I saw a picture this week that triggered uncomfortable memories. The photo showed the hand of Mark Kelly, husband of wounded Representative Gabrielle Giffords, clasping the hand of his injured wife. And just in the left corner of the frame, in the area of Representative Giffords’ wrist, was white medical tape. The tape was the trigger.
I could suddenly smell the hospital, hear the buzz of constant background noise that invades your consciousness as a patient. I remembered the unending beep of bedside equipment.
And I was overcome with . . . not exactly sadness, but rather, a painful empathy.
The feeling of utter disconnection from reality that pervaded my existence as I looked at where my left leg and foot should be jumped out. I also remembered sitting in my office in the prosthetic facility I co-founded, speaking to parents of young kids who had undergone amputation, and the obvious terror that lay bare just underneath the veneer of their concerned but composed faces. And I thought of how Representative Giffords and her husband, no matter how smart they are, no matter how information they have from top-notch medical professionals, are, at their core, starting a journey that no one and nothing can adequately prepare them for, a transformative path that will probably feature moments of profound wonder and equally deep forays into despair.
That leads me to the real purpose of this post – frustration.
I write frequently about the positives I think I’ve been able to extract from my life with limb loss. For those of you who read my posts regularly, you know that I label myself borderline delusional, but I rationalize it away on the ground that at least it’s highly functional. Pretending that frustration doesn’t exist, however, or that everything post-amputation is smiles and sunshine doesn’t reflect the reality of life with limb loss/difference.
Today’s tale of frustration is, viewed objectively, quite inane. I will put it to electronic paper and you will, appropriately, say, “That’s it? That’s what passes for pain and loss in your post-amputation world? Why don’t you pull up a chair, you moron, and I’ll tell you something to really grieve about!”
And yet, this is all I have. It’s the one time in my post-amputation life where I remember losing it.
(The term “losing it” means different things to different people. Some people lose it and turn to drugs and alcohol. Others go on physical rampages, destroying rooms or prized possessions. On the other hand, when I “snap”, as my wife will attest, I generally leave the room in disgust. And while I’m seething and marinating in rage and anger, those who don’t know me all that well are asking, “Hey, where did Dave go?” So I apologize – there are no spectacular fireworks, no houses burning to the ground, no trail of visible collateral damage in my wake. All of this should serve to remind you that, at my core, I’m really among the most boring people in the universe. And you should be asking yourself, as a result, “I’m reading this . . . why?”)
After my accident, I quickly returned to work at Rivkin Radler & Kremer (now Rivkin Radler), a large Long Island law firm. When you work at places like this as a new associate, you typically have a core team of people who help integrate you into the organizational culture and ethos. At RRK, the guy who worked with me most closely at first, the one who tolerated my hours of hyper-intellectual (and unproductive) analysis of a general liability insurance policy’s “advertising injury” provision was Jim. An Eagle Scout from Queens, Jim talked in a laconic way that initially (and perhaps strategically) presented as detachment and/or laziness, but it belied a sharp legal mind.
Jim spent hours feeding me information that would ultimately form the foundation of my current career. When 5 pm rolled around and we started to relax a bit, with other attorneys casually hanging in the doorway to shoot the breeze, Jim would regale them with stories of my stubborn refusal to reach a definitive analytical position on a substantive matter, the punchline invariably delivered with his arms clasped behind his head, leaning back in his office chair, imitating my oft-repeated catchphrase with a smile on my face, “But the way I’m looking at it should work!” (It didn’t, by the way.)
Jim was engaged to a lovely woman who also worked at the firm part time, I believe as one of a cadre of people who were responsible for converting dictated memos and briefs to the written page. I also have a fuzzy memory that she was doing this while she pursued a degree or some other career that was more satisfying to her than typing page after page of dictation. (You just try typing “Underscore, initial cap ‘Rivers,’ r, i, v, e, r, s, versus initial cap ‘Lorenzo,’ l, o, r, e, n, z, o, stands for the proposition that a store owner is, ital, not, end ital, responsible for injuries suffered by customers trying to escape a 35-pound mutant possum that has entered the premises from the pet shop next door,” and see how long you want to live the glamorous life of support staff for large law firm.)
I had accepted an invitation to their wedding, which, as it turned out, was to take place a few months after my accident. And so, having reclaimed some semblance of control over my life after losing my leg, having returned to work, and having shed any obvious external signs of disability (e.g., crutches), I prepared myself for my first “event” as a one-legged person. In retrospect, this was apparently a really big deal for me.
I had everything I needed. Suit? Check. Dress shirt? Check. Tie? Check. Dress shoes? Check. With everything properly laid out, I donned my prosthesis, shirt, suit, tie, and black wingtips. My wife came down the stairs to our kitchen, perfectly made up in a bright blue dress that she would characterize today as “Oh dear God, what was I thinking?”
She sat down next to me as I stood up and asked, “How do I look?” She gave me the appropriate spousal response – the same response, incidentally, that men are genetically incapable of giving when asked the same question by their wives, leaving them to brave the drive to the Event requiring dress up surrounded by a frosty silence – and I took a few steps to make sure I was all systems go.
And then I realized I couldn’t walk.
As soon as my shoe hit the ground my prosthetic knee buckled . . . with every step I took. It didn’t matter how much I tried to control the knee from inside my prosthetic socket. It wouldn’t hold me up.
“What the?!?” Over and over again, I tried to navigate the tiny kitchen in our rented house, and over and over again I received the same biomechanical feedback: “You cannot walk.”
And then it hit me. For the last few months, I had worn only athletic shoes on my prosthesis. No one had bothered to tell me that if I changed shoes, and by extension, heel height, it would influence my ability to walk (or not). Suddenly, in the expensive wingtips I had worn every day in pre-accident life, my prosthesis was an unstable, lurch-inducing imitation of a leg. This was more than a slightly altered gait – I had gone from smooth walker to staggering drunk without an ounce of alcohol.
I fought my prosthesis across the kitchen yet again, unwilling to believe that this was my new reality. And my voice started rising, shrilly, as I realized that none of my training, none of my hard work could fix this situation. How could none of the bastards at my prosthetist’s office not told me about this? How could this not be fixed? (I was a new amputee at the time, so I had not yet been entrusted with an Allen wrench that, had I possessed one and understood how to use it, would have solved this life-altering problem in about 3 minutes.)
My wife suggested changing back to running shoes, which was the logical, and therefore, completely unacceptable solution. I had worked too long and too hard to concede defeat by wearing a suit with running shoes to a wedding in front of all of my peers. (After all, this was about me, right? Not Jim.) I started cursing. And as my wife offered support and advice, I cut her off with four-letter expletives with increasing frequency and explosiveness.
As she became quieter and quieter, I raged with the full range of unrepeatable vocabulary I had acquired over the previous 27 years. I’m sure it sounded a bit like Ralphie, from A Christmas Story, as he pounded the neighborhood bully.
Finally, I took the prosthesis off, near tears. I was sitting on an Ikea chair next to our Ikea dinner table, suit and tie still on, left pant leg dangling limply onto the floor, collecting dog hair in its cuff, holding my prosthesis like a large fish that someone needed to take a picture of for posterity.
I threw it, definitively and violently, halfway across our kitchen – sounds more impressive than it was, as we had a small kitchen – the socket bouncing with a crack off our cheap blue linoleum and coming to a rest about 15 feet away.
My wife, silently, got up from the table. She stepped over the lonely leg near our back door and went upstairs. She returned 5 minutes later in sweatpants and a tee shirt. She never said a word.
And I, wallowing in self-serving misery, hopped into my living room to silently watch TV, ripping the suit, tie, pants, and remaining shoe off and throwing them for effect into different corners of the house.
I never attended Jim’s wedding. I apologized to him when he returned from his honeymoon, explained what had happened, and he graciously told me not to worry. (And in fact, my absence was probably the least important thing in his world on his wedding day.)
At no time, before or after that day, have I ever been as enraged, frustrated, and . . . limited by my prosthesis as I was that afternoon. And that “failure” has stuck with me much more vividly than most of my alleged successes. (For a frame of reference, I can’t tell you the first detail about the 10 k road race I completed four months after my accident, other than the fact that I did it.)
In retrospect, I’m actually a bit proud of myself for the temper tantrum. I theorize that perhaps this brief foray towards the Dark Side ended up being how I processed the “anger”, “denial”, and “depression” stages of the Kubler-Ross “5 stages of grief” model. Never mind that the whole episode probably lasted only a bit longer than an hour. I’m a fast learner.
More seriously, though, it’s the one time that I can remember, without equivocation or shame, that I felt like I imagine most people with LL/D feel for much longer periods of time.
At that stage in my LL/D life, I was so committed to not being disabled, to not being viewed as one of those people, that I couldn’t bridge the gap in my own mind between how I thought of myself and how I would present to others. But somewhere along the way, with much less flair than I exhibited in the preceding story, I accepted – that’s stage five, for you Kubler-Ross afficionados – the fact that I, in fact, have only three limbs.
I’m lucky. My bouts with frustration have been few and far between over the last 14 years. This is by far my most vivid memory of the feeling. But it does exist.
So if you hear world-class amputee athletes, speakers, or even idiots like me talking about how wonderful life is without a limb, don’t think for a moment that they haven’t felt what you’ve felt – perhaps what you feel every day of your life right now. We (I) have. Hopefully, though, you’ll someday feel the way that they do. Not because it’s “better” in a pejorative sense, but rather, because I believe it’s possible to see life with LL/D as part of a rich, powerful group of experiences that provide us a unique perspective on the things that truly matter in the brief time that we traverse this world.
Is it all good? No. Is there a fair dose of pain and frustration? Yes. Is it uniquely powerful and profound? You tell me.