fight or flight


The logistics of getting five family members onto a plane increasingly leads me to believe that creating a business to handle the whole thing could be successful on a Google-esque scale. Every February, we go to the Caribbean because (theoretically) it’s relaxing, and (actually) the break from winter in the Northeast is nice.

The week before we go starts with frenzied activity and quickly devolves into tornado-like chaos.

It starts with my wife organizing her life into extensive lists the Monday before we leave. In addition to helping her prioritize and clarify what needs to be done, The List will become an increasingly-annoying reminder of the impossibility of doing everything that’s required to get two adults and three children under 13 onto an airplane.

The List contracts and expands like an accordian, every deleted item replaced with two or three more complex, multi-step tasks that would normally require a cadre of hired hands to complete. Our kids, of course, being absolutely useless in this venture – the same son who’s smart enough to find a way to get Billie Joe Armstrong’s autograph in a crowd of hundreds, when asked to pack his things, is notorious for including a Long Island Ducks foam “number 1” finger in his suitcase because, of course, you’ll never know when a foam finger will come in handy while near the equator – we’re left with just me and my wife to navigate a venture that rivals a military conquest of foreign lands in complexity and scope.

The amount I can help is inversely proportional to my wife’s stress level: the more pressure she feels, the less I can assist. And since her stress level roughly correlates with my availability – if I’m away for two nights on a business trip the week before we leave, for example – she is rightly freaked out.

So when I return late Thursday night from a trip to Dallas and the plane leaves Saturday morning, I do offer to help. Like this:

“Can I help?”

Answer: no. Because The List is hers. And everything on it is hers.

Or like this:

“Can I help get the boys’ clothes together?”

Answer: no. Because identifying which bathing suits, shorts, and tee shirts two boys will wear requires a special aptitude that I apparently lack.

Or like this:

“Can I help pack the clothes [that I’m not fit to select] in the suitcase [since I have acquired top-notch packing skills as a result of my business-related travel over the last five years]?

Answer: no. Because there are complex ratios of younger boy to older boy clothes that must be divided precisely between various pieces of luggage that remain beyond my, and perhaps any human being’s, understanding.

The train barely stays on the tracks with each passing day, culminating in derailment the early morning hours before we are scheduled to go to the airport. Desperation hangs in the air as The List’s demands cannot be satisfied and my bride finally turns her attention to packing her things. She talks to herself the entire time, a torrent of words raining down on the otherwise-empty room, stopping only when she needs to take a breath.

“Where will I put this will it fit in here maybe the side pouch it fits! [Breath] Oh but wait this suitcase may be too heavy [expletive deleted] I’m not paying that [expletive deleted] $50 overweight charge so where do I move it? [Breath] I could try it in my carry on bag except I don’t know what I’m using for a carry-on yet [expletive deleted] oh hi Pumper-Nutter [talking to Pumpkin, the cat] don’t you worry we’re not leaving you forever. [Breath] I could leave it home and buy it down there but then I’m going to have to pay three times as much for it [expletive deleted] no way in hell that’s going to happen oh wait, there’s that bag. [Breath] Let’s see if you [referring to zip-lock bag filled with various tubes and liquids] fit in here [shrieking in delight] you do! Do not [expletive deleted] with me [to secondary suitcase]! [Breath] Oh but wait now I need to figure out where you [talking to three pairs of shoes] go what will I do with you guys?” [Repeat]

As she delivers this animated and lengthy monologue, I occasionally peek my head in to confirm that she’s actually alone, half expecting to see Harvey the Rabbit lounging on our bed.

But the real moment of crisis occurs, the tipping point is reached, when my wife solicits my opinion about the weight of her suitcase. I stand in the bedroom, contemplating the ballistic nylon monolith in front of me. Visions of druids positioning the rocks at Stonehenge flash through my mind. Seeing no better alternative, I bend at the waist, try to use both my legs, and “1-2-3 Lift!”

I gently break the news to her, now lying on the floor after the attempt to hoist her bag has resulted in the audible snap of my spine and the dislocation of both my arms from their shoulder sockets:

“Hon, this is more than 50 pounds.” [Able to only move my head. Arms dangling uselessly by my sides. No sensation below my chest.]

“[Expletive deleted] How can that be? Everything fits in there perfectly. It’s not too full.”

“Well, it seems like there’s a lot of stuff. How many days’ worth of clothes are in there? Do you need it all?”

“Two weeks.”

[Pause, while I perform some basic math in my head.]

“Hon, why not bring half as many clothes and use the washing machines in our complex at the end of the first week?”

“Because I don’t want to spend my vacation doing laundry three times.”

[Longer pause, while I reconfirm the mathematical calculations performed seconds earlier.]

“Um . . . if you bring one week’s worth of clothes for a two week vacation, you’d only have to do laundry once. And your bag would be a lot lighter. What do you have in here anyway?”

[Helpfully] “Clothes.”

“Maybe I could help you repack this – there’s so much stuff in-“

“But I packed this the way you told me to.” [Gesturing towards clothes fit into the suitcase in a way I haven’t used in over three years and that she recommended to me.]

“Um, I don’t really pack that way anymore. Can I help redistribute some of -“

“I don’t need you to repack this. It has everything I need!”

“But -” [jerking my head towards 17 layers of clothes in bag]

“Get. Away. From. The suitcase!”

“But-” [attempting to move body despite apparently permanent paralysis]

“Get. Away. From. The SUITCASE!”

“Hon -” [letting my head fall back onto carpet, knowing that my ardent desire to repack will be rebuffed]

“Dav. It!” [Breaking my name into two words, spitting out the second one so that it ends in a hard “T”, while simultaneously leaning over the suitcase with her torso, arms outstretched like a swan protecting its young, hissing in a way that evokes primal fear and the certain knowledge that my severed spinal column will force me to live through my own painful evisceration at the hands of this creature, bleeding out for hours on my bedroom floor before passing into another realm.]

This performance ends only after my wife performs a bizarre kind of three-card monte between various suitcases and carry-ons.

“Watch quickly, people. The gold flip flops are going over here, right? Keep your eyes on the flip flops while the toiletries move over there! Don’t lose track now, don’t lose track, because your money’s riding on the toiletries. And don’t get distracted by the liquids bag – oh no, it’s the liquids bag, man, stay focused, stay focused! Aaaaaand done! Ok, tell me where the toiletries are, which bag is it? Bag number 2? Are you sure, my man, are you sure? Oh, I’m sorry, my man, you didn’t focus. You. Did. Not. Focus. But soooo close, so close! Another two dollars down and we go double or nothing. Double or nothing. You in? You in, my man?”

And invariably all the suitcases end up between 49.5 pounds and 51 pounds, close enough so that my wife, having been exorcized at some point during the 3 hours we slept after finishing the packing and waking up to go to the airport, can smile sweetly, nay, innocently at the man performing the curbside check-in, as if she has never even once contemplated that the bulging suitcase filled with textbooks could somehow approach 50 pounds, and say, “Oh, I don’t know how that happened. Do you need me to pull anything out of that bag to make the weight limit?”

The curbside attendant, usually a very large man wearing a wool cap and heavy gloves, appraises the tiny woman before him, concludes – incorrectly – that she’s innocent and has never before been possessed by The Packing Demon, and says, “Nah, I wouldn’t do that to you. You’re good.” (Would he believe that if he had told her the bag was over the weight limit only 4 hours earlier she would have jumped on his broad back and ripped his head off of his 240-pound, 6’3″ body, all the while insisting that the scale was broken?) And then she, me, the kids, our four large suitcases weighing a combined 199.9 pounds, make it onto the plane, where my wife can then begin to question the structural viability of the aircraft, because, “You know, people tend to put too much stuff in their bags and maybe the plane won’t be able to stay in the air because it’s too heavy.”

Sigh.

Once a year, every year, I go through some version of this. Two to three days after landing, we actually walk out onto the beach – we do, after all, have to unpack the suitcases that hold enough supplies to go backpacking in Siberia for a month. And then I bump into Roger, a man roughly 18 years my senior who travels in from the Midwest with his wife, same week as us, every 12 months.

I’ve known Roger for about two years now, but I saw him on the beach probably another six or seven in a row before that. He wasn’t hard to pick out because, like me, on the sand, he navigates with crutches. Because, like me, he is an above-knee amputee.

For those six to seven years where we didn’t talk, we were like planets orbiting a solar system that revolved around the pool of our resort, elliptically circling, seeing each other from afar, but always moving closer and then farther away. People who knew me said, “Oh, you should go talk to him,” as if the one thing that people missing body parts want to do more than anything else is talk to other people missing body parts.

And I politely blew these well-meaning people off, pointing out that maybe this fine gentleman traveled to a tropical paradise to avoid doing things that he might otherwise feel obligated to do. You know, to actually enjoy himself, rather than sit around talking to another guy who wears a prosthesis.

(Because if that was considered a vacation, we’d all just go to our prosthetist’s office for a week and commiserate with whomever was there about socket fit (“Oh yeah, when you get pain there it’s really bad.”), compare components (“I really like this foot, though yours looks pretty cool also. Hey Tim, how come he uses that foot and I’ve got this one?”), and discuss our hobbies in an ever-dwindling discourse that generally peters out less than 40 minutes after it began, leaving you to read the October 2010 edition of some sports or news magazine while furiously trying to find another topic worthy of discussion (“Football? No, football’s so cliched, too boring. Maybe fishing? Fishing’s good, he looks like he fishes. Excellent, we’ll discuss fishing. Oh wait, I don’t fish. Idiot – how can I have a conversation about fishing when the last time I caught anything was when I was 12? Think, damn it, THINK! Politics? Oh god, no, he looks like he would support the Other Party. If we talk politics, pretty soon there will be a rumble, we’ll be in the middle of the gait area trying to beat each other into a bloody pulp. I think I could take him, but Tim might get pissed at me for breaking the nose of  a 79 year-old patient.” etc.))

However, two years ago, Planet Dave received an emissary from Planet Roger. The messenger, bowing down before me, eyes locked on the patio, said something along the lines of, “I saw you walking with your wife with your prosthesis, and my friend Roger and his wife have been coming down here forever. And I thought maybe you and Roger could talk, because you jump into the pool with your kids, and you do all these active things, and maybe you could talk with Roger.” Or something kind of like that.

And so, crutches behind me on the brick pool patio while I watched my son swim, my remaining leg dangling in the pool, Roger entered my orbit, dropped his crutches, and we started talking. And I learned Roger’s story.

He had been in the Air Force in Colorado in the early 70’s. Married only a few months. Was walking to the base early one morning on the side of the road when a driver hit him. And his wife, just married to him and less than 20 years old, was suddenly making life and death decisions for Roger, was staring down the barrel of a lifetime that had taken a hard right off a nicely paved highway and onto a dangerous, twisting mountain path that could (and probably would) exterminate the vision of a life she had bought into only a few months before.

As I think about Roger and his wife – a woman who, like my Possessed Packer, is just north of five feet tall with a brilliant smile and a face that places her about 10 years younger than her actual age – I realize that “My Story” of limb loss/difference isn’t mine, nor is Roger’s his. It’s built not on what I or Roger do as  individuals, but rather, on the collective experience and support of those who walked with us on the razor wire separating existence and oblivion. My Story is really Our (mine and her) Story.

So, I endure my wife spitting green bile at me as her head spins around her neck every February while packing because I am where I am today due to the support she and other family and friends provided me. Roger survived limb loss and went on with his life, playing guitar in a successful, local classic rock band because of  his wife’s loyalty and support.

But for every story like Roger’s or mine, I know people with LL/D who lost that support as they spun off Average Life Highway. The fiancee leaves the accident victim after staying with him only long enough to get him home and through the earliest part of rehabilitation before dematerializing almost as suddenly as the limb he once had. The husband sits by his wife’s side through the chemo, the radiation, the life-saving (for now) amputation, only to move on a year or two later. The father reacts to his child’s limb difference by turning to drugs and alcohol, passive aggressively divorcing himself from his family, leaving the suddenly single mom to raise her child alone.

Limb loss pares the world down to its essential elements. It’s a bright line separating “before” and “after”, both in terms of how you perceive yourself as the person missing a limb, and in terms of who chooses to walk with you down the road of LL/D for the long haul into a less certain and different-looking future.

I’m relieved that my wife, despite her annual possession, was there with me – always there with me – during the worst times. Roger, though much more efficient than I verbally, has said as much about his wife when we talk.

But this is not an ode to the wonders of marriage.

It is a reminder that successfully navigating the world with LL/D is never an individual effort. Support can come from the expected places – from a spouse, fiance(e), support group, or online community. It can also appear from nowhere – one second it’s not there and the next it’s stuck to you like super glue.

I had known Jason only as the brother of one of my wife’s childhood friends for years before my accident. I didn’t “know” him and he didn’t “know” me, except on sight at a few events we would attend together every year. But shortly after my accident, he was just . . . there. He was the one dragging me onto a public golf course on a prosthesis in the middle of March to play a sport that I had last tried in college. He  was the one insisting that I go out on Saturday night and walk with the living to watch his friends’ band play at various Long Island haunts. He was the one who (with my blessing) ripped my prosthetic leg off my body to mess with his cousins from New Orleans.

Jason never asked for anything in return. Strike that – he asked for laughter – lots of laughter. He gave because he wanted to, and it resulted in something unspeakably powerful. Even though I haven’t talked to Jason in several years – he moved down to Florida and we drifted apart – if he called me today, our conversation would start up as if we had just seen each other last week.

I will admit that there are times when I believe, for a second, that I am solely responsible for how my life has turned out since my accident. But even when we think we have done this solo, we never get through it alone.

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