short fuse when my children get frustrated with an activity. I can’t deal with them when, rather than try to push through a difficult situation, they lose focus and start complaining. Of course, they’re only doing what all kids do, but I reflexively snap when I see it. (The irony, of course, is that instead of practicing what I preach, and continuing to work my way through this frustration, I blow a gasket, therefore proving either that I’m no better than a 12 year-old or they’re no better than a 41 year-old, take your pick.) So I have to constantly work on trying to rein in my emotions, while simultaneously encouraging them to stretch a little harder, work a little longer, to get to endgame. It’s a balancing act, and one that I’m not always successful at.
I also relate differently to my kids when it comes to physical activity. I always imagined myself as the kind of dad who would be out there after school and on the weekends playing games with them. While I do some of that, the nature of my interaction with them is much more developmental than it otherwise would have been. Because I can’t drive off the ground with both legs when taking a jump shot, because I can’t move laterally all that well on a soccer field, because I can’t freely demonstrate how your hips are supposed to torque when you swing a baseball bat, I’ve had to become much more conscious of working with my children, collaborating with them, encouraging them, than simply showing by example.
And yet, at the same time, there are physical activities I’ve engaged in because my kids want me to, and these have often reminded me how much I can do. My middle son and daughter implored me to take on a 40 foot climbing wall when he had his birthday party at an indoor climbing center a few years ago. With the prosthesis acting as more of a hindrance than help, the fact that I scaled the wall and returned to earth wobbly-kneed (singular) and arms shaking gave me a rush I’ll never forget. Similarly, the look in my kids’ eyes when they realized their dad could still get up on one waterski last year gave me a real sense of accomplishment.
More important, I’m filled with pride when my kids, seeing other children or adults staring at my prosthesis, form a flank around me and start shooting nasty looks in the direction of the gapers. And not because I care one way or the other about how others view me, but rather, because it shows that my children view me as normal. They’re offended because I’m being looked at like an alien, when in fact, I’m just their dad.
I’ll end this where I started: with my daughter. She and I waited for her school bus a few weeks ago. She sat at the bottom of the driveway, legs against her chest, backpack threatening to topple her over backwards. She asked me, “Do you have to go away for work soon?” “I do, hon.”, I answered. “I have to go away next week.”
“Why do you have to go?”
“Because, I’m the only person at my company who can talk about what they need me to talk about.”
She looked at me. Her lips set and her eyebrows arched in the “Can you really be such a complete idiot?” way that signaled I had overlooked an apparently basic fact.
“Da-ad,” she said, breaking the word in half and dropping the pitch several notes lower on the second syllable, exasperation and the weariness of a hard-lived 5-year life underlying her speech. “You can’t be the only bald person at your job who can do it.”
I started laughing. “No, I’m not,” I said. “But I am the only bald, one-legged person at my job who can.
She looked at me again, this time innocently and without pretense. “But you don’t have one leg, daddy.”
“Why do you say that?” I asked.
“Because,” she responded, tapping first my right thigh, then my prosthesis, “see? One, two. You have two legs.” And with that, her school bus rounded the corner, she clambered up the steps that are too tall for her, and was gone.