door opener

I’ve often said that if I could have my leg back but in the process lose everything I’ve learned about my post-amputation self, I’d stick with my current state. Some people, including people with limb loss, do not share that opinion. (For example, see my interview with Jeff Cain, last question.) Unwilling to accept simplistic explanations – (“You’re an optimist!”) – because they offend my liberal arts education, which requires multi-disciplinary, metaphysical explanation of all phenomena, I often wonder why I believe this so strongly. After mulling it over at length, I can attribute much of this attitude to one person.

I had known Jason indirectly before he became a central figure in my immediate post-amputation life. A few years younger than me, Jason was part of a family that my in-laws had been friends with since my wife was a toddler. His older brother graduated high school the same year as I and my wife, and I knew Jason only as the younger sibling of a kid I didn’t see all that much.

Jason’s life took a dramatic turn while I was still in college. His brother and three friends were sitting in a car outside their old high school early one morning when a private security guard on probation for weapons and drug charges opened fire on them. Jason’s brother was one of two people who survived the attack, suffering massive head trauma.

As a result, Jason became alarmingly familiar with what made hospitals work and long-term rehab. And that knowledge came in handy (for me) after my accident. After having little more than casual conversations with him during the decade before losing my leg, I suddenly found Jason floating around the hospital, bringing boxes of donuts to the nurses who were taking care of me, sticking his head in for five minutes to check on me and then dematerializing as suddenly as he had appeared.

But bribing my caretakers wasn’t Jason’s primary skill. (If it had been, we never would have gotten as close as we did – I was only in the hospital for a week.) Jason was one of the few people who talked to me as if navigating the world with crutches and no leg (before I got my prosthesis) was the most normal thing in the world. And once I got my first prosthesis … well, we had things to do.

Only days after getting my new leg, he insisted I come to his house to watch the Superbowl. While that may not sound like much, it meant functioning independently. I had to drive to his house, I had to figure out how to navigate the snow and ice that separated my car from his front door, and I had to meet the group of strangers that had congregated at Jason’s for the Superbowl party. It was the first time I had appeared “in public” – i.e., outside my family – with a prosthesis. Looking back, that was a big – but often overlooked – first step towards reclaiming my life.

Shortly after I discarded the crutches in February 1997, he insisted on taking me golfing on a public course in 40 degree weather. For most people, the concept of golf in the middle of a Northeast winter isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. For Jason – and apparently me as well – ice golf was the most logical thing in the world. Sure, it was easy to lose a ball in the snow just off the fairways, but we could walk directly onto the course without having to wait to tee off.

With grass icily crunching under our feet, we played nine holes as darkness fell. All memories of the short round have fallen away, superseded by a vivid image of Jason – who at the time looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger minus the steroidic bulk – racing out of the rough at a dead sprint, golf club swinging wildly over his head as a decidedly pissed off Canadian Goose, wings outstretched and flapping, chased him away from his golf ball. I also remember thinking how hard it was to swing a golf club while wearing a ski jacket.

Soon, as winter gave way to spring, I found myself at the driving range or on the golf course with Jason at least once a week. I didn’t think of this as rehab, but it was. And it was as much mental as physical. As I quickly learned, 18 holes on a golf course with Jason was a cross between golf and Jackass.

When we would both drive our balls into the woods on the same side of the course, Jason would compliment me, calling it “good cart golf,” meaning that at least we didn’t have to go careening from one side of the fairway to the other. When I sprayed the ball everywhere but the direction I was aiming, Jason took great joy in performing impressions of me screaming whispered obscenities at myself. When we played with a friend and Jason’s brother – now recovered from the shooting, though still dealing with permanent vision issues – Jason unleashed a never-ending torrent of height jokes at his brother, who stands only about 5’4″.

In perhaps the most memorable incident, Jason decided it would be fun to test the limits of golf cart maneuverability, and took our cart through an imaginary slalom course. Which was great fun. Until, unable to hold myself in the cart with only one good leg for support, I found myself flying through the air and skidding on my stomach like Pete Rose.

Jason slammed on the brakes as I verified that I hadn’t lost any additional body parts and picked myself up off the ground. The look of panic on his face was quickly replaced with glee as I showered him with expletives. My brother-in-law, who was also in our group and standing near his cart about 30 yards away, was bent over laughing, trying to prevent his bladder from involuntarily and definitively ending his round.

I climbed back into the cart, still swearing under my breath, angry beyond description. After about a minute, I realized that we were still sitting in the same place. I looked at Jason, who was just sitting there, a look of mock seriousness on his face. “Man, I’m sorry,” he said, his tone revealing that (a) he really was, but (b) the image of me flying out of the seat next to him would become an endless comedic reference point for the foreseeable future. I shot another four-letter barrage his way, and with that same look on his face, he again said, “I’m sorry.” And I could feel my tight mouth twist into some version of a smile that I didn’t want to show. “I’m SORRY!” he repeated, now laughing. “[Expletive] you.” I muttered at him, trying not to burst into laughter myself.

From then on, that phrase would erupt from his mouth, unprompted, regardless of the time or place. We could be in the middle of a serious discussion about a business that he was considering investing in and he would suddenly say, “Dave, I’m SORRY,” and I’d fire a verbal volley of unrepeatables at him as he giggled with delight at summoning out of the ether the image of my involuntary ejection from the golf cart.

For Jason, a friend with a prosthetic leg was an opportunity of grand proportions. His greatest dream was for me to stand in front of an expensive, glass-windowed restaurant filled with moneyed patrons enjoying the finest fare on Long Island, and hit the rotator button to pull my prosthetic foot upside down in the impossible geometry that only above-knee amputees can enjoy. While I never obliged this fantasy of his, I did let him rip my prosthesis off my body in front of cousins of his who had never met me before. Since I was wearing long pants at the time, the effect was spectacular. Watching the poor guy’s head snap wildly from side to side as he looked at the leg that no longer had any purchase on my body and then at my blase reaction to its sudden disconnection left Jason unable to stand upright. Or breathing.

Some of Jason’s friends played in a rock band called Blues to Venus. We regularly went to crowded bars for their shows. Suddenly, I was in a room packed with people and I had to figure out how to get from one end of the mass of bodies to the other without being able to see the floor, getting jostled by men and women whose coordination had worsened thanks to a steady stream of beer and liquor.

Sometimes, Jason would just appear at my house and say, “Let’s go for a drive.” So, at 9 pm on a weeknight, we’d blast out to Robert Moses State Park in Jason’s beat up, red Toyota MR2 with the top down, fueled by the 7-11 hot dogs and soda we’d pick up on the way. Upon reaching our destination, we’d turn right back around and drive home, slinging stories and speaking our own unique language that was heavily laden with Jerky Boys references that Jason had accumulated as a card-carrying member of those phone-prank-calling afficionados.

By the time my first son was born in 1998, I had acclimated to life with limb loss. But I still harbored unspoken concerns about my ability to be a parent without both my legs. I stood with Jason outside the hospital, both of us smoking a cigar while my wife and son rested inside. We had asked Jason to be Max’s godfather, and it was one of the few times I had seen him actually struggle for words. As we stood there, contemplating the great mysteries of life (and birth), Jason noticed that just below us, on a patio clearly designated only for hospital employees, a picnic was ending. And he wondered aloud, what would they do with the rainbow of blue and white balloons that created an archway for the party?

He quickly concluded that those balloons were meant for his godson. And so, he shouted down to a nurse who was cleaning up. She looked up at him, confused. “I need those balloons for my godson,” he shouted – “can I come down and get them?” She smiled and shrugged. Sure – we could have them. She told us how to get there, and we ran inside and took the elevator down to the basement. Jason proudly cut the 147 balloons – we counted them later on – and together we herded them into the elevator.

The two of us and our balloons filled the entire compartment. Hospital elevators are not small and they are prime real estate. We stopped at ever floor on the way up and people, heads down, took three steps forward before jumping back, alarmed at the helium army in front of them. We proudly informed them that there was no room on the elevator – we had balloons to deliver. And we continued our journey upwards.

Upon entering my wife’s room, Jason stuck his head in the room first. He informed her that we had some balloons for her. And we triumphantly marched in, 147 balloons jostling against each other and gently taking residence on the ceiling while my wife’s eyes widened and a smile broke across her face. Somewhere in my mind, the concerns I had about being a parent fell away. After all, I had brought close to 150 balloons into my son’s hospital room. Only a qualified parent could pull off such a feat. (In retrospect, it was a rather extreme way of validating that he did not have a latex allergy.)

Jason eventually got married and then divorced. Shortly after that he moved to Florida and quietly fell out of my life. I haven’t spoken to him in years, and have only seen him once or twice since 2003. I don’t even have a phone number or address for him anymore.

But aside from my wife, there are few people who have had a greater impact on my post-amputation life than Jason. At a time when I could have easily become a shut-in or lapsed into depression, he was the guy dragging me out into the world beyond my house, forcing me to parties, onto golf courses in the dead of winter, out of golf carts, into bars, and onto balloon-filled patios. Everyone – with all their limbs or without – should be so lucky.

3 thoughts on “door opener

  1. Great article…
    Don’t wonder Dave…. try to find him… With the internet, it’s often easy enough…. Maybe he is wondering about or needing you….The strongest people we know, need people too….He is your son’t godfather…. I bet he wonders too….

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s